Monday, June 6, 2011

Vegetation Mapping... looking back

It is interesting how water is a model for how so much of the world works.  Time is often compared to a river, always flowing forwards... we are present in only one part of this river, with only eddies to remind us of the past, and very little indication of what is beyond the immediate future.  Sometimes, though, the river of time makes vast loops, and by peeking over the oxbow we are able to remember a bit of what our lives were like, many years before.


Something like this happened today.  I stumbled across something on the internet that I helped make quite some time ago.  Before the sudden, abrupt shift in my life that led me off my previous course and to Vermont to attend grad school... I had been on a relatively set course for a long time.  I was a vegetation mapper.

Since I just graduated from a generalist masters program (quite a rarity), it is odd to think back to a time when I was very much a specialist.  Yet, for years of my life my job was to map, describe, and classify patterns of vegetation communities.  This entailed everything from delineating patches on aerial photos, to visiting 'stands' in the field and performing surveys,) to running statistical analysis on plant communities , to offering training and giving talks about all elements of vegetation mapping.

In the process, i was given the amazing privilege of being able to really LEARN a mountain range or a creek system... to scour every nook and cranny, often by crawling through dense shrubs, and to use detailed aerial photos to examine the places I couldn't get to.  I sunk many years of my life into one area, and roamed the hills with some of the best people I've ever met.  Beyond the basic events and drama of life - relationships, co-worker conflict, friends made, friends moved away... there was always another hillside to map and explore.


I miss it.  I miss the single-minded mission, the pattern recognition, the waking up every morning and knowing I'd see something new.  I miss the sudden flashes of insight when I finally realized WHY a set of plants shared a space.  I miss watching the mountains change over time, and learning which color and texture coincided with which plant at which time of year).  I miss the simplicity of not knowing... where a polygon of unknown vegetation competition was simply marked with the letter 'e'... until we went out and discovered what plants inhabited the unknown place.  Most of all, I miss the smell of sagebrush on a hot summer morning, when I would set out with a friend, two liters of water, binoculars, maps and datasheets... walk up a trail that I'd looked over on an aerial photo the day before... and by the end of the day have a sense of understanding of a new place.


Coming to Vermont was absolutely the right decision.  This bend in the river of my life was made in response to a bedrock wall, one that I'd already cut deep into before I realized that a turn in my life path was inevitable.  Here in Vermont I have gained the tools to be able to take the things I notice in a landscape, and synthesize them into a story... in a way I was not able to do in the past.  Even more importantly, I've learned to effectively communicate what I see with others... visually, orally, textually.  I've rekindled a love of water that until recently I never had the confidence or knowledge to act on.  Still, every time I drive by a hillside, and see the colors and shapes of plants, I'm cataloging, tracking, mapping.  I'm learning how the maples of Vermont change color, not just in the fall, but with every week of the spring and summer.  I'm learning how red maple will turn silvery in the wind... how white pine on a distant hillside looks almost 'prickly', while hemlock canopies are dense and 'bumpy' from above.  I'm not sure what is coming next in my life, which is full of possibility right now, but I do know that I'll always look at the world this way.

I'll always be a 'veg mapper'.


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