Beyond the Job Description: a final reflection

The leaves hadn’t quite yet started to fall in New England when I first noticed that my morning commute had become consistently longer. At one “T” in the road, I rolled to a halt, but at least the setting was scenic. A tunnel of trees grew around the road there. The sun’s rays trickled through in the morning hours, alluding to the fall colors to come. I spotted a yellow school bus in the line of cars ahead of me and it occurred to me that it was the first year that I was not returning to school in the fall. I had graduated college in May 2017 and I was instead in the midst of my 6-month CLM internship outside of Boston. I had heard about the CLM internship program from a 2015 CLM intern I had met in summer 2016 and I was intrigued by the description.

  • Explore your careergoals and expand your resume
  • Experiencenew landscapes, habitats, and species diversity in the United States
  • Apply your education to important conservation projects

Check, check and check. Yes, my experience as a CLM intern was just as the three bullet points above promised me. Perhaps we spent more time driving than I had expected. I shrugged as I counted the cars in front of me. Even without including my drive to the carpool meeting place, our daily roundtrip could easily be three hours.

There were four of us who traveled together, scouted native populations together and split the duties of seed collection and data keeping. We had all studied a form of biology as undergraduates and shared an appreciation for natural landscapes, especially for plants. We traded the plant identification books around and swapped stories of our previous field experiences. That day in my sedentary car I was smiling and thinking about the CLM field experiences that I will share in the future.

One of the interns was an avid hiker and usually had an upcoming trip in the works, whether it be to Acadia National Park or Mt. Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts. Never lagging behind on the trail, this intern liked to point out lichen and mushrooms and guess their classification. I had always liked plants, but this intern encouraged me to widen my appreciation for other forms of life, especially in this temperate region. I was also surprised when this intern admitted to reading my CLM blog posts, adding, “I would read a book you wrote.” I saw some beautiful flourishes of nature during my internship, but I liked them even more after experiencing them with this intern and sharing our reactions. Our experiences in nature are meant to be shared.

Another intern had a knack for recognizing many plants, despite being new to the area. “They’re medicinal and my mom used to take me and my siblings out to collect this,” the intern explained on day one. Our mentor bypassed plenty of these “weeds,” explaining that they wouldn’t be of use to the landowners for whom we worked, but this other intern showed me that they nonetheless had another purpose. On another occasion, all of us interns estimated how many collections we would make by the end of the season. This intern came up with a number much higher than the rest of us. When collection days started, this intern always encouraged us to make at least one more collection near the end of the day. On one collection day when we were short-handed, this intern kept up the spirits of the team enough to haul in the year’s highest number of collections in a single day–thirteen. We didn’t reach the high collection number this intern predicted for the season, but the goal motivated us to make every collection count.

The other intern was juggling aspirations of being a food scientist after working with plants at the molecular level while working in a lab during college. This intern’s love of food was not lost on anyone based on our conversation topics during lunch hour. We were all surprised when one day this intern brought a hefty sandwich into the field and cut it into four slices; a pan bagnat. None of us touched what we had packed for ourselves after digging into this gourmet treat. It was the start of a tradition of trading food with each other. Through this generosity we learned about each other’s cultures and built a stronger camaraderie. This intern also had a strong talent for understanding the emotional states of the other team members. Through offering to take on additional tasks in the field, prompting a smile with an impromptu dance or surprising us with milkshakes on a dreary office day, this intern taught me how to maintain team morale.

As I thought about how my career goals had changed and of the astounding sights we had found in the field, I realized that what really made this internship special was my intern team. When I applied, I had barely considered with whom I might be working. There was no description of the personalities with whom I would be matched. There is no way I could have anticipated my partners and their personalities and what they would teach me about life and teamwork. There is much more to a CLM internship than the job description.

Our last day at one of our signature New Hampshire field sites.

