Laura’s Collection: Finding Community through Field Work
Prose + Artwork by Lyn Baldwin
It’s early morning, mid-June, in the Lac Du Bois grasslands just north of Kamloops, British Columbia. On hands and knees, Laura and I bend over a quadrat isolating a grassland plant community into samples. Many plants are known; some are not. Eventually we’ll need to find the Latin names for all community members, but for now we make up names for the ones we don’t know. “Little red stem.” “Whorled leaf.” “Big white.” Collected and labeled into individual Ziplock baggies, Laura wears our growing collection of unknown plants from a D-ring clipped onto her belt. Each unknown plant, roots and all, has been carefully extricated from the soil, cleaned of debris, then bagged and labeled with its temporary name. At the same time, just in case we lose the specimen, we list the plant’s temporary name, its physical description, and original location into our field book. Check, cross-check.
In the field, Laura’s collection serves as a walking library, easily flipped through for reference as we move from one quadrat to another. In the lab, preserved in a plant press, Laura’s collection will serve as a botanical Rosetta Stone, linking one day’s collecting with the next. I don’t remember the day I learned Laura’s name. I do remember how, last fall in my second-year botany lecture, I first recognized and then grew to depend upon her ability to provide correct, even insightful, answers when asked. In encouraging Laura to apply for the research scholarship that is paying her summer salary, I had pegged this quiet, long-boned, dark-haired woman as a natural candidate for fieldwork, yet the more time we spend together in the field, the more she has resisted easy classification. Unlike me, Laura has stayed in place for university. From her childhood home, less than ten kilometers as the crow flies from where we now sit, Laura and her dad have explored, on mountain bike or foot, many of the trails that wind through the Lac Du Bois parkland. For her, this grassland is the well-traveled terrain of home.
Not for me. I last lived in this landscape as a child in the late ‘70s, just before my family impetuously migrated to the United States. During the nearly 30 years I spent living as an expatriate Canadian south of the border, I rarely lived in place for longer than four years, shifting towns, regions, even continental margins with need or opportunity. My family’s move last year from western Montana to southern B.C.—my husband leading the way in a 21-foot U-haul and dragging a trailer loaded with our pickup, me following behind in a minivan packed with our two-year old daughter and our rambunctious dogs—was unusual only in that its accompanying grief has been hard to shed. After a rocky first year teaching botany to mostly less-than-enthusiastic university students, today’s field sampling is work whose contours I’m grateful to recognize.
Implicit in our sampling, as is true with most ecology, is the assumption that the right way to know community is to break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Earlier this morning, Laura and I used compass and field tape to outline a rectangular plot—ten meters wide, 25 meters long—around one randomly located point in the grasslands. The borders of our plot are not perfectly straight—robust fescue, lichen-covered boulders introduce slight hesitations, minor detours in the white tape—but by pinning the four corners down with tent pegs, we’ve got it pretty close.
Against the grassland’s green exuberance, our plot is a transient hieroglyphic of estimation, festooned at irregular intervals with bright orange survey flags. Even in this relatively small space—not much larger than the front yard of my family’s new bright blue bungalow—it’s difficult to accurately estimate the abundance of a single species. Instead, Laura and I place a small quadrat built of PVC pipe on the ground next to each orange flag. Peering down from above, one of us calls out how much of the quadrat is physically occupied by each species, while the other records the information on our data forms. We don’t dither over the exact percentage—estimating abundance on a scale of one to six gives us enough accuracy.
Laura and I have been climbing a steep learning curve, deciphering community, one species, one quadrat, at a time. We’ve had to re-jig our data form in order to make room for the 70 to 80 species that occupy any one plot. At the beginning of the week, we were clumsy, having to translate our sampling protocol into step-by-step directions for our bodies. But this morning, we’ve not only remembered all the field equipment we need—50-meter tapes, tent pegs, GPS unit, clinometers, field guides, compass, data form, clipboards, Sharpies, pencils, quadrats—but through the sheer weight of practice, we’ve sorted out who carries what where and which vest pocket works best for what gear. Even our conversation has diminished, Laura and I slipping into the absentminded call-and-response of field sampling that leaves ample room for mental wool gathering. “Little red stem, cover class 5. Festuca campestris, 3.”
Community matters. It could be a mantra for my professional career. But community is also one of those slippery words ecologists use without necessarily agreeing on what they’re talking about. Several years ago, in preparation for my Ph.D. defense, I memorized one textbook definition of community as “the species that occur together in space and time.” Pretty terse—maybe because that’s the limit of agreement between ecologists.
Part of the problem is that how we understand community depends, in part, on how we break it down. Long skinny plots find more rare species than short fat plots. Plots oriented parallel to contour lines count fewer species than those oriented perpendicular. Today, we know enough to understand how plot design—really, a series of rules we use to define the territory of our attention—can influence what we describe as community. What is still debated, however, is what it means to live in community.
Grow any two individuals next to one another, and by definition, they will interact—even if it’s only through sharing the same space. We know that given enough time, species can adapt to one another, resisting or accommodating one another’s existence. What is less clear is the influence these interactions have on which species “occur together in time and space.” Are the relationships between neighbors strong enough that when you find one neighbor, you always find the rest of the community? Or is the presence of individual species determined less by their relationship with neighbors and more by their individual tolerances of the light, water, or nutrients found in a particular neighborhood?
In ecology, this has not been a trivial debate: being on the wrong side of prevailing opinion banished at least one man from the discipline. In the first decades of the 20th century, the majority of ecologists, led by Frederic Clements—a strong-willed, some might even say dominating ecologist from Nebraska—believed that communities could be best described as something akin to a superorganism: highly organized entities made up of mutually dependent species. In 1926, when Henry Gleason, a young, upstart ecologist from Illinois, published the first in a series of papers arguing that communities were best thought of as a “coincidental assemblage of species,” he was so shunned by other ecologists that he became, in his own words, an “ecological outlaw, a good man gone wrong.”
Like most North American ecologists working today, I’ve been raised on a more Gleasonian notion of community. In fact, the plot Laura and I are using today—a modified-Whittaker plot—is a variant on the design that Robert Whittaker used in the 1950s to collect the data that ultimately shifted most ecologists toward Gleason’s ideas—long after Gleason had abandoned ecology. This winter, when Laura and I were finalizing our field methods, our choice to use the modified-Whittaker plot design felt weighted on the right side of community.
But today, it’s clear that the data Laura and I will collect in any one plot is not, by itself, community. At best, it’s a translation of community from the green tangle beneath our feet into the dispassionate numbers and graphs of science. It’s a translation that, by design, says little about the unmeasurable syllables of experience—the sight of white clouds scudding through blue sky, the itchy give-and-take of a mosquito finding the exposed skin on my hands, the feel of a hard-edged boulder imprinted on my backside—that collectively write another translation of community. Right now, here in the grassland, as birds flit overhead, butterflies land on nearby flowers, and Laura calls out plant names, I feel the bubbles of something—contentment, joy, maybe even the first stirrings of love—burble up from deep inside me. How we feel about community, I realize, is an important tangle in how we learn community.
All week, I’ve been happy to decipher the intimate details of one “coincidental assemblage of plants” even while resisting any knowledge of another. My family’s new house lies near the valley bottom, more than 500 meters lower in elevation than this grassland. Its previous owner seems to have been an enthusiastic, if somewhat chaotic, gardener. This spring a diverse array of species planted with intent—an unusual Ginkgo tree and irises and daylilies—have erupted into leaf only to struggle against an equally diverse assemblage of weeds. Weeds that need pulling; weeds that I’ve been surprisingly content to ignore.
The species in my garden “occur together in time and space” but I haven’t made the time to learn their version of community. Maybe it’s a form of vegetative elitism that favors first-comers over late-comers. Ecologists arbitrarily distinguish between natives—those species present before European settlement—and exotics—those species that came with or after the first European settlers. All the species in my garden are recent transplants—their continuing presence largely dependent upon the good will of gardeners. But I don’t think it’s just snobbery. Technically, all the plants in this valley came from somewhere else. Eighteen thousand years ago, when glacial ice layered nearly a kilometer high above our heads, this land was bereft of plants. Post-glacially, we are all migrants; some merely came later than others.
