…seven, eight, nine, ten, rock.
One, two three … rock.
After an hour of weighing myself down, I remove each of the twenty-two rocks from my pocket and count them, one rock per 100 flower heads. Three hundred and eighty more flower heads to rip apart and throw into the plastic bag hanging between my hands. My lower back, thanks to my cloth backpack, is drenched by the mid-summer’s heat along the foothills of Ferris Mountain, a somewhat isolated stretch of elevation and evergreens among the sagebrush steppe, north of Rawlins, Wyoming.
I close my eyes and take a long sip of water. I pause and look out at Julia, my Seeds of Success partner, among the knee-high grasses, other species waiting to be collected. She picks quickly, and I figure that I am at least twenty behind. I put my water bottle away, look down, and continue walking along the hoary balsamroot (AKA Balsamorhiza incana), our first collection of the year.
The field season, believe it or not, is coming to a close. The morning breeze now forces me to wear a sweater longer into the day than I expected to at this point in the summer and, furthermore, only a handful of species are left in flower. The delicate wildflowers that previously colorfully exploded are long since drooped; their seeds collected or dispersed along the Wyoming plains.
Sagebrush all around
We have already collected, photographed, packaged and shipped more than two-dozen seed collections to Bend, Oregon in order to be cleaned and stored for a multitude of purposes. By our estimates, we should have more than 10,000 seeds from each collection, the minimum needed for a valid collection. Some collections last half an hour, some up to ten hours, but each was painstakingly collected by hand.
Many grasses for instance, produce seeds with little effort and allow them to be dispersed by the wind or birds, making them the easiest to strip into our bags. Some other plants were quite obstinate in making our lives difficult by producing large seedpods, but with only three seeds (on average) per pod, such as Golden Banner. Despite the time needed to collect, there is nothing more satisfying than having a bag full of hundreds of brown crispy pods, bulging with black and brown beans.
Penstemon haydenii, a very rare flower (that elk love to browse)
This summer we did not only collect seeds. Twice now we have ventured out with Frank Blomquist, our mentor, and Bonnie Heidel, a Wyoming botanist, to monitor rare Penstemons. Penstemon haydenii was rediscovered by Frank not far from town in a chain of resident sand dunes that still continue to crawl along the landscape, one gust of wind at a time. The other, Penstemon gibbensii, is a BLM species of concern, and along with two 100-foot transects, all four of us counted each species in an effort to track their populations as compared to other desert-dwelling species. Coincidentally, one transect cut went right over a coyote skeleton. I brought the complete skull home with me, another souvenir of Wyoming.
Coyote skull, before cleaning it
The plant and animal species of southern Wyoming now seem commonplace, a side-effect of living in the middle of nowhere for almost four-months now. I have enjoyed discovering new things, especially within the plant and bird worlds, but also with fishing, a hobby widespread in Wyoming. I will never forget standing along a bend of the North Platte under a full moon, with nighthawks whirling above my head and a line resting just outside the current, crawdads desperately tugging the worm from the hook. It didn’t matter if I caught anything, the moment’s tranquility mattered most.
I will look back at my time in Wyoming, and despite the small-town woes and windy days, I will remember all of the things I learned, both professional and life skills. I have enjoyed my days working with the BLM through the Chicago Botanic Gardens and wish Wyoming the best of luck now that the chilly fall and winter are on the horizon and the plants get ready for another hiatus from being collected by interns.
Rawlins Field Office, Bureau of Land Management