Alex’s internship blog

Our second cohort of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program is taking part in a conservation summer immersion program on the Colorado Plateau, and they are guest blogging here at L-C-Ideas to keep us up to speed on what they’re doing. Please check back for more!

Alex’s  internship blog

Throughout his book, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey attempts to describe what, exactly, attracted him year after year to the desert canyon lands of Utah and the surrounding arid landscapes of the rural southwestern United States. Try as he does, however, he is never able to exactly pinpoint what ephemeral yet eternal quality of these landscapes so enraptures him. Driving down a dirt road north of Moab through the very same canyon lands that Abbey wandered through half a century ago, I found myself contemplating, yet also unable to satisfactorily articulate to myself, what exactly had lured me from the lush greenery of the east into this severe land of rock and light in remote eastern Utah? As if to offer an answer to my thoughts, we turned left in a bend in the road to greet a magnificent box canyon of burnt sandstone rock rising out of the desert lowlands with the snowcapped Monti La Sal Mountains presiding over the distant horizon. Some kind of rawness, an ancient purity, a glimpse of origin and genesis only hinted at by jagged stone and desert silence, pregnant with the future unfurling into the present. This mystery, distilled and pecked into images high on desert varnished cliffs by the Ancients in an attempt to express it; a herd of big horned sheep, a hunter, a dancing kachina, the eternal spiral. This is what draws me out to the southwest lands.

As we continued along the increasingly bumpy dirt road through the towering walls of the box canyon, an iron cattle fence came into view, followed by a rustic wooden cabin, then two more emerging out of the cottonwood grove on the Rio Mesa research station, our home for the next two days. The area had once been a 19th century homestead, we soon learned, and now functioned as a site for one of Kevin’s, our mentor, experimental tree plots where he researched how different temperature adapted genotypes of cottonwood trees faired in a the arid desert of eastern Utah as a surrogate for the increasing heat coming to the region via climate change. Our assignment that day was to closely observe the cottonwood saplings on the 6 acre plot for signs of herbivory and/or disease and to record our observations. As we did so, the other interns and I often came across an anomaly or slight deformation in a sapling and would ask Kevin what had caused it and why this particular plant genotype was experiencing these symptoms as opposed to another. While he often could answer our questions, he just as often did not always have a clear diagnosis, only a set of educated guesses. Other times, he was completely stumped.

This struck me as odd; how could a climate scientist with a PhD in plant science not know what he was looking at? When I asked Kevin about this, his answer, while not particularly profound, nonetheless shattered what I thought I knew about scientists and how they conducted their work. Kevin explained that, contrary to how science is often taught in universities, it is not as much an answer driven discipline as it is question driven. The foundation of science is empiricism, experimentation and close observation, the foundation of which is discovery and, ultimately, curiosity. Therefore, it was okay to not know everything there is to know about how natural systems operate as it consists of many moving parts that are constantly changing. Rather than try to merely know “facts” about the natural world, a much better use of a scientist’s energies is to set up experiments that test for a certain factor and then merely allow the results of that experiment to bring you to more questions based off of the results you find. Learning this was probably the most valuable thing I took away from this internship as it allowed me to see science less as a set of rules and beliefs, but rather as an interactive, creative and open-ended method of inquiry and discovery based in an almost child-like propensity to be curious and stand in awe at the beauty and mystery of the universe.

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