It finally snowed here in Marlinton, and all of the plant species on our list have officially gone to seed. We spent the past month driving north to collect from the tundra-esque Dolly Sods Wilderness and Spruce Knob, the highest points in the state. As we neared the end of October, our seed collection days shifted quickly from sunburnt, humid adventures to snowy and frigid races to the finish line. Last week at Dolly Sods, we alternated between collecting berries in sleet and jumping into the truck to blast heat on our wet-gloved hands. Collecting seed in cold weather at these higher elevations is an exhilarating experience and reminds me of late July in northern Alaska. The wind smells the same – of encroaching frost and decomposing leaves. There is overlap in foliage as well – caribou moss, stunted, leaning spruce trees and lots of lichen on bare rock. It’s quite amazing how the ecotone at high elevation bogs in West Virginia can bear resemblance to latitudes as far north as the tree line on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
Between collection days, we clean our latest seedstock. It has been an honor to work with Morgan of Appalachian Headwaters, who has been teaching us proper technique for cleaning and storing specific seed types. We have been lucky enough to have access to the cleaning tools and facilities at Appalachian Headwaters, and we are ordering some more equipment for making the same use of our own miniature processing plant here in Marlinton.
I was surprised to find that seed cleaning is mostly intuitive and simply demands everyday resourcefulness. How do you remove cranberry seeds from all that berry pulp? Put electrical tape on the blades of an ordinary blender and chop it up, then filter it out through multiple sieves. How do you remove the outer layer of film from alternate-leafed dogwood? Rub it furiously on a screen and then pick it off with your nails. The whole process of cleaning is unexpectedly familiar, like working soil in a garden. With all that repeated movement, it’s easy to get in the zone and process your thoughts alongside the seeds as you pick seeds apart and wash away the pulp.
By the end of November, we will have finished up seed collection and will continue to process the seeds we’ve collected. Until next time!
There is a remarkable place behind the Monongahela Ranger Station in Marlinton, West Virginia. Beyond the parking lot, through Mountain View graveyard and around the forest road gate lie the remains of the old Marlin Mountain fruit farm, now regenerated into mixed oak-maple hardwood forest speckled with patches of rhododendron in the understory. From the standpoint of the common recreationist, this deciduous forest may appear altogether ordinary, if not dull. It is likely that the inconspicuous treasures of these woods will be missed by anyone who arrives ill-equipped for noticing the hidden. Finding the enchantments of this forest requires a keen eye, a sharp nose, and an openness to impulsive excursions off trail. A seeker must be willing to break through spider webs, crawl over windsnap, kneel frequently in the mud, and earnestly enjoy the rain. If you’re like me and are prone to wandering, and you have plans to go on a casual trail run through this forest, be warned: your plans have been thwarted.
Although it was early golden hour in the open expanse of the graveyard, the gilded, green vegetation diminished as soon as I passed under the first arch of trees on the forest road. In the dim light, trunks and leaf litter fused into homogenous gray walls hemming the dirt road, which itself was barely bright enough to continue. I pressed on at a cautious pace, scanning the road for ankle-rolling rocks while keeping my peripheral awareness open. Fifty paces into the jog, I was stopped in my tracks. Two tiny orange sentinels stood in my path.
Chantarelles! Beyond the first two mushrooms was a whole line of them dappling the road, glowing orange against the muted gray backdrop of leaves and soil. I had come across chantarelles only once before, though as an amateur mycologist I have had an eye out for them for many years. I felt as though a huge welcoming gift had been bestowed on me by the forest. Chantarelles are some of the most popular edible wild mushrooms, and are sought after worldwide. Unable to contain my excitement, I spread my arms open toward the canopy and let out a beaming “Whoop!” of unbridled gratitude. Although these little chantarelles were far too small to pick that evening, I made a mental note to return in a few days. It was clear that this road had not been used for some time, and I felt safe to assume that no human would come pick them before I returned.
I continued on my run, but only after a few moments with my belly to the soil and my nose pressed against the little orange mushrooms, inhaling that signature fruity fragrance. As soon as I started to run, I was dodging another patch of tiny chantarelles mixed into a rainbow of mushroom hues: seafoam green Russula variata, scarlet Russula emetica, bright white Destroying Angel, brown and yellow boletes. I had to run on my tiptoes to keep from smooshing them. Only a hundred paces later, I was stopped once more. To my left, a prominent pearly shape stood out from behind an oak against the ever-darkening wall of gray woods. I had to investigate! Jumping off the road and sliding down the embankment, I swung around the tree to have look. An enormous, bright white mushroom with a cap the size of a Frisbee shone up at me. I brimmed with awe at its size and measured its diameter with my hands: ten inches across. Wow! The largest gilled mushroom I’ve ever seen, second only to Berkeley’s Polypore, an edible polypore which can grow to be more than three feet wide. While beautiful, my newfound Green-Spored Parasol (Lepiota molybdites) is not edible. In fact, it is responsible for the greatest number of mushrooms poisonings in the Appalachian Mountains. I would be admiring this mushroom, but certainly not eating it.
