Summer is a social construct: Reflections of a post-grad

Few things are more characteristic of summer than a hot, stifling August. For the student, August means the end of summer and the start of classes. June and July show you that you have all the time in the world, to go outside, explore, hike, or run. August reminds you that maybe you don’t actually want to spend so much time outdoors since air conditioning is preferable to your shirt sticking to your back.

The South Dakota grassland from a plant-eye view

For me, this year is different. In a sentiment that I’m sure is expressed by most recent graduates, there is no school to bookend the summer this time. And it’s weird. For the past ~17 years of my life, school has been the schedule that I’ve built my life around. Work, vacations, and activities have all been dependent on school. I hear friends that are still enrolled, parents of young kids, my brother talk about the current transition, the start of the new (school) year. And for me nothing is changing* except the growth stages of the grass. It is abundantly apparent that the rigid structures I scheduled my life around were ephemeral, and if you have enough vacation days, summer vacation can happen at any time of year.

So I return to the grass. Among the other realizations I have gotten from this job, I have realized just how many different species of grasshopper there are. I really hadn’t had much grasshopper exposure before this (perhaps because I didn’t spend seven hours a day belly down in the grass), but I love having company for fieldwork in these little guys**.

Goob the Grasshopper

Now I know I’ve just spent a considerable amount of time and words talking about how the school schedule no longer applies to me, which is true, though there are aspects of my work that do feel like returning to school. Our fieldwork was slated to finish at the end of August, and now we are in the office, weighing biomass samples and entering data. In a way, this is the best of both worlds. I have escaped the iron grip of homework while still getting to enjoy the air conditioning during the hot days.

*This is not entirely true. I have less than a month in the job I’m currently in, but that life-change has nothing to do with the school year.
**One of my colleagues insists that grasshoppers are one of the worst insects, worse even than ticks, and he will have to accept that he is simply wrong in this case.

Grass’s Entry Into the World of High Fashion

Image courtesy of r/TreesWearingClothes

The tides of fashion and style are fast-moving and ever changing. We have moved on from the passé world of aerial cover and stem counts. The new, hip trends are biomass clipping and stem demography. An untrained eye might be wondering how these new styles differ from last season’s, but never fear, for I will spend the next 500 words explaining exactly why biomass clipping and stem demography are all the rage.

Biomass Clipping – Getting the perfect trim and avoiding split ends

In my journeys for the highest echelons of sophistication, I spent several weeks fully immersed in the world of biomass clipping. The process is quite simple. All you need is a pair of gardening shears, a quadrat elevated 15 cm above the ground, and bags to sort the clippings into. And also chaining pins to hold the quadrat in place as well as tape measures to ensure you’re clipping in the right place. And you can’t forget about a ruler to keep the shears level, a pencil, datasheets, and a box to hold everything in. Like I said, simple.

It is vitally important to make sure you correctly sort the clippings because, as any amateure would tell you, pattern mixing is an immediate faux-pas. My boss claims that we have to sort correctly because it is important to know exactly how much of the different plant functional groups there are in order to answer our research questions about drought and grazing, but I think we all know the main reason is because of fashion.

Once we have biomass clippings from all 162 plots, we take them back to the lab and put them in a drying oven, so that we can get their dry-weight. As someone who spends hours a day in a tanning bed, I can vouch for this method. It’s so important to dry yourself out, and it makes your skin look incredible. Now any street savvy fashionista may be thinking “plants don’t have skin, silly! How can you even make that comparison?” Well, darlings, the results speak for themselves. After spending 72 hours in a drying oven, the plants aren’t sagging anymore. They’re stiff and hold their shape beautifully.

Stem Demography – Bringing Pampering Into Your Fieldwork

Now we simply must move on to the wonderful world of stem demography and leaf stage development. The process of collecting this data involves measuring the culm and longest leaf height of specific blades of grass as well as counting stems in a very small quadrat. As a purveyor of style, there is nothing more in vogue than self care, and there is no better mode of self care than collecting stem demography and leaf stage development data.

Gone are the days of stem counting where you have to collect the data and write it down. When collecting stem demography data, you need only speak aloud the data you have collected and your partner writes it on the data sheet. One feels like a queen, speaking a completed data sheet into existence since when you went down to examine the grass, the data sheet was empty and upon coming up, it is full. Treating yourself luxuriously is one of the cornerstones of self care, and luxury is at its peak when you are face first in the dirt with sweat dripping straight onto the ground instead of down your body. I will be recommending this method to my spin class immediately, and I advise all of my dear readers to do the same.

Would you look at the time! I hate to leave you, my loves, but I must away. Keep an eye out for next week’s article about another trend Treans (Tree jeans)

Image courtesy of r/TreesWearingClothes

Don’t forget to walk the runway of life with purpose and panache 💋

Hail Is Real

We all knew it was coming, but we hoped we were wrong.

The field season started smoothly, and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands of South Dakota welcomed me with open arms. After a week of training, we started field work, and I learned the basics of aerial cover and stem counting so that we could begin data collection. Some of the plots at each site are covered by rainout shelters which simulate drought for the grasses under the shelters. This will become relevant in a bit.

For those who haven’t had the honor and privilege of performing aerial cover and stem count surveys, I will explain. For an aerial cover survey, you place a 50×100 cm quadrat onto an area of grass and make note of every species of plant within the quadrat. Most of the plants are grasses and forbs, from everyone’s favorite, Bromus arvenis (field brome), to old reliable Pascopyrum smithii (western wheatgrass), to the sneaky Erysimum repandum (bushy wallflower).

Bromus arvensis, my beloved

Stem counting involves putting down a 20×25 cm quadrat and counting every stem coming out of the ground. This may sound like a dreary task, but it’s actually incredibly meditative and has become my favorite part of the field day. Love it or hate it, I can promise you will never look at a patch of Bouteloua gracilis the same after stem counting.

But I digress. The first few weeks were going smoothly. The weather was beautiful, the fields grassy, and, aside from the occasional cactus spine and mosquito bite, it was everything a technician could hope for in a field season. Then the rains came.

I suppose there had technically been rains the whole time. There were occasional thunderstorms, often accompanied by hail, but they didn’t tend to fall during fieldwork hours. But on the fateful evening of June 25th, our Cedar Pass field site got a hailstorm like no other. When we got to the site on Monday morning, we saw that many of the rainout shelters had become swiss cheese. Some of the shingles had fully broken. Out of 70+ shingles, only 29 were undamaged. The rest needed to be replaced. This was worrying because we were in crunch mode and were trying to finish aerial cover measurements on the plots as soon as possible while still producing quality data. But the broken shelters needed to be replaced.

Fortunately, an angel in the form of Jeff Synstad came to help us in our time of need. Having one extra person on the team to fix the shelters gave us the manpower we needed to get our work done for the day. I’m looking forward to another exciting day tomorrow.

Until next month. Here’s a picture of a sunflower to tide you over: