A Life of Science: Extreme Gardening in the Rocky Mountains, by Lorah Patterson

Extreme Gardening in the Rocky Mountains

By Lorah Patterson

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A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists

IIt was early morning and the clouds hung low in the Colorado valley. “Get on your feet! Ba doo da doo be bop! Get up and make it happen!” we sang to Gloria Estefan. My field assistant’s ringtone had become our cold, pre-dawn motivational theme song as we loaded the truck.

We drove up the rocky mountain road through aspen trees and past grazing cows to the location of our first transplant at 9,500 feet. We climbed out of the truck and stood in front of the complete mess of tools and equipment resting on an inch-thick layer of dirt in the back. The first item we removed was a device that looked like a long medical stretcher we had built out of plywood and closet rails. Setting it flat on the dirt road, we balanced a precarious mound of tools on it. I stood in front, my field assistant in back, and we gripped the closet rails at both sides of our feet. “One, two, three: lift!”

With arms straight and the stretcher of tools at our hips, we walked a quarter mile through a marsh. Drops of dew saturated the brown plants at our feet, soaking our boots and the bottoms of our pants. We had walked this way countless times over the summer and a well-defined trail had formed. “Wet section!” I warned as I stepped long over a patch of mud.

The Colorado Rocky Mountains
Photo by Lorah Patterson.

In the distance beyond a hill, I saw my pink flagging marking the locations of the blocks of earth we needed to remove. I pointed our stretcher toward the flag that marked block 5-2, which would be the first we would dig up today. Stepping over low shrubs, we arrived near the flag.

Remembering to bend at the knees, we set the stretcher down. I shook my arms, trying to stay loose, and kneeled, looking at the ground. “Good, it’s a grassy block,” I said. Grasses meant there would be a web of hair-like roots holding the soil together, which would help us get the block out of the ground in one piece.

I pulled a knot of hot pink string out of our bucket of tools, sighing at the time I wasted trying to untangle it, and used it to line the 50-by-50-centimeter perimeter of the block. Standing up, the square looked extremely large and solid. It was hard to imagine how, in a matter of hours, we’d be loading that section of earth into my truck.

It was my first summer as a graduate student working in the Rocky Mountains. As an ecologist, I wanted to learn how the increasingly drier, warmer climate would affect the plants of the area. Rather than wait for years as the climate warms, I decided to uproot whole blocks of plants and transplant them from higher sites with cooler temperatures to lower sites with warmer temperatures. I hoped that this would provide a peek into the future of the area.

Carving block of soil and plants with shovels
Photo by Lorah Patterson.

As the sun rose, it shined in our eyes. We sat next to the block, positioning the sun to our backs, and began pounding rubber mallets onto the hilts of soil knives, making a vertical incision around the perimeter. The plants underneath us flattened with our weight as time passed and we pounded, pushed, and pulled the knife through the hard soil along the four sides. Growing uncomfortable, I shifted my legs, flattening a new patch of plants in the process.

Eventually, we formed a narrow trench around the block and stood up. Pulling my long, steel spade out from under a sagebrush, I positioned the flat tip in the trench, lifted my right leg, and stomped the footpad. More force vibrated through my knee than into the ground. I lifted and stomped again, trying to keep the spade straight. My knee ached under the strain, yet the spade barely sunk. I climbed onto it with both feet and used my entire weight to jerk the handle left and right. I tried to think of something to make me angry, which more often made me laugh as I shook the spade, consuming all of my energy. Finally, I felt the soil give a little. With each further jump, the spade slowly sunk into the ground. Once all 40 centimeters of the spade were submerged, I dismounted. I stood on my tiptoes and strained to pull the spade out of the ground. My heart pounded and my breaths were quick as I moved ten centimeters over and began again. Only 190 centimeters to go.

Soil/plant block
Photo by Lorah Patterson.

