the incomplete education of alexandria colpitts

Some fall color in the form of delicious Golden Currants.

4th graders. It seems that no matter how many times I work with children, I might add that this has not been very many times, I always get nervous. I can’t put my finger on just what it is. The responsibility? The potential chaos? Maybe just the unfamiliarity? This week Alyssa generously signed us up to spend the week educating 4th graders about plants. I know I sure can’t think of a topic a 4th grader might be more interested in. 

We decided to go with a practical topic, something they could use on a daily basis, something I have been using on a daily basis since we started this, every time I go for a walk. A few basic classifications of leaves and flowers: leaf arrangement, shape, and divisions, flower symmetry, and counting different floral parts. The words lance-like, whorled, and pinnate have been some of the favorite words. When answering questions a child might be perfectly audible until they get to one of these words. Evidently they are unsure of how to pronounce the word and so they start noncommittally whispering attempts to sound it out. 

Table of educational materials for a plant lesson that we taught to 4th graders.

After practicing with these classifications for a bit we pass out cards that have pictures of flowers from 6 different plant families. Their task is then to sort themselves into families based on similar characteristics. Without any information on how to figure out which family they were in I was very impressed at how well they sorted themselves out. I’ve surprised myself by how invigorated I’ve felt after these days. 

Something about learning is invigorating. Watching people learn as well as learning myself. 

An unrelated picture of an amphibious friend we found.

I too have had the chance to learn a lot lately. This position has given me so many opportunities to grow my field skills, my plant identification skills, my botany knowledge, my networking abilities, my understanding of where I’d like to take my career, and my abilities to successfully use USAjobs….

After a few years of seasonal work I will be taking a possibly permanent hiatus from seasonal to work a permanent position. I have learned from every single seasonal position I’ve had and I am ready to settle into one job for a while. To have the time to learn a single job really well, to continue my growth from a place of stability and familiarity. 

Speaking of learning….

I’ve recently started learning a bit about environmental ethics. This is something I was completely unfamiliar with until I saw a book about it in a used book store. I instantly knew just based on the title that it would address so many questions that are floating around in the back of my mind.

The first question of mine it’s been addressing is why do I care about nature, the environment, and so many people around me seem not to, don’t even seem to have a sense of what drives my passion for it. This question hasn’t been answered per se but this book has begun to give me context within which to think about this. 

My co-intern Alyssa and our supervisor Rose botanizing.

The book uses the phrases environmental metaethical objectivism vs. environmental metaethical subjectivism. The first phrase describes the idea that natural objects are valuable in and of themselves. The second phrase describes the idea that natural objects are valuable only because and if and to the extent that humans desire them. I, in my body, believe the first option and yet when I think about how to communicate the importance of anything in nature or to justify my own love of it I must act as if the second option is what is the correct belief. 

I think these ideas are interesting in the context of conservation and land management. What motivates individuals to believe in, work in, vote for conservation? For what reasons and to what end do we manage the land in this country?

Signing off,


I am running away from seasonal depression.

Alyssa cooking breakfast while reading, an icon.

After much scouting, monitoring phenology, and waiting we have finally collected seed. Since, I worked as a seed collector last year too one might think that I would be more accustomed to the less-than-predictable and uncontrollable nature of wildland seed collection. Yet, I am still constantly surprised when I look at my record of our daily activities throughout this summer just how much time we’ve spent scouting and monitoring potential collection site compared to how many seeds we’ve actually collected.

The beautiful Ribes aureum fruits aka Golden Currant. A good collection and a snack that’s hard to stop munching!

But now, finally, I am happy to report that we’ve made 6 collections this month. Don’t mind the fact that only 3 are likely to meet the 30,000 seed minimum requirement….

One of the collections, a collection of Golden Currant, is the prettiest picture I have from the whole month! I mean look at those veins.

But I have surprisingly no pictures of flowers this month that are blog worthy. A sign that the flowers are on their way out for the season? Already?

Recently, I’ve found myself missing flowers than I saw back in April and May (cactus blooms, my old friends) that I won’t be able to see again until next spring. The flowers that I saw on my first camping trip of the season where I hiked barefoot with my sweetie for 5 miles through a sandy desert canyon crisscrossing a stream that was coming back to life as the snowmelt from the La Sals resupplied its flow. The flowers that represent the reawakening of the natural world, where outside becomes inviting and beautiful again.

Cactus blooms- Echinocereus ssp.

I’ve been noticing that the longer I do field work the more I track time based on the flowers that have passed, the flowers that are in bloom, and what flowers I can still expect to see later in the season. This work requires a heightened awareness of phenology and I have come to enjoy keeping time in this way. But what happens when the phenology isn’t noticeably progressing anymore, when everyone closes up shop to wait out the cold? As we come to a time where more of the flowers are behind us than ahead, I begin to confront the dread I feel for the impending winter season.

I’ve been attempting to prepare my brain to learn to appreciate what winter has to offer (what does winter have to offer?) since the beginning of the season, since the end of last winter really. I’ve noted things that I only spend time doing in the winter, clothes I only wear in the winter: the coziness of taking a bundled up walk along a frozen lake before coming home to our warm apartment, the comfort of then making hot chocolate and playing a board game.

But all of a sudden it’s looking like I won’t have to deal with as much of a winter for the next few years. I have been offered a permanent position in a mysterious location where winter doesn’t mean snow….will the growing season be longer? Will there be a chance to grow foods I’ve never been able to grow before? Will I be able to do my favorite summer activities for more of the year? Will sitting outside possibly even feel pleasant in January? So many things to wonder about and soon I will know the answers!

My sisters visiting me in Utah, a lovely winter memory.