It’s time to move again. Laura scrambles up to her feet and leads the way to the next quadrat. I follow, thinking about how the unknown becomes known. The collection bouncing at Laura’s waist is one way. Back in the lab, we’ll use technical keys and dissecting scopes to label each specimen with its Latin name. Later, Laura’s thesis will organize our translation into a summary that can be shared with other ecologists. I can list the communities I’ve deciphered this way: the deciduous forests of Vermont, the high-elevation lodgepole pine forests of Colorado and Idaho, the temperate rainforest of Vancouver Island. What’s not on this list, I realize, is the garden that I left behind in Montana. I never once drew a graph for this garden, never once counted its plants, but there’s no denying it was a coincidental assemblage of plants that I knew intimately, that I loved.
There it is—the real reason my new garden is languishing. I don’t have the heart for the unabashed intimacy of weeding and planting. Not yet. In whatever form they take, the communities we learn to love demand our loyalty, even when we desert them. As Laura and I settle down in front of the next quadrat, I’m grateful it’s my turn to call out names and abundances; hers to record. The possibility of a novel, new species will distract me from the abandoned familiar. But, ugh. The first species I see in the quadrat is not novel, but neither is it beloved. I’ve pulled this species up along roadsides, dug its long taproot out of my Montana garden. I knew it was here, but this is the first time we’ve found it in one of our plots.
It’s not that it’s ugly. My mother-in-law still hasn’t escaped the ecological faux pas she made the first time she saw it growing by the roadside in western Montana and exclaimed, “Oh, what’s that beautiful wildflower?” From a distance, with its bright purple flowers spilling over the top of spreading branches, spotted knapweed could be called pretty. Yet, for most ecologists, admiring its beauty is like exclaiming over the intricate armor worn by Mongol hordes galloping towards your small village. In Montana, I watched this species crowd out its newfound native neighbors across an entire grassland slope, transforming a rainbow of floral colour into a sea of purple.
Ecologists may not agree on what it means to live in community, but we’re damn sure united when we think a species is living outside of community. It’s one of the places in ecology that you can hear emotion slipping through the objective constraints of science. Ecological descriptions of knapweed’s behavior in North America read like a military history. Knapweed “aggressively invades, degrades or eliminates, displaces native species, and reduces forage.” No official territory wants to be known as the beachhead that allowed its initial invasion. Technical reports written in Montana emphasize that knapweed was first collected in North America outside Victoria, B.C. in the late 1800s—germinating unbidden from discarded soil used as ballast by ships crossing between Europe and North America. In B.C., reports are quick to argue that the real knapweed invasion spread west from contaminated alfalfa seed introduced into Montana.
No one wants it; everyone knows it’s scarily robust. It’s good at tolerating drought and grows well, even thrives, in disturbed soil. Worst of all, it reproduces faster than rabbits. In some habitats, spotted knapweed produces more than 10,000 seeds—the vast majority of which will germinate—in each square meter. Mongol hordes, indeed.
It’s not that it can’t live in community. In its native range on the grassland steppes of Eurasia, spotted knapweed is just another species among many—there you don’t find it crowding out neighbors like it does in the soils of this continent. Since knapweed’s introduction to North America, there has been an army of ecologists hell bent on understanding its success. Slowly but surely the evidence is accumulating. Community matters, but so too does history. Place—and the interactions that occur between individuals within any given place—shape who we are as individuals and species. And there are real consequences when individuals are dislocated from one community, one region, one continent, to another. Arriving in North America, spotted knapweed escaped from known predators and came bearing novel root chemicals unknown to native North American grasses. One ecologist likens the impact of these novel chemicals to the recurved bow that contributed to the Mongols’ consistent victories over larger armies in the 13th century. Knapweed even appears to be able to manipulate relationships with North American soil organisms—fungi and bacteria—to favor its success over North American grasses and wildflowers.