Once the entire block was cut, we began prying until we heard the satisfying snap of roots as it separated from the ground. While my field assistant kept the block elevated with his spade, I forced a plywood board under it. We then stood on top of the board, using it as leverage to lift the block out of the hole. We positioned the stretcher close and hoisted the block onto it.

I looked at the ground, which now had a perfectly square-shaped hole of exposed soil. It felt odd and pleasing to see because it meant that we had found a way to remove an immense block of the earth in whole. I had spent many long nights throughout the summer in terror, my eyes closed but not asleep, playing out elaborate scenarios in my head of how my actions might lead to the death of entire sections of beautiful mountain meadow. But now I could breathe. My experiment was working.

We fastened steel lifting hooks around our wrists and positioned ourselves in the front and back of the stretcher again. This time across the marsh, the load would be significantly heavier. A wave of anxiety poured through my body as I was about to lift 150 pounds of earth. I hadn’t trained for this and I didn’t want myself or my field assistant to get injured. “Lift with your knees,” I said as we counted and hoisted the stretcher.

Soil/plant block on stretcher
Photo by Lorah Patterson.

My steps were shaky and short as we crossed the uneven ground. I could barely catch my breath under the strain of the weight. The lifting hooks tugged painfully at my wrists. I focused on a shrub in the distance and vowed to continue walking until I reached it. With a few steps remaining to the shrub, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Down!” I called, lowering the load and falling over with exhaustion. But there was no one there to take over for me and I needed to get this block to the truck. Every minute that passed meant more water loss for the plants and soil. So we pushed on.

Once we loaded the block into the truck, we turned around and headed back through the marsh. We needed to get another block.

It was early afternoon before we had two blocks loaded into the truck. The blocks shook as much as my tired limbs as we drove over rocks and across streams, climbing to our second transplant location at 11,000 ft. The site was just below tree line and was dotted with chest-high, alien-like monument plants. Here, we would extract two more blocks and replace them with those from the morning.

As we carried tools out to our next transplant, we passed the pile of basketball-sized rocks we had unburied in days past. At first, I had felt unlucky for always unknowingly digging in such rocky spots, but eventually it became clear that at this elevation, rocks were unavoidable. It added extra difficulty and we spent hours removing rocks while extracting the remaining two blocks. As the sun set, we filled the empty holes with the blocks from the lower site.

Carrying the soil/plant block
Photo by Lorah Patterson.

Despite hours of hard labor, I found the resolve to continue because this was about more than studying plants. Every day I accomplished what I had feared was impossible. I moved mountains. New to the competitive world of academia, this empowered me to believe that I was capable of being a graduate student.

Yet fear still crept into my mind. After months of investment in measuring plants and carrying blocks, I had no idea if the plants would even survive to grow again in the spring. I tried to push this thought into the back of my mind and focus on the blocks of earth sitting in locations they hadn’t been before. They were visual proof that I had achieved something. For fleeting but satisfying moments, I felt that if I could do this, I could do anything.

We drove back down the mountain with the two final transplants in the truck bed. Our backpacks were empty of water and food and our bodies were covered in dirt and bruises, but we couldn’t quit. Leaving the plants out of the ground overnight could prove fatal, or at least subject them to more stress than the other transplants. My determination to have the project succeed gave me strength to carry the blocks through the marsh. Under the light of the moon and a cell phone, we lowered them into their holes. We carried seven-gallon jugs from a nearby pond and watered them. Four blocks down today, 22 down total, 58 to go.

“Good luck, plants!” we called, as per tradition post-transplant. We walked back through the marsh in the dark, exhausted. The plants would need to recover from this day, as well.


The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program — A Life of Science — with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.


Lorah PattersonLorah Patterson studies plant ecology as a graduate student at the University of Arizona. She has ten years of experience working in the field of botanical sciences. Originally from Michigan, she now spends most of her time in the western United States where she enjoys hiking and photographing plants.
Header photo by Lorah Patterson.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.