I can’t pronounce the name of my new favorite plant.

The hills are alive…

Summer means everyone is busy here in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The office has been mostly empty in the middle of the work days because most folks are out in the field. The flowers are filling the hillsides and just when I think the landscapes couldn’t possibly get more colorful, more beautiful, more diverse more comes into bloom. The land managers, the flowers, the wildlife are all busy making the most of the summer.

You know how there are just those plants that really catch your attention, that you see just rarely enough that you have time to miss them, and yet you see just frequently enough to remain hopeful to see them? Well, I’ve gotten to see some old friends again this season and I’ve gotten to finally see in person a few that I had only previously seen pictures of. Some of my favorites that I’ve seen this month are a mariposa lily, elephant head lousewort, and glacier lily.

…mine eyes have seen the GLORIA

I just returned from a lovely weekend in the Lemhi mountains for our local GLORIA project where I had the chance to work with a number of very knowledgeable botanists at various stages in their careers. A few of these botanists are retired and volunteer their time to this and various other botany project because they believe in the importance of and enjoy this work.

Setting up the survey area by laying out string along each cardinal and intercardinal direction.

I wanted to use this blog to do some of my own research on the background and scope of GLORIA. GLORIA, by the way, stands for Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments. I found a lot of great information online and everything I’ve summarized below comes from the primary GLORIA website: It is a a global project to monitor alpine habitats over time to track the effect of climate change on alpine plant communities. The alpine is an interesting environment to collect data on for a few reasons. One is because it remains largely unaffected by other human-caused factors as it tends to have relatively low human traffic and land use. Another interesting factor is that mountain areas contain a disproportional high amount of biodiversity compared to the amount of land this habitat covers. Alpine habitat is particularly sensitive as the plant communities living there will not have much in the way of suitable substitute habitat while other species ranges are beginning to shift upwards in elevation and are beginning to encroach into alpine plant communities current habitat.

Surveying one square meter plots five vertical meters below the summit point.

One particularly interesting concept that came up while I was learning more about GLORIA is the idea of extinction debt. It describes a phenomenon where a local extinction may lag significantly behind the occurrence of habitat destruction or degradation (Kuusaari et al, 2009). This means that species may be occupying an environment that is already unsuitable for them and that they will not be able to continue to occupy (Dullinger et al, 2012). This is dangerous because when we see a species surviving in a disturbed area we are likely to assume that this means the species is more resilient than it is truly able to be or the the habitat change isn’t as impactful as it actually will turn out to be. These incorrect assumptions could lead to complacency and misinformed land management and policy decisions.

An earlier sign of local extinction than range shifting or shrinking is a decreased population size (Cotto et al, 2017). A big part of the GLORIA protocol is to create a comprehensive plant list for every summit surveyed and to estimate abundance of each plant. GLORIA is creating a long-term, standardized database of alpine plant communities that can provide us with vital information for addressing this issue, as well as many other conservation concerns for alpine areas.

Can you read that?

Some article I extracted information from.

Cotto, O., Wessely, J., Georges, D. et al. A dynamic eco-evolutionary model predicts slow response of alpine plants to climate warming. Nat Commun 8, 15399 (2017).

Dullinger, S. et al. Extinction debt of high-mountain plants under twenty-first-century climate change. Nature Climate Change 2, 619–622 (2012).

Kuussaari, M. et al. Extinction debt: A challenge for biodiversity conservation. Trends in Ecololgy & Evolution 24, 564–571 (2009).

The Beginning of Summer on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Lemhi range in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest

After a long winter, I was feeling very ready to get back out into the field and eager to start my new position, Conservation and Land Management Intern. I enjoy telling people my temporary new title; it has a ring to it and it leaves a lot up to interpretation. 

My expectations for what this position would entail were the duties involved in native seed collection of which I am fairly familiar having been a Seeds of Success field technician the previous summer. I also had a vague understanding that I would have opportunities to work on other projects as need arose and time allowed. This balance of continuing to put to use skills I’ve previously learned while  at the same time continuing to learn and grow my botany and ecology skills is exactly what I was most looking forward to about this job.

In early June, as I drove north on my move from Utah to Idaho I was struck by how green everything was. It was an unusually long winter with a lot of snow and an unusually rainy spring. This seemed to be a good sign for our future seed collections.

My first day in the new office, I walked around with my new supervisor Rose, the only botanist on the Caribou-Targhee, as she introduced me to a lot of people in our interagency office whose names I’m still trying to learn. Our last stop was to meet my beaming and genial co-intern Alyssa. Alyssa then continued to introduce me to more people around the office but this time I was meeting people as friends rather than just as coworkers. 

With this, the tone for my time in Idaho Falls was set. I’ve made lovely friends who I get to explore my new home with both inside and outside of work. I’ve been learning so many things that I had expected to learn like the plants of the Caribou-Targhee, botany field skills, and most notably, about how the forest service operates and what it is like to be a forest service employee. It has made federal employment seem like less of an enigma and feel more attainable. I’ve also gotten to go out on various projects that I hadn’t expected and have come as a pleasant surprise including Goshawk surveying, soil pit surveying, doing burn pile rehab, and participating in horsemanship training. 

We learned to get a horse ready to ride and how to pack a mule during horsemanship training.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the field season. I’m looking forward to watching the season progress throughout the forest, to seeing the native plants go through their phenological phases, to tracking our target species until their seeds are ready for collection, to making collections, and to working on various other projects to help the forest and to continue to gain exposure to how different resources on the forest are managed. 

Burn pile rehab involved planting native plants from the surrounding areas in the burned area and introducing nearby organic matter back into the area.