Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Need for Seed

The initial challenge at the start of our recent camping and seed-collecting trip was setting up our tents in a sustained 40 mph wind.  We arrived late, close to 5pm, and had just a few hours of daylight remaining. Without a decent windbreak for miles in any direction, erecting the tents was like unfurling a ship’s sail, and it took all five of us deckhands to wrestle each one into position. We staked the corners and then moved onto the complex arrangements of poles.The assembly is different for every tent, and even without the wind, it’s more of an intellectual exercise than a practical one. I’m sure tent engineers laugh until strawberry daiquiris shoot out their nostrils at the annual Christmas party when they watch hidden videos of people like us trying to figure them out. 

Once they were in place, we wanted to keep them that way, so we attached rope from the tent corners to eyebolts in the wood frames that surrounded each tent space, as extra insurance against the wind. We based this extra security on the advice of Ken, the ranger at the Visitor Center, who earlier remarked, “We often watch tents rolling end-over-end off into the desert.”

The goal of our expedition was to find one or more of the 188 native Arizona legume taxa that are not yet represented in the seed bank of the Desert Legume Program. Our original plan was to target   five of these taxa that likely had seed this time of year in the mixed conifer forests between Nutrioso and Hannagan Meadow in the White Mountains.   But that all changed when the 500,000 acre Wallow Fire burned through the area a week before our trip and forced us 100 miles further west to Winslow and nearby Homolovi State Park.  Except for a few struggling honey locusts that the park planted at each campsite, we went from 8000 feet in tall timber to nary a plant more than hip-high here at 4800 feet elevation on the southern edge of the Great Basin Desert.

Mark, Matt, and I were experienced campers; Jeff, less so. Lorrie hadn’t been camping in twenty-five years – which meant never. She wanted to be prepared, so she bought a pair of hiking boots, and borrowed a sleeping bag and foam mattress. I helped her with a list of what not to bring: suitcases, furniture, curtains, framed artwork, and no more toiletry or beauty items than a TSA agent would allow through an airport scanner. She insisted on having her own tent, which was reasonable, as long as she didn’t furnish it with any of the aforementioned items.

We laid out sleeping bags and pads, unpacked food and drinks, and readied our flashlights to avoid the rattlesnakes that we were told might cross our paths between the nearby shower house and our tents after dark. Campfires weren’t permitted, which meant that my camping experience was already diminished by half.  Reeking pit toilets, mosquitoes, and the threat of bears usually fill in the other 50%, but we had none of those either. Instead, we had hot and cold running water, showers, and flush toilets in the building next to us, so it was shaping up to be more like an three day picnic with sleep-over privileges. There was even a bright, first quarter moon that faintly lit our picnic table and later served as a bedroom nightlight for those inevitable 3 a.m. trips to the bathroom.

Early Thursday morning, before our instant oatmeal, Mark poured us some potent espresso made from his French press. This wicked little device makes coffee backwards: coffee is added to hot water and allowed to steep, like tea; then, a porous plunger is forced down through the mixture. The plunger separates the water from the grounds and allows a potent, black brew to filter up above it. It works like an espresso machine turned inside out. “Drink enough of this,” he said, as he filled my metal camping cup, “and hair will stand up you didn’t even know you had.”

Coffee made like this is an acquired taste, and as I sipped, it reminded me of a trip I made to Australia in the mid nineties.  Matt was along for this trip, too, and we traveled for three weeks through the Australian outback looking at plants and plant communities. We stopped the car often to explore, and more often than not, aggressive bush flies came out of nowhere and tried to force their way into our mouths. No matter how quickly we wiped then away, they rushed back to our lips with the speed of cockroaches. 

According to our Aussie host, Peter, bush flies helped shape the way Australians speak in the outback.  “We keep the flies out by using short sentences and not flappin’ our gums too much,” he told us, his mouth as still as a ventriloquist’s. So good morning or good afternoon was reduced to “g’day” and oh, it’s really no problem at all became simply “no worries.” Lacking the ability to speak in Australian sound bites, we communicated with hand gestures and short grunts, before the flies wore us down and sent us running back to the car.

With bush flies and the three most venomous snakes in the world to deal with, we were pleasantly surprised to see a conscious effort made to create a less hazardous environment inside. Restaurants, in particular, have an attention to detail that is missing in all but the higher dollar restaurants in the U.S. Maybe they are rebelling against a hick image, if such a term even applies, but food quality, presentation, and service were generally very good, even in the far flung outposts.

There is no tipping at restaurants in Australia, so, from our point of view, stiffing the waiter took some getting used to. As one of the few math skills that some Americans have, calculating a 15% tip is hardwired into our national consciousness.  It’s automatic. Even after eating in a half dozen restaurants, I still expected to hear the agitated voice of our waiter assail us each time we made our way to the door.

“Hey mates, did you forget something?”

We hadn’t, of course, and my confidence quickly grew to adapt to this and other cultural anomalies, particularly the ones that were in my favor. Matt, however, was harder to break. A week into our journey, and he still wanted to leave a tip: just a little something to show his appreciation for this grand, welcoming country.  At a restaurant in Broken Hill, I laid on the guilt and reminded him of the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets that every Star Trek fan knows by heart. “But Matt,” I reminded him, “aren’t you are about to violate the Prime Directive?”

