Field work…it’s not just the science

For me anyway.

One of the highlights of being an ecologist is spending time in the field making observations, thinking about patterns, asking questions, and collecting data to answer those questions.  In fact, it is hard to believe that we call this stuff “field work,” because as anyone that spends time in the natural world knows, simply getting out there can be a tremendous source of inspiration and rejuvenation. One of the ways that I reconnect to the splendor of “field work” is to paint. Now that the fall semester is over, I’m looking forward to spending a little time painting with my daughter. In the spirit of the holiday, below I share a few field-site and field-related paintings that have special meaning to me….

Fallison Bog Pond. Oil on canvas.  Located in northern Wisconsin, this small pond is surrounded by an extensive Sphagnum-dominated peat mat and has served as an important site in ongoing studies of peatland development (e.g., Ireland et al. 2013)

October at Fallison Bog. Oil on canvas, 2013. Located in northern Wisconsin, this small pond is surrounded by an extensive Sphagnum-dominated peat mat and has served as an important site in ongoing studies of peatland development. Started with the help of my daughter, and some of her brush strokes are still there.

October at Fallison Bog.  Fallison Bog Pond is a small peatland pond in northern Wisconsin, near the Trout Lake Limnological Research Station. The place is particularly significant for me – for both personal and professional reasons. We have been monitoring testate amoeba communities and hydrology of the bog, and other bogs in the region, every few years since 2003 (see here for more on testate amoebae). Also, we are currently investigating processes controlling peatland development, and Fallison Bog is a critical site in this effort.

The bog was also one of the first field sites that I dragged my future wife into, in a memorable trip in April of 2004. She learned the hard way that sometimes bog mats are pretty thin along the lake edge. Wisconsin water is very cold in April.

Erythrina herbacea. Oil on canvas. Growing on the sound-side of St. Catherine's Island, a barrier island on the coast of Georgia where I did my masters research.

Erythrina herbacea. Oil on canvas, 1998. Growing on the sound-side of St. Catherine’s Island, a barrier island on the coast of Georgia. An interesting plant, it apparently contains toxic alkaloids that induce paralysis (wikipedia).

Erythrina herbacea.  St. Catherine’s Island is a barrier island along the coast of Georgia in the southeastern United States. I was fortunate to spend time on the island in  1996-1998 as part of my masters thesis research on the vegetation history of the area. At the time, I was really immersed in field botany; in fact, most of the time that I wasn’t spending on my thesis research was spent collecting and identifying plants.  This specimen of Erythrina herbacea caught my attention, something about the subtle beauty of the red flowers rising from the chaos of the downed tree, all against the backdrop of the quiet sound behind the island.  I gave this painting to my masters thesis advisor –  a truly fantastic person and one of the most genuine people I have ever met.

Henderson Peatlands A and B. Oil on canvas.

Henderson Peatlands. Oil on canvas, 2002. Two peatlands in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, near the town of Basalt.

Henderson Peatlands.  Peatlands are not particularly common in the central and southern Rocky Mountains, but where they do occur, they offer unique habitat and striking visual contrasts with the surrounding landscape.  I fondly recall the field work for a project in 2002 that required sampling testate amoebae and vegetation in numerous peatlands in Colorado and Wyoming. I was particularly impressed by this vista from near Josephine Lake (3535 m elevation) in Colorado. From the ridge above the lake, two peatlands could be seen to the south nestled in the surrounding deep-green forest.  Informally named the Henderson peatlands, after the nearby Henderson Park Trail, these peatlands contained three species of Sphagnum (S. russowii, S. platyphyllum, and S. warnstorfii) and a diverse association of testate amoebae.

Evening on Au Train Lake. Oil on canvas, 2001.

Evening on Au Train Lake. Oil on canvas, 2001. View from cabin on the edge of Au Train Lake in Upper Michigan.

Evening on Au Train Lake. A portion of summer 2000 was spent in Upper Michigan working with a team of researchers on a project focused on understanding the past water-level fluctuations of Lake Superior, and the impacts of climate changes on coastal wetlands. The peat coring was exhausting, fraught with equipment difficulties and woody peats, and the deer flies were thick. But it didn’t matter….this was Upper Michigan. I have pleasant memories of sitting in front of the cabin, keying out wetland Carex species, and talking ecology and geology with good friends and colleagues. The cabin was only a couple miles inland from Lake Superior, and almost walking distance from our field sites.

Salt marsh and hammock. Oil on canvas, 1998. An area near Cracker Tom Hammock on St. Catherine's Island.

Salt marsh and hammock. Oil on canvas, 1998. An area near Cracker Tom Hammock on St. Catherine’s Island.

Salt marsh and hammock. Another one from St. Catherine’s Island; the location of this scene was very close to where I collected one of the sediment cores used in my masters thesis.  One species of grass, Spartina alterniflora, dominates most of the salt marsh on the east coast of North America.  Although there is low botanical diversity in much of the extensive lower portion of these salt marshes, they are highly productive ecosystems with some very unusual biogeochemical processes.  I can almost smell the hydrogen sulfide when I look at this one.

Tahquamenon Falls. Oil on Canvas, 2000.

Tahquamenon Falls. Oil on Canvas, 2000. A common tourist attraction in Upper Michigan.

Tahquamenon Falls. Another one from Upper Michigan. The Tahquamenon River drains extensive areas of cedar swamp and peatland, making the water dark and humic-stained. During several years of field work in Upper Michigan, this was a nice late afternoon or evening destination when a break was needed. The area is a common tourist attraction, and apparently the location of Henry Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”  A nice hike to the waterfalls (there are actually two of them) through hemlock, yellow birch, and white pine forest can be followed by a good beer at the Tahquamenon Brewery.

Canoeing with Clea. Oil on canvas, 2013. Not really a field-site related painting, but a memorable day exploring a wetland along a tributary of Promised Land Lake in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.

Canoeing with Clea. Oil on canvas, 2013.  A memorable day exploring a wetland along a creek associated with Promised Land Lake in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.

Canoeing with Clea. This one is not really a field site but I’ll end with it because it brings back particularly strong positive feelings. It captures a moment spent  with my daughter exploring the riparian wetland adjacent to a small creek connected to Promised Land Lake in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. This was her first time on water, and it was a truly spectacular day enjoying nature.

Happy holidays. Recharge and seek inspiration. Spend some time with family doing what you love.

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Posted on December 22, 2013, in Fieldwork, Original Posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Beautiful. Truly remarkable. Great perspective on life!

  2. Lovely paintings and musings. Thank you for sharing!

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