(Island Hopping in a Sea of Sage)
As an undergraduate biology student at Western State Colorado University, my oldest son, Marcel, has had the unique opportunity to design his own research project and apply for (and receive) funding. Under the guidance of Professor Patrick Magee, Marcel designed a project to study the effect of Douglas Fir mortality on biogeography, flora and fauna. He established sixty different study sites with a total of 180 different points to survey multiple times. A disabled vehicle had set Marcel back on the field survey portion of his project. His eighteen-year-old brother, Joel, volunteers to help him catch up on avian point counts. As for me, it was fun to tag along and watch my sons in action, doing what they love.
July 15, 2016: My cell phone alarm sounds its catchy piano riff at 4:01 am. By 4:29, we are on the road heading east out of Gunnison, Colorado. Turning off Highway 50 toward Saguche, we drive south for six or seven miles and park the green Subaru station wagon in a clearing among the knee-high sage brush. It is too dark to see the uneven footing, so with a headlamp and a couple flashlights, we ascend the steep slope to our first Douglas Fir “island.” As the eastern sky begins to illuminate, I watch and listen as Marcel and Joel do the same, but their eyes and ears are able to identify birds based on flitting shapes and barely audible chipping sounds. Occasionally throughout the duration of this ten-minute point count, they softly whisper the bird species they have trained themselves to recognize. The only one I could identify was the distinctive chirping of a common nighthawk.
Following Marcel’s GPS, we walk back down the slope then eastward up another hill strewn with downed branches, loose rocks, and an occasional collection of dry white deer bones. By now it is light enough to see everything. After our second point count, we hike up and over a ridge and survey the sage-dotted rolling hills to our south. On the distance hills, across the sea of sage, we view our next destination – patches of green Firs rising above the brush. It is a beautiful cool morning with the warm sun streaming in from the eastern horizon and a scattering of silver clouds moving over from the west.
As we approach the next set of fir islands, a lone antelope buck stares at us for a few nervous seconds before running up and over the hill. Joel notes the fact that there is now dark sage as well as light-colored sage brush. Marcel rattles off the scientific names for each, and explains that they prefer slightly different soils but their distributions sometimes overlap.
After conducting point counts at a couple more locations, we now split up to work in parallel. Marcel disappears over the top of the ridge while Joel and I march down the slope with GPS in hand. Soon we have zeroed in on the next point count location. I sit down in the decomposing needles and lean against the base of a Doug Fir stirring up fresh scent. The seat is crunchy yet soft; decaying yet fragrant.
I consider what I have witnessed this morning. My sons have struck a course for themselves different than my own. I am a mechanical engineer and my career takes me to loud and dirty industrial environments of concrete and metal where I work with combustion turbines in power plants. In my field, I participate in the violence required to supply our power-hungry society with electricity. My science teacher in high school discouraged my interest in field biology (I was mostly interested in botany), assuring me that as a white male in the affirmative action climate of 1977, I would never be able to get a good field job. Besides, he said I had a knack for math and science, and an engineering degree would fit me well. I took his advice, and although my career has been rewarding in many ways, I know it has been solely to support the artificial infrastructure of our man-made world. However, I often yearn for a daily life more connected to the natural world, the world designed and created by God, albeit abused by mankind.
As I witness my sons working in the field and “in their element,” I see that they have both turned into very capable field scientists. As for me, I would be delighted to call this environment my “office” and hiking through this landscape conducting surveys my day’s work. I am very proud of my sons, of course, but I also wonder how life could have been different for me.