The one aspect of knapweed’s ecology with which everyone agrees is that it was “accidentally introduced” to North America. Maybe it’s because I still haven’t recovered from our move from Montana, but for the first time, I perceive the particular slant contained within this two-word phrase. It’s a conveniently anonymous and passive description that focuses more on the consequences of arrival than on the causes of departure. No knapweed plant ever set off to invade North America. The knapweed plant in my quadrat is a displaced species, a descendant of seeds abducted long ago from community. Introduced… by whom? The phrase ignores humankind’s role in knapweed’s history, but I can’t. Not anymore. Not with my vagabond history. Not when I think of all the collections I have made across this continent.
It is, after all, only a matter of degree that separates knapweed from the plants bouncing at Laura’s hip. I’m not so worried about the impact of collecting on individual species as I am about collecting’s implicit assumption. Laura and I follow a set of elaborate protocols, used by botanical collectors worldwide, to mitigate our impact on plant populations: we make sure we can recognize rare or endangered species that grow in the grasslands, we never collect any specimen from a population with less than 20 individuals, and we work hard to minimize any disturbance to surrounding plants. We won’t even take this collection far from native ground—only 20 kilometers down the hill to the university. But there’s no denying that the individual plants we’ve collected have been removed from community. In collecting, I’ve always assumed that the collections that I’ve made have been a fair representation of community, never stopping to consider what has been lost the moment I pull a plant from the ground.
Years ago, far from home, learning to make botanical collections gave me entrance into a scientific community rich with tradition and intent. There is no doubt in my mind that Laura has all the makings of an exceptional field botanist. Right now, sharing the lessons I learned from my botany mentors with Laura has been the only aspect of my new job that has felt right, but I know that this tradition—scientific collecting—favors my tendency to learn community by breaking it down into transportable bits more than it cultivates the patience necessary to experience it whole.
This is what I think, as Laura and I move to the last quadrat of the plot. Every collection is made in the service of something: scientific knowledge, desire, nation-building, the sublime. What would a collection in service of community look like? Kneeling down on green grass for the last time today, I sense the tangles of experience that could one day bind me to not just students like Laura but to the more-than-human community of this grassland if I broaden how I collect: the red-naped sapsucker that will pop up, jack-in-the-box-like, from its cavity in an aspen tree; the cryptic green frog orchid that I will find after years of missing it; the two Sandhill cranes that will on another June day stalk me through tall grass, herding me away from their nest; or the unknown predator whose deep tracks I will find in the snow on a solitary ski leaving my body tingling in apprehension.
Nearly 90 years ago, the debate between Henry Gleason and Frederic Clements taught us that there’s more than one way to imagine community. Collecting plants in standardized plot designs has been, and will likely always remain, an important step in my learning, but I can no longer ignore the hard-to-measure stories that integrate the entire community, exotic and native, human and non-human, into a whole. Knapweed teaches us that there are consequences when the interactions that underwrite community are ignored. Down the hill, the plants in my garden remind me that I can’t discount the time required for these interactions to develop. If community matters, then I need to find new ways of collecting—ways that both teach me about and embed me within community, ways that acknowledge both the gift and the responsibility of membership. That, I think, would be a collection worth preserving.
Collecting Unmeasurable Community Field Journal Excerpts and Paintings by Lyn Baldwin
The images in this gallery are a combination of watercolor paintings and excerpts from Lyn Baldwin’s field journals. Lyn began her field journal practice nearly 20 years ago as a minor rebellion against the omnipotence of scientific knowledge. Today, however, within a field journal format (bound in a book, or more recently, spread across a full sheet of watercolour paper), Lyn uses science and art as equal partners in her work collecting community. Pages in Lyn’s journals represent the investigative process of a naturalist and journal entries range from simple diagrammatic sketches to more sustained paintings. All, however, represent moments in time when she could attend to and learn from being in place. For Lyn, collecting community occurs best when the land’s line and shadow, its poetry and its science, flow together to form lessons for her own life.
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Kamloop Journal Excerpts
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Lyn Baldwin teaches botany and ecology at Thompson Rivers University amidst the sagebrush steppe and inland coniferous forests of southern British Columbia. Lyn’s illustrated field journals and field journal paintings have been exhibited in art galleries and science museums and her essays published in Cirque and the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience. More excerpts from Lyn’s journals can be found at http://viridianlife.sites.tru.ca/.