As a fellow Trekkie, Matt knew it well. The Prime Directive states: “When interacting with an alien civilization, (or, in our case, Australia), there can be no interference with its internal development.” By leaving just one tip, Matt was about to plant the seed that could lead to food server disenchantment, unionization, and violent government protests:  just the instability that subversive, sleeper cells were waiting for to propagate their heinous agenda across the continent. A continent that we had only come to observe.

He looked up at me and then back at the $2 Australian coin that he balanced on the table with the tip of his finger. He handled it like he would a tentative chess move while he weighed changing the course of history against providing a tip to someone who neither needed nor expected it. We got up to pay the bill and I circled back to our table to see if the coin was there.  Had it been, I would have scooped it up in full view of our waiter, my eyes telling him that I’m doing this for your own good. He would understand perfectly and return my look with a nod and ironic smile that said, Thank you, oh wise American. Balance has been restored. And then he’d turn and attend to his other tables.

We ate mahi mahi, calamari, Caesar salads, and steak sandwiches in sit-down restaurants, and our share of fish and chips, meat pies, spaghetti on toast, and buttered lettuce sandwiches in less formal, take-away establishments.  Our most surprising find was that every restaurant or café that we visited, no matter how small or isolated, had a commercial, barista-style coffee machine installed. There was the familiar hopper of black, oily-looking beans on top, and below it, an industrial strength machine that steamed, frothed, hissed, groaned and turned ground coffee into espresso and espresso-based drinks just like the ones on every big city street corner. Finding this in the outback was like discovering a bottle of wine and fruit basket waiting in your room at a Motel 6 – appreciated, but completely unexpected.  They were so ubiquitous that at any random café in the boonies of New South Wales, I could order a skinny vanilla, non-fat latte sprinkled with shade-grown nutmeg, and the barista behind the counter would only say, “What size?”

As it turns out, Australia and New Zealand have their own unique espresso specialties. My favorite is called a long black, made from a double shot of espresso added to hot water; it is like an Americano, but made so the espresso crema still floats on the surface. A variation is called a flat white which is served in a tea cup with steamed milk added on top, often swirled with artistic designs created at the whim of the resident barista. A simple, low-tech cup of drip coffee -- that is, boiling water poured over ground coffee beans -- was virtually impossible to find, and I didn’t have my first cup until I found it in Hungry Jacks (the Australian version of Burger King) at the Sydney Airport on the day we flew back to the U.S.

After finishing breakfast at the campsite, we consulted a map and began our search. Our method was a work in progress that became more refined as we became more successful. Not much rain had a fallen during the winter or spring, so, in general, so we had the best luck along the sides of roads where rainwater ran off and concentrated.

“Woo-hoo!” Lorrie shouted, after finding her first legume along the edge of the service road near our campground. Matt, our camp botanist-in-residence, identified it as one of the more than 85 species of Astragalus (pronounced like asparagus) that grow in Arizona. It was a struggling little tuft of gray-green leaves and no bigger than a fried egg. “I’ve got another one here,” Jeff called out from 50 feet ahead.

“And here are two more,” Lorrie said, not five minutes later.  “No, wait! There are two others right next to them.  Woo-hoo!” With five plants to her credit, she had raised the bar for the rest of us, so a friendly little competition developed. We kept our noses down and spread out, all vying to be the next to add to our total. I had yet to find my first, but I was willing to finish dead last if Lorrie would agree not to shout out that Homer Simpson woo-hoo every time she found a new one.

We used short rows of pebbles on the road to mark each plant that we found and then went back to collect a small percentage of mature pods, leaving enough for natural reproduction of the population. We placed the pods in small, manila-colored envelopes and labeled each collection with a unique identifying number, a GPS location, and the elevation. All together, we found 15 --

“Woo-hoo!”

Make that 16 Astragalus plants, about half of which had pods. We also collected herbarium specimens of several representative plants to take back to the lab for positive identification.

On Friday, we received a tip about the possibility of more Astragalus possibilities in an open desert area close to the front entrance.  For these we used a search method usually employed by law enforcement professionals. We spaced out evenly in a straight line, and walked forward slowly, step by step, leaving no square foot of ground un-scrutinized. Mark attended to policing the formation.

“Kim, you’re walking too fast,” he said, waving me back into position. “And Jeff, where are you going? Move over more towards Matt.”

This might be the best method to find a shallow grave, a murder weapon, or what Lorena Bobbit pitched out her car window, but it takes away from the spontaneity and the thrill of stumbling upon a really cool plant completely by accident. In other words, it isn’t any fun. When we began to complain, Mark relented. “Okay, but I am teaching you a valuable technique here.”

“And we’re sorry that we are unable to appreciate it,” we said.

We broke rank and struck out on our own, hoping to show Mark that haphazard wandering would prove more successful than military precision. But, of course, it didn’t, so we moved on to easier quarry: a legume called camel thorn, an exotic invasive from Eurasia that grows by the thousands in the park. It is a naturalized, out-of-control population that not only near grew in great quantities near the road, but also through the road, forcing its way through four inches of asphalt like a photosynthetic drill bit. Charming, it isn’t, but it is yet to be represented in the Desert Legume Program’s seed bank, so we collected seeds and made herbarium specimens from the few that were flowering.

Matt plans to key-out (identify) the Astragalus that we collected – a grueling taxonomic task because of the sheer number of look-a-like plants in this genus. With any luck, he’ll be done in time to verify the identity of Astragalus nutriosensis, aka Nutrioso milkvetch, a rare , species of concern whose seed we plan to target in the next adventure that is planned for late July. 

Kim Stone