A heavy mist set in, and it began to rain. I hopped back on the road and continued on up the ridge, being stopped every few yards by a new fungal form. Fat boletes, itsy Hydrocybes and convex Lactarius peckii lining the road caught my eye and beckoned me to stop and notice. I was walking and squatting far more often than jogging. My run was not turning out as planned, but it didn’t matter. I felt as though the forest was revealing itself on another level, and I didn’t want to miss it.
Just as I was getting back to a more normal running pace, I glimpsed a patch of humungous, bright orange, smooth chanterelles lining the road along a rhododendron patch. I chuckled at the pure gratitude I felt at the two thumbnail-size chantarelles I saw only thirty minutes before. These were most definitely ripe for the picking. I was nowhere near finished with my run, so I marked the spot on the trail with sticks for my way back. I continued to mark the trail for the rest of the chanterelle patches (and black trumpets too!) which kept getting larger and more plentiful as I climbed higher in elevation. It was evident that the chantarelles were ripening on an elevation gradient, beginning high in the mountains and continuing downslope with the progression of late summer. A week after my first run-in with the tiny chantarelles at the beginning of this story, they were the size of my palm, and the ones at the top of the ridge had long ago decomposed.
On my return journey, I picked half of the largest chantarelles, leaving many mushrooms of different life stages to carry on reproduction. Even so, I had a shirt-full of mushrooms by the time I reached the gate. My arm was tired from the load, and I frequently had to switch from one hand to the other as I jogged back home.
It was dark by the time I got to the house. Warm light streamed from the windows, and someone was playing jazz. I kicked off my soaked shoes before I walked into the kitchen to greet my new friends, bounty in-hand.
As my coworker so eloquently put it, we are officially entering “dead stick botany season” here in northern Wyoming. As if learning how to identify grasses for the first time wasn’t difficult enough, learning to identify dead or dry grasses has proven to be quite the challenge for me. But, flowering plants are still abound and much easier to find in a key than grasses are. Even this late in the season, there are some angiosperms here still doing their flowering thang. Check it:
Rush skeletonweed (Chondrilla juncea)
Not an angiosperm, but that’s fine. Horned lizards are the state reptile of Wyoming.
Now that we are in the full swing of the field season, our crew has officially gotten a groove going. Each day, we arrive at the field office early to beat the heat, load our truck and head out to one of our ninety-something randomized field sites to collect species richness, canopy gap and soil data. Once we’ve finished with data collection, we return to the Buffalo BLM Field Office and complete entering the data into DIMA (an online database specific to the type of monitoring we do).
Amiah (CLM intern) looking at canopy gaps along a transect we established.
Dominic (BLM hydrologist) working the spud bar as we try to get a 30″ soil pit dug. Camille and Amiah (CLM interns) in the background carry out the Line Point Intercept method along a transect to collect species inventory of the site. I like my job.
Soon enough, most plants will no longer have obviously identifiable features and our ID season will come to an end. After speaking with my supervisor, I learned once it becomes too difficult to identify plants in the field, all us interns have the option to work with the rest of the office departments and explore other interests we may have such as wildlife biology, hydrology, mineral rights, GIS, etc. I’m not entirely sure what interest I’ll end up exploring, but I’m absolutely looking forward to new experiences.
My introduction to local conservation policies and practices began where the Black River first surfaces—at Rattlesnake Spings. Here, the texture of my new landscape expressed itself as a collaborative group of dignitaries with interest in the thrival of Popenaias popeii, or the Texas hornshell mussel—the last remaining native mussel in New Mexico and an ESA Candidate species.
Popenaias popeii, or Texas hornshell mussel.
I field-tripped with this lively group of dignitaries to critical anthropogenic influence loci along the Black River. As they discussed the technicalities of flow targets, stream gauge locations and dispersal barriers, they also expressed core values and beliefs about their relationship to this land. Prided on personal liberty and averse to government intervention, these folks articulated a legacy and ethic of individual agency in private stewardship. “They’re a hardy species, and they’ll come back if they have what they need. … [Providing what they need] is up to us. … It won’t be easy, but worthwhile undertakings rarely are,” said private landowner Jim Davis.
This legacy is eligible for institutional legitimacy and merit in the form of Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs), Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) and conservation/mitigation credits. The policy concerning this program has recently (this January 18th!) been refined in USFWS’s Director’s Order No 218, which can be found at https://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/pdf/Director’sOrder_with_Voluntary_Prelisting_conservation_policy_Directors_Order_Attachment-Final.pdf.
Later in the week, I was privileged to also attend the New Mexico Rare Plant Technical Council’s (NMRPTC) annual meeting in Albuquerque, NM. Here, statewide rare plant advocates met to update New Mexico’s rare plant list as well as to share updates on conservation actions and receive briefings on their new Draft Rare Plant Conservation Strategy and the Strategy’s Rare Plant Scorecard tool (both adapted from Colorado’s models). An Important Plant Areas map is also being developed with these latter tools under an ESA Section 6 grant, all with the purpose to provide proactive measures and guidelines in support of consistent and coordinated rare plant management throughout New Mexico.
Eriogonum gypsophilum, a USFWS Threatened and NM state Endangered species that grows alongside oil and gas development in Southeast New Mexico. Photograph by Ben R. Grady.
