Field season has come again, and it is almost time for the arrival of those days I had forgotten I was longing for all winter. Several sensors are on the fritz, the ground is soft and wet, ready for us to gather soil by the gallon for calibrations, and the bears will be waking up soon, if they are not stirring already. Field work forms the glamorous side of the otherwise unglamorous undertaking of long term monitoring, in our case the constant collection of data on soil moisture and weather. After five years, our record is ready to be applied to near-term questions about relationships between air temperature and soil drying or snowmelt, prior year moisture conditions, and streamflow. The overall intent of the network, however, is long-term data creation and curation. Only with decades of datapoints is it possible to clearly identify trends, and with climate change throwing out our prior, historical conditions as an appropriate baseline for future planning, research of this kind is becoming increasingly important to help land and water managers create realistic plans for coming years.I rarely think about application while I am out in the field though. I’m noticing whether the plants are blooming or wilting and looking for animal spore: footprints, fur, claw marks, or poop. Any day I find bear scat in the field is an exciting day. (I love bears.) One of my coworkers once worked as a forester up in Montana, and insists that bear scat is not a good find. My concessions to safety include always having a partner in the field (a smart safety practice for field work of any kind) and by adding bear spray to my pack. The ground has only just thawed at some of the higher elevation sites, and won’t thaw for a another few months at the highest station on Independence Pass, but soon the bears will be rooting about in the thick scrub and snuffling about for early berries, and I’m itching to be out there too, turning the back of my neck and from my elbows to my finger tips brown with the sun, as a thin, dirt-dark edge forms beneath my nails. Our network spans the watershed from near the Continental Divide to near the drainage, and I will see spring creep across it. In a week or two the scrub oaks will burst out their leaves in Glenwood Springs, turning the ridges florescent green. By the time those new leaves have faded, the purple lupine will be blooming up on Sky Mountain and across Smuggler. Then in the following weeks, I’ll make my way up to the top of the pass, where among the alpine willow and melting pools of snow will be tiny, secret blooms, small enough for a whole cluster to fit on a thumbnail. This fascination with the order and systems and mysteries of nature–this is what pulls me through hunt for grants and the days at a desk.
In the words of Henri Poincare:
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.”