Spring flowers and a new path

Spring has come early to Oregon this year, after a record-breaking February snow and ice storm.  It has a been a strange winter in many ways, with the most snow in Corvallis in at least 20 years but very little snow in the mountains.  We have seen far more of the sun than is typical – an anomaly for which I and many others are most grateful.  After fears of drought, the rains arrived in force last month, bringing rivers to just shy of flood stage, replenishing reservoirs, and building snowpack in the high Cascades.

March is often a cool, showery month with temperatures in the 40s and low 50s.  This March we have seen plenty of high 50s and a number of 60-degree days.  The frogs are singing full force, and a few wrens and song sparrows sense the coming of spring.  The days ahead will bring more typical March weather, but the ephemeral flowers have sensed their cue and are bursting forth to grow and pollinate before the canopy leaves emerge to block their sunlight.

In past years we have hiked to find these flowers; now that we live on 25 acres of coast range forest they are right in our backyard – not so different from the trout lilies, bloodroots, and Dutchman’s breeches behind Valley House in Minnesota.

Western Wakerobin, Trillium ovatum

Snow Queen, Synthyris reniformis

Calypso Orchid, Calypso bulbosa

Stream Violet, Viola glabella

Spring Beauty, Cardamine nuttallii

A new path…

In a literal sense, I have been working for the past couple of weeks on clearing a path at the spot we call the Watershed Homestead.  In the winter we mostly satisfied our need to experience the woods by walking up and down the road, but we were yearning for a longer route and a more immersive experience.  First came the chainsawing, clearing old deadfall and a number of trees that came down beneath the recent snow and ice.  Then last Friday Jesse and Eva helped me place two log bridges where the path crosses a spring-fed creek.  It is a loop covering about 12 acres behind the house and crossing through a variety of plant communities.  All of the flower photos above were taken along the path this morning.

Upper bridge

Housemate Basho on the lower bridge

In a figurative sense, I am embarking on a new path in life.  My graduate-school experience of 5 1/2 years draws to a close this week as I submit my revised dissertation and grade the last assignments for the classes I am TAing.  Before I spent my days in the lab manipulating nanometer-scale metabolic pathways inside micrometer-scale cyanobacterial cells, I spent days in the field identifying birds and plants, observing tropical beetles, cataloging marmot behavior, and delineating lynx habitat.  There was a time when I thought ecology was too messy with too many confounding variables and I envied my molecular biologist friends for their simplified systems and concrete results.  But after spending five years in a lab examining the very tiny, I have come to the conclusion that it is not my home.  At first I thought I would get used to it, become comfortable there as I gained proficiency with protocols and techniques.  Somehow that never happened.  I learned, planned, struggled, succeeded, and ultimately defended my Ph.D. last month, but I never came to identify myself as a microbiologist or a molecular biologist.  The lab always seemed too artificial, too isolated from the reality of organisms in context.

I long now to return to the field, to the open road, to working with biological systems across geographic space.  I have discovered in my time in an engineering program that I aspire to the engineering approach – to using science to solve pressing problems rather than simply to better understand the world.  Honeybees in particular have become close to my heart over the past four years.  They are an interesting intermediary between the wild and the domestic.  They are ours:  we keep them in hives that we build, select for traits that we prefer, ship them across the country to pollinate our crops.  And yet they are wild:  they go where they please with no regard to fences or property lines, they swarm into trees and survive on their own, the queens mate with drones from any hives within several miles.  They depend for survival not only on their keepers’ lands, but also on the neighboring fields and wildlands, falling victim to neighbors’ sprays or collecting pollen and nectar from neighbors’ crops.  They facilitate conflict, cooperation, and a growing sense of a need for collective action to ensure their health and survival.  I have an interview this week for a university extension job working with commercial beekeepers to analyze colony health and to understand and ultimately reduce colony losses.  It is definitely a change from where I have been, and I am excited by the prospect!

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