During the Scorecard presentation’s section on measuring/representing threats, the speaker displayed a map of potential oil and gas extraction threats to rare plants. It portrayed a giant blob of yellow, black and blue risks in the Southeast corner of New Mexico, encompassing the majority of the lands that my BLM office stewards.
The Permian Basin shown here corresponds with the map of of oil and gas extraction threats that was presented in the NMRPTC meeting.
Working to safeguard native plants and habitats against the threats this blob poses will be a major focus of my work here.
Over the week of July 18th, the Taos and Santa Fe SOS crews joined forces to scour the slopes of the Carson National Forest for native seeds. We met at the Taos BLM field office, our government pickups laden down with tents, sleeping bags, a few musical instruments, plant presses and all the other essentials for an overnight in the field. Joining us on our hitch into Carson was the one and only Jessa “seed czar” Davis, the Taos AIM crew, Kerry Dicks (resident Archeologist), and Olivia Messinger Carril, co-author of “Bees in Your Backyard” (an awesome reference book for the bees of N. America). Together we drove north out of Taos through the sagebrush Mesa in a line of government white Chevy Silverado’s. To the locals we must have looked as much like a convoy of Botanists as something out of Mad Max.
Eventually we turned down the dirt road into the Carson National Forest and made our first stop in the foothill slopes of San Antonio Mountain. There we discovered a population of Oxytropis sericea and Linum lewisii, which we would collect from the following day.
Onward and upward we drove, into the aspen groves, buckwheat fields, and alpine lakes of the Carson NF, stopping for plenty of “drive-by botany” along the way. Several times during these stops, Olivia let loose her little tikes, each outfitted with their own bug nets. The cuteness was hardly bearable.
Eventually we arrived at the lower Lagunitas Campground, and set up aside the mountain lake nearby. Olivia then schooled us in some pollinator collection techniques, one of which involved deploying several cups of soap at regular intervals throughout the landscape before returning to collect and pin your specimens. As the light grew dim, the SOS interns, AIM crew, Jessa, Kerry, and the Carril family gathered around an inviting campfire. Alex, one of the AIM crew members, roasted a fish he caught from the lake and shared it with everyone as musical instruments were tuned and played into the night.
The largest and smallest bees found in N. America. Right: Xylocopa, and Left: Perdita. Photo from “Bees in Your Back Yard”, photo by Joseph Wilson (quarter used for scale).
I couldn’t remember the last time I had been regaled by ghost stories around a campfire, but I won’t soon forget the stories told that night.
As the sun slowly rose the next morning, so too did our crew. After breakfast, each group drove began to depart separately. We in the Taos-Santa Fe SOS team then proceeded to descend from the Lake, and made two collections along the way down that surely wouldn’t have been possible if not for the combined man (and woman) power of the group. On our drive towards a third collection in Questa we stopped at the Taos Cow for some world-famous ice cream of the coffee, chocolate, and lavender varieties.
That night, Ella Samuel, Laura Holloway, and Rebecca Schaub of the Santa Fe crew stayed in the modest home of the Taos Crew; Sophie Duncan, Jack Dietrich, and myself. Luckily our synergistic efforts at seed collecting were also transferrable to the grill, and together made a pretty solid pasta salad, some mouth-watering veggie burgers, and fragrant grilled pineapple. Like any good night, we finished it off with a game of Settlers of Catan before falling into well a deserved sleep.
The next morning, we collected seeds downstate in Truchas and Chimayo before parting ways. We’re currently planning another reunion… hopefully it will involve just as much comraderie and Catan as our former gathering.
Like all of the interns, I had been eagerly awaiting the start of our program and was looking forward to meeting the team I would be working with for the next six months. The interns working with New England Wild Flower Society first met at the check-in counter of Logan International Airport and, after only a brief introduction to one another, we set off on our journey. Conversation flowed easily as we shared stories of past field experience and places that inspired us to follow our passion for conservation. It’s no wonder our excitement built up thinking about our trip to North Carolina Botanical Garden for our training on field protocol.
Our flight between Boston and New York went by quickly, and soon enough we found ourselves at our next gate ‘talking story’ and enjoying each others company. Meanwhile, fog had rolled in and delayed in our flight. On the upside, we had more time to bond. But as we chatted, the weather got worse and our lighthearted conversations did not match the increasing heaviness of the weather outside. Soon enough our “Delayed” flight changed to “Canceled”.
In a matter or moments we had come together and started brainstorming about the possibilities of making it down to NC for as much of three day training as possible. There would be no flights for 24 hours and flying to nearby cities would not pan out. In the end, we made the decision that if we drove, we could arrive before the training started (short of a first dinner together and a bit of sleep).
For the next nine hours we rotated driving, making our way south through the night. At times the rain came down in buckets and I was afraid that the thunder would wake the crew that was fortunate enough to fall asleep in the back of the van. At 4:30 in the morning we made it to our hotel, just in time for a quick nap before waking up and attending the first day of our training. Despite being a bit tired, we were all excited to start this new chapter, all the more because we knew that we had a strong team that willing and able to take on unexpected challenges (with great attitudes too boot!).