Experiencing history

One great thing about reading is that it can offer me a new (or old) perspective on a subject I think I know well. While reading Field Days: Journal of an Itinerant Biologist by Roger B. Swain, I stumbled across a chapter featuring the New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS), where my CLM internship has brought me. Field Days is a 1983 publication anthologizing Swain’s essays about his observations of plants and animals in nature as well as his observations of people’s interactions with nature. In “Crowbars, Glaciers and Zen Temples,” Swain explains the earth phenomena and the human tinkering behind the landscape of New England. In “Bee Bites,” Swain revels in his companion’s reaction to learning the mechanisms involved in a bee’s sting. In “White Bloomers,” I was surprised to learn that NEWFS has a collection of albino wild flowers—and that these flowers are so prized that a few have been stolen from the grounds in years past. I shared the chapter with my boss one day while cleaning seeds. Even he was surprised by some of the information, commenting that the staff members named in the chapter might only be remembered by today’s most senior staff members.

I didn’t know I would be working at NEWFS, even a year ago, and yet, there was a whole history here before I arrived. It seems obvious to say, but that history is usually locked away in the memories of lifelong patrons, locals and past employees. Encountering this chapter was a glimpse into that elusive past.

In fact, Boston also has a rich history and historical record, and so do many places I have experienced through other internships and travels. Just outside Boston stand the homes in which Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born. They are next door to each other in what is today Quincy, on the same block as a Dunkin Donuts and along the public bus line. Our intern team recently discovered that one of our field sites in northern Massachusetts, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, was featured in a conservation brochure written by environmentalist Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring. She mentions the dune forb Hudsonia tomentosa, one of our first seed collections at this site. This population’s place in history, as elevated by Carson, gives me more pride in having collected it. I hope we have ensured its future propagation for both the sake of the Parker River ecosystem and for the sake of those who will read Carson’s brochure decades from now. Whether it is a place I have heard of and now am able to visit, or a place that I know well and now may learn of its past, learning the history of the familiar humbles me.

In particular, Field Days mentions that the Garden in the Woods run by NEWFS is famous for a white Trillium plant. Last time I drove to the garden, I passed their welcome banner. I had driven past it several times before, but I had never recognized its significance. There, plastered larger than life in ink next to the block letters naming the garden, was a brilliant white Trillium flower.

Why Mast Rd. is a must-walk

As we are more than halfway through our seed collecting internship, I have once again revised my list of favorites among the sites in which we collect, and Mast Rd Natural Area in Epping, NH has consistently been near the top.

Mast Rd Natural Area is turning into quite a friendly space for the weekend hiker. It is a forested site containing a few wetland areas and a meadow and is currently undergoing restoration to make it more accessible to pedestrians. When we first visited the site, the felled trunks and the tire marks revealed that Mast Rd Natural Area used to be an ATV trail system. The construction has been apparent with each visit and the trails are starting to take shape; gravel has been lain and bridges have been constructed over less than solid land.

Both the weekend hiker and the seasoned field worker will find plenty of fascinating sights here. That is part of the beauty of Mast Rd Natural Area. Though New Hampshire rises to mountain elevations further inland, this natural area is rather flat, providing for an easy walk that will allow hikers to focus on what they see along the trail instead of whether they will reach the end.

As seed collectors, we love this site. We have made thirteen collections here to date, which speaks to the range of diversity among the habitats that support a variety of native plant populations. The Carex species are well represented, with different ones growing in different areas, depending on soil wetness. We have collected Sparganium americanum and Eleocharis obtusa, which generally grow in standing water. We have also collected species that are typically found in bogs with acidic and moist, spongy soil, like Rhynchospora capitellata and Triadenum virginicum. We will probably collect a grass growing in a drier part of Mast Rd Natural Area next month, Schizachyrium scoparium. Also, we never made an official collection of Vaccinium angustifolium or Vaccinium corymbosum, but we taste-tested these highbush and lowbush blueberries to our heart’s content and mostly agreed that the highbush is more delicious. You too can pick wild blueberries at Mast Rd Natural Area in the summer months.

