Saturday, August 25, 2012

I *Heart* Ecology

You know what I really love about science in general, and Ecology in particular? The way that upon close examination, everything you thought was a boundary or an edge is really more of a melding, a smear, a fade from one thing to another. Ecology is about relationships and interactions, how whole systems balance and how tiny elements of those systems that you wouldn't think are connected at all turn out to be interdependent in some roundabout way that just hadn't been understood before. 

Take, for example, a stream or river. Where is the edge of a stream or river? Well, obviously, where the water surface touches the soil, right? Wrong. There isn't an edge, there's a blur. The stream fluctuates in height daily, seasonally, annually. There are specific elevation markers relating to streams called the "bank-full," "Ordinary High Water" and "Ordinary Low Water." The space between is often referred to as "tideland," "intertidal land," or even "submersible land," and it is vital to the life cycles of many species because it is so subject to this pattern of oxygenation and submergence, and that makes it highly productive for plants and algae (primary producers as we eco-nerds call them), invertebrates, and the species that consume them. This is why you always see shorebirds out at the water's edge when low tide hits, when mudflats are exposed.

And try this on for size: What if you think of a stream or river not only as as melted snowpack and rain water flowing downhill, but as groundwater pushing out in a low spot on a slope and coming to the surface before running downhill? Again, the boundary of what constitutes a stream is indistinct. Depending on the water table and the geology of the spot you're looking at, that is, depending on what kind of rocks, gravel, sand, or silt make up the ground in that area, and in what kind of layers, and in what topographic (hilly) arrangement, you might not need any rain or snow at all to see a small stream or trickle of water pushing out. There's this whole range of interplay between groundwater and surface water, and portions of a stream may get more water from the ground than from the sky. The water in the ground flows with the stream, merges with the stream. Really, it's part of the stream.

One of my favorite episodes of RadioLab is "A War We Need," and if you're unfamiliar with RadioLab, go give it a listen. It's full of interesting investigations into seemingly simple questions, and it isn't always science oriented, but when it is they present it so well that everyone can enjoy it. They are very good at what they do.

In this episode, they talk about the chemical warfare practiced by phytoplankton and viruses in the ocean. More specifically, single-celled plants called Coccolithophores, so populous it boggles the imagination, battling viruses in the oceans, dying, sending out warning signals as they expire warning others to change their own DNA to protect themselves. And this battle is wide-ranging enough that the carnage results in discolorations of the oceans so large you can see them from space, enough that teensy carcasses from these battles pile up to form geological layers on the ocean floor. The battle rages back and forth, one side getting the upper hand, then the other, and with every new blooming phase of the Coccolithophores, there's a massive production of oxygen. These oceanic wars of phytoplankton are responsible for about half the oxygen we breathe. 

Ecology and nature are full of connections and inter-dependencies and cycles like this. Our world and our very existence is full of tide and breath, waxing and waning, death and regeneration, beautifully executed struggles and dances made up of life cycles and natural processes flowing around and through each other like an epic friggin' ballet . . . and it is beautiful beyond words.  

GodDAMN science is cool. 

I leave you with this bit of . . . well, poetry, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the more brilliant minds in the world today.  

If that doesn't hit you somewhere deep, you need to work on developing some depth.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Oh, dear. This is embarassing.

I've discovered something frightful: I think I may have an inner academic. Like an inner child, but . . . no, really a lot like that. It is curious, gleeful, occasionally silly, very unfocused, and always finding something compelling. This is completely NOT something I'd have guessed about myself a year or two ago, but I think I found some joy in scientific literature.

I realized the existence of this inner academic when I was pursuing the work of James Sedell and others through the '80's and '90's, down the length and (narrowing) breadth of my beloved Willamette River and the changes it underwent through centuries of human activity. I hopped and meandered about the internet from place to place quite contentedly until I discovered I no longer had access to OSU's online Library of scholarly literature because I'm not technically a student anymore. I need access to follow the trail of scientific writings to expand a budding train of thought and curiosity about the Willamette's historical floodplain, and I can't. I just about stamped my foot in indignation. I want it NOW.

I'll hold my breath until I have it, just see if I don't. 
My, what grad school has done to me!

On an unrelated note, I've changed jobs. I have gone from Outdoorsy Badassery to Cubeville. Not that I'm complaining. The Outdoorsy Badassery was naturally badass, and, well, outdoors, but it was only ever supposed to be a short-term gig. It was hourly labor, and scheduled to end in December at the latest, and that was a constant worry. Currently, however, I'm scheduled to work full time, in perpetuity (assuming I do my job and don't relieve myself on someone's desk or whatever), with benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan thrown in for kicks. Also, the current job is still focused on doing good work I can be proud of, and that matters.

Given the often litigious and confidential nature of my new work, I won't be discussing it here much, but there's still plenty to talk about. One book I highly recommend to everybody I talk books with is Bob Harris' memoir Prisoner of Trebekistan. In it, the self-deprecating (yet Jeapordy-winning) author relates how he concluded that a life dedicated to pursuit of knowledge is a life worth living, a state of being with a never ending, ever wondrous mission. Now, the guy does his best to make the world a better place on the side, too, which I also admire and try to emulate in my own way, but I bring it up to point out that the tiny scholar jumping up and down and holding his breath in the back of my head won't ever really leave me alone anymore. 

It seems I have little choice but to pursue more higher education. Nothing else will placate the tyrannical bookworm in me. The units I earned in pursuit of my Graduate Certificate in Fisheries Management from OSU will transfer just fine, and get me 1/3 of the way to a Masters in Natural Resources from the same institution. Even if I only take a single class at a time (which may be necessary since I'm no longer Un/der-employed and have to spend 2 hours on the road daily just to GET TO & FROM CUBEVILLE) I'll be constantly introduced to new concepts and ideas that'll spark my interest. Thus, you can expect to read my thoughts, magically converted to legible pixels for your entertainment and edification, on every class I take, whether it be EcoFeminism (an actual course option, though relax, Dad, it's not one I'm sure I'm Hippy enough to take) or Water Resource Conflict Resolution. I'll most likely be starting Winter term, not Fall, but I'll have Library access again!

Maybe that'll make the little mortarboard-wearing motherf*cker shut up, for a short time, at least. 
Quote of the day:
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
Carl Sagan