To be honest, this past month since my previous post has been a complete blur. So many things have happened, where do I start?
Last month I had found out that my program mentor at the BLM, Mr. Johnny Chopp, was leaving his position here at the Carlsbad, New Mexico, BLM Field Office for his dream job. He had been hired as a wildlife biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers back in his hometown. This was a long-awaited opportunity and great news for him; for me, I am not so sure. He was the only one in the office, nay, the city of Carlsbad, NAY, the whole of Southeastern New Mexico that understood the purpose of the Seeds of Success and how to achieve its goals, and the CLM Program. It left me uneasy to be thrown into such a position that required superior knowledge of this area’s flora and the leadership to work basically unsupervised.
I found this out a week before I took “vacation,” and realized the timing of my out-of-town stint was in such a way that Johnny would be gone by the time I got back. I did not have time to process this transition until I got back to Carlsbad.
My little “vacation” away from the Chihuahuan Desert started with a trip out to Savannah, Georgia, for the Botany 2016 Conference. I was accepted as a PLANTS grant participant for the conference, meaning I got to attend this meeting as a “student,” all expenses paid, with a mentor and peer mentor to help me navigate around the Conference. Unfortunately, the timing of the Conference was awful (as you will see here soon). However, I had such an incredible experience!
Flying into Savannah was something of a culture shock for me. It was my first time being anywhere near the East coast, or the South! The people are different from the people of Colorado. I had seafood for every possible meal. I got to experience first-hand the 106 degree weather with 90% humidity. Overall, Savannah was an incredible place to visit. But more importantly, I went to my first big conference! I was roomed with a student from California who was just finishing up a summer REU at my home institution (University of Colorado Boulder), with the professor that recommended I go to this conference in the first place…what a small world! I learned the world of botany is a tight and niche group of people where everyone knows everyone, and everyone is incredibly friendly and supportive of one another. I learned so much about the current research in botany, about graduate school, and about what I want to do in the future! I am a recent undergraduate, and was unsure what exactly I wanted to do with my future (one of the reasons I am exploring federal jobs through this current internship). However, coming here I realized I want to get back into academia, and start looking towards graduate school, hopefully in the next year or so. I have a long road ahead of me (for one I still have not yet even taken the GRE), but now I have a goal to go back to school! And as a young adult like me, I think it is important to know what you want, and be passionate about it, and I have officially taken the first step.
The Conference was a great experience, but like I mentioned earlier, was unfortunately timed. I flew back home as quickly as I could for the second part of my vacation…MY WEDDING. That’s right. I flew home from Georgia to get married the very next day. To be fair, I planned the date of this wedding before I accepted this internship, and before I received a grant to attend Botany 2016. It would not have happened without the everlasting support of my friends, family, and newly-wedded husband. With that said, it ended up being a rather nice gathering and was glad to finally marry my high school sweetheart, love of my life, and best friend of nearly 10 years.
Even with the most supportive people one could ever ask for, I would not suggest planning one’s wedding in the middle of this internship. Going back to Carlsbad straight after getting married was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, and I would not wish that kind of transition on anyone. With that said, I am happy to say that I have the most encouraging and uplifting people in my life, all on my side for finishing out this internship. It was very hard to come back to Carlsbad, NM, but glad that I did.
I came back to New Mexico to find that the weather was much more tolerable, and the early July monsoons FINALLY came…over a month late. This is good news for us here, because a lot of the landscape has gone from brown to green, and there are finally seeds to collect now and to collect in the coming weeks. The other Carlsbad CLM intern, Meridith, was even able to do a collection while I was gone.
However, I came back to Carlsbad with no set direct supervisor. Again, an odd feeling for someone as young and inexperienced as I am. There was a day I even went out on my own to scout for plants and potential collections, and came across one that was beginning to fruit. I knew it was one of three things, but went ahead and started collecting it, even though I was unsure of the plants’ identity. I found that I have to rely on myself and using dichotomous keys more now that it is more difficult to ask around what the plants are.
In the last few weeks the other CLM intern and I were finally set up with the New Mexico State Botanist, Zoe Davidson, as our new program mentor, and would be getting plant identification help from Patrick Alexander. But the catch: Zoe is located in Santa Fe, Patrick in Las Cruces. Though we have support from afar, we are still on own and are our own boss, and ultimately are the ones to decide what to collect. This indeed has been an interesting leadership opportunity, with a LOT of room for trial and error.
For example, we were driving around scouting for potential populations to collect from, when we could not find a turn onto a dirt road we wanted to take. All of the sudden, we found ourselves on the Texas border, much farther than we intended on ever going! All in the end, you got to shrug it off and realize that sometimes it’s good to get lost, so that the next time you go to that area, you become, well, not as lost!
We also learned that we need to do more research before going out to collect seeds. Meridith had decided while I was gone to do some collections in an area called Dark Canyon when I got back, a drainage area that is beautiful, green, and full of potential collections. Our first collection of the day was very successful, collecting the very pollinator friendly Fallugia paradoxa (Apache Plume) with ease.
We were on a roll, a downright collecting-spree, and decided that Dasylirion leiophyllum (Sotol) would make a nice addition to our collections. This is a plant that to the untrained eye looks similar to Yucca and Agave, with a very tall inflorescence, anywhere between 5 and 15 feet tall. So we set out through every known prickly, pokey, spiny, sharp, jaggy, scratchy, angry plant you could imagine to get to the sotol, which isn’t much of a friendly plant either. Lesson one of the day: Wear clothes you don’t care about messing up and tearing, and if you have a problem bushwhacking through the prickly flora, then you need to get out of there! I was so incredibly tired and scratched up by the end of the morning, but despite the unpleasantness of it all, I would probably do it again.
Lesson two: If you don’t know what exactly you are collecting, DON’T COLLECT IT AT ALL! Meridith and I were collecting “seed” from these plants, climbing up infructescences of the so-tall stalks to get up to the fruits, when I got to one and realized: we weren’t collecting seed, we were collection old papery remains of old flowers that never fruited! I realized this after nearly an hour of bushwhacking and climbing, because I finally got to a stalk that finally had real fruits/seeds on it. We had no idea what we were collecting! We found out later with some advice and some extra research that Dasylirion will not be ready to collect seed from likely until October. It is rather embarrassing to admit such a fault, but again, it is trial and error. What better way to learn than to bash into your brain that you did something so horribly incorrect the first time around! And now we are forced to try, try again next time, and hopefully with a little more knowledge and wisdom behind us!
In a way, I believe that loosing our Carlsbad mentor may have been a blessing in disguise. Being thrown into a position where you are required to rely on yourself is likely one of the best ways to learn. I have to rely on myself to figure out what the species are here. I have to be the judge of when the best timing is to collect certain seeds. I have to plan accordingly to make the best use of my time here in Carlsbad, and be involved in other projects in the office! I honestly thought about quitting this internship early for a number of reasons, but I realized that it is so astoundingly important to finish this out for the SOS program, for the city of Carlsbad and its hidden floral treasures, but most importantly for myself. I have not been known in the past to quit even when I am uncomfortable with a situation, and I cannot start now! In the meantime, I will be forced to enjoy the wonderful array of plants that are popping up all about, and do what I came here to do: botanize!
Best wishes from Brooke Palmer of the Carlsbad, New Mexico BLM Field Office. I am officially halfway finished with this internship…until next time!