Bog habitat at Mast Rd. PC: E. Tokarz

Every time we have been to Mast Rd Natural Area, we have also noted a spectacular nature sighting. Once we saw a grasshopper molt its exoskeleton. It unfurled a large abdomen as it waddled away from its skin, its back legs still glued together. We gaped in wonder at the shell it left behind, which looked to be less than half its new size. Another time, we nearly stepped on a quail. It sat unfazed by our near step as we reached for some Scirpus, seeming to be more curious than concerned. We all agree there is always more to explore and to notice than we have time for, and that we can best appreciate this natural area on foot.

The exoskeleton of the grasshopper at Mast Rd. Natural Area, NH. PC: E. Tokarz

P.S. This site has a bonus. It is only ten minutes away from the Lindt chocolate factory outlet store. You’ve never seen so many truffles in your life!

Strangers you might meet in the field

One of the best things about fieldwork is the insects. No, I do not mean the mosquitoes found by puddles and not the biting greenheads that swarm the beach. Instead I mean the colorful and intricately decorated caterpillars, mantises and flies that we overlook if not standing still or poking around in the grass.

My first time in a tropical setting, I found many unusual “bugs” without trying too hard. It was the first time that I glimpsed the world of an entomologist. The neon grasshoppers and metallic beetles were more beautiful and less frightening than I had expected, but I thought that wonderland was contained in the tropics.

Beetle in Panama. PC: E. Tokarz, 2014

Instead, we find tiny creatures that bewilder us as we work throughout New England. For example, a six-legged insect that hovers like a drone has wispy legs block-striped in black and white. Its limbs are so thin that we can barely point it out in thin air.

“Drones” in MA. PC: E. Tokarz, 2017

Just this past week we found what appeared to be an orange ant that could pass for a medium-sized tropical species, as wide as my ring finger. We swapped theories of its origin, but the insect’s reality seemed to defy our imaginations.

Orange “ant” in CT. PC: E. Tokarz, 2017

My favorite unidentified flyer had wings as fine as lace. It seemed to befriend us, landing on each of us in turn. (This was horrifying only because our clothes are laced with permethrin, an insect poison that primarily staves off ticks, but can be harmful to all life.) We tried to redirect the fly’s pit stops to our collection bags and backpacks.

“Lacefly” in NH. PC: E. Tokarz, 2017

We marvel at some caterpillars too, but they already receive enough attention because they turn into butterflies. Also, it should be noted that some caterpillars are actually very invasive and destructive (ahem, gypsy moths).

I was starting to realize that the insects here in New England must also be highly diverse, perhaps to a similar extent as in tropical areas, but then I went to the Harvard Natural History Museum. Just one quick sweep of their insect collection, pinned and labeled with geotags, revealed a wide array of tropical provenances and a handful of regional New England ones. Insects may be highly diverse in New England, but that is still only a fraction of the diversity present in tropical areas. Entomologists have their work cut out for them in all corners of the globe.

Sample from Harvard insect collection. PC: E. Tokarz, 2017

Anatomy of a salt marsh

Often spotted on the fringes of beaches and often disguised as an impassable puddle when the tide comes in, salt marshes may evade our attention more than we realize. The purpose of this blog post is to introduce you to some saltmarsh species that can help you identify a plot of land as a healthy salt marsh. Freshwater marshes occur too, and many species will grow in salty, brackish and freshwater marshes. The below pictures come from one particular saltmarsh in southeastern Connecticut at Bluff Point State Park.

Diversity is indicative of a healthy ecosystem and a greater number of species will often be present in a healthy saltmarsh. Grasses, rushes and sedges, which are all grass-like plants or graminoids, make up this basic level of diversity. Without these graminoids, like Spartina sp. and Juncus gerardii, the area would at best be considered a former salt marsh. From the graminoids, flowers, succulents and even some small shrubs may be added to the composition. Altogether, these species will form a patchwork of colors against the horizon, if you are lucky enough to see an expansive salt marsh.

Being able to recognize a species by its general outline in the distance is known as seeing the species’ “gestalt”. Many species you can identify simply by this color because salt marshes tend to have the same species; plants that are adapted to the site’s characteristic salinized and flooded conditions. Sometimes the colors are more apparent when a species is in bloom or when last year’s flowers dry up. Sometimes, the texture of the plant or the way it blows in the wind can be more telling.

The below pictures offer a quick example of this salt marsh’s species composition. Species will often grow in clumps or stripes along the water line or especially salty areas. Along the water’s edge, Spartina alterniflora (red oval) is most likely to be present, as shown below. This knowledge can help one avoid accidentally stepping too far into open water. It might be more advisable to walk along the areas containing plants that tend to grow in drier, more sturdy soil. For example, shrubs: Iva frutescens (pink oval) is one such shrub and redeems the Spartina alterniflora shown here. Limonium carolinianum or sea lavender (orange oval) has small, intricate flowers.

It also pays to know the edible plants. Salicornia depressa (yellow rectangle) offers a crunchy, salty bite that can be compared to a pickle.

Red Oval: Spartina alterniflora; Orange Circle: Limonium carolinianum; Yellow Rectangle: Salicornia depressa; Pink Circle: Iva frutescens

Patch of mostly Schoenoplectus americanus

P.S. As wonderful as salt marshes are, one should take caution when entering one because the vegetation may obscure large, sometimes human-sized, holes. Go in a group and tread carefully! Try to go at low tide.

Who Carex about New England plant diversity?

New England Wild Flower Society—27th of June 2017

I am not new to fieldwork, but I am new to domestic fieldwork. This summer marks the first time I am muddying my boots, avoiding itch-inducing insects and learning the native flora on the lands of the United States. Previously I have worked in tropical forests, where it is no secret that hundreds of plant species can be found in an area smaller than the size of a football field. The tropical forests are diverse by all measures—it is something I have been hearing my whole life. This is why I didn’t give much thought to the diversity of New England plant life before beginning my internship.

A month in, I must admit that I still have not learned to identify every plant. In fact, a few New England genera include hundreds of species. (As a quick reminder, a genus is the first part of any organism’s scientific name. The species is the second part.) With almost 200 species, Carex takes the top spot as most speciose genus in New England. Since beginning our program on June 1st, we have only spotted and identified about ten Carex, a mere fraction. Even those I need to study more.

As a hiker we met during one of our field outings exclaimed, It takes an expert to distinguish among the Carex. Fortunately, we always carry a handy book to help us in the field and back at the office with our pressed vouchers; Sedges of Maine: A Guide to Cyperaceae, which is written by experts. Sometimes, we flip through the Sedges of Maine until we find something that looks like the Carex standing in front of us. Sometimes the species is not even listed in the book. Still, we try our best to determine the correct species from the hundreds of possibilities.

Rather than order a copy (though it’s a great resource for anyone interested), read on for a quick introduction to Carex. As the title suggests, Carex are in the sedge family, Cyperaceae. Sedges may be mistaken for grasses by an untrained eye, but sedges often have angled edges and may be triangular. Most grasses are round. Among sedges, Carex have one unique structure that sets them apart. The perigynium (PEAR-ih-GIN-eeyum) is a bottle-shaped structure that sheathes the female flower, which later becomes the Carex fruit. The Carex fruit is like a tiny nut and the perigyium shelters it from wind and animals until it is mature. Several perigynium, or perigynia, stack in a spiral shape along the Carex tip. The variation in species is often best seen by examining the texture or arrangement of the perigynia on the Carex. These are some of the first details we examine, but the width of the leaves, the height of the plant and the orientation of the perigynia are also important. Shown below are some examples of the diversity in Carex. Learn more on Go Botany.

Because the Carex are so diverse, they are found in several different habitats around New England. Our internship aids coastal restoration projects, so we will focus on the coastal Carex, but it is humbling to recognize the diversity in the genera and in New England. As well as the ease of which we can lose ourselves in the search for the right species name.

Until next time,


P.S. My brother helped me with the title. Thank you, Daniel!

Carex stricta should be one of our first seed collections (Exeter, NH)

The perigynia of Carex comosa are very spiky and sometimes painful (Exeter, NH)

Compare the number of perigynia between Carex intumescens and Carex lupulina (Exeter, NH)