TCJ – 04: Autumn Arrives

The Chicagoland Journals

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The biomass collection has begun! Mary-Claire, the research assistant in charge of the prairie restoration project, had her last week before going on maternity leave, so I assisted her in the prairie on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Due to pretty heavy rain on Wednesday, I made use of my time by arranging our backlog of biomass that was in the cooler and then weighing the biomass that had been dried in the ovens since Monday. Whilst I sorted the chilled plants, four of our volunteers finished weighing the paper bags we use to collect the biomass – I had spent two afternoons doing this, yet the volunteers managed to get all the remaining bags measured in just one morning!

After the initial collecting on Monday, we realised a few issues. Primarily, that we needed even smaller bags for some of the species, as there was hardly any above ground biomass remaining. This was resolved by Wednesday, when Mary-Claire acquired some new and tinier bags. Another issue encountered was that the leaf litter in the plots with fifteen different species was difficult to ID to species and would’ve taken more time than we had available. We settled on collecting all this detritus into a separate bag to be included in the total biomass of the plot.

IMG_20171014_095905.jpgOn Friday, I took another trip to Macomb to see my “friend from Edge Hill, who is actually from Illinois,” Molly. She had many things to show me, her home in “The Boonies,” The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive, and Wildlife Prairie Park.

A friend of mine in secondary school used to joke about me living in the middle of nowhere because I lived just outside a small village. We only lived 20 miles apart. Being driven through Illinois, just one state in the US, really gave me a sense of perspective. Although most food along the drive wasn’t vegan, I did manage to eat an obscene amount of popcorn and a delicious apple cider slushie. I also had a “lemon shake-up” a still, sugary lemon drink. Still on my American Bucket List is trying American lemonade, which is different from the lemonade back across the bond that is synonymous with Sprite or 7-Up. After driving back to Molly’s home, we cooked up some funnel cake made with soy milk, which was enough to induce a food coma combined with everything else from that morning.

IMG_20171014_182731.jpgThat night, after driving back up to Western Illinois University, strong enough winds occurred to warrant a tornado warning. We were just on the eastern edge of the stormy area, with more severe weather expected to our west. Still, just seeing the rain fall nearly horizontal outside the window was incredible – although I was happy to be inside.

The weather cleared up for the following day, although it was still fairly windy at times. Molly and I headed down to Wildlife Prairie Park, a zoological park home to many native animals of the Illinois area – most of which seemed to be rescued after a serious injury or taken in after being kept as illegal pets. What was also nice to see was a historical section in the visitor centre, detailing the history of the area, and how Peoria got its name (it’s named after the Peoria tribe). Before returning to Macomb station, we visited what must’ve been the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen in my life. A Barnes and Nobles that according to Yelp reviewer Colleen is only “average-sized.” I guess most things really are just bigger in America.

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TCJ – 03: Fieldwork Firsts

The Chicagoland Journals

Time for the Prairie Rundown: Last week started with my first (and then second) day in the field alone – I cycled down to the prairie in the morning, set up the sprinklers, and weeded. I repeated this on Tuesday, except the watering was taken care of by the weather, leaving me with a rather wet bike and not a whole lot of time to weed (lesson learnt about trusting the weather forecast). Wednesday was another rainy day, but not enough to keep me and the others from weeding, it was merely spitting until around 10am. Thursday saw me take charge in the field, leading two volunteers – this wasn’t as hard as I’d expected, I suppose that over the course of these two-three weeks I’ve come to understand the project and the imminent plans for it. On Friday, I began weighing the paper bags that we’ll be using to collect the biomass in – soon, we’re going to collect a portion of each plot, separated by species for the mixed plots, and dry the plant matter in an oven, this dry biomass will then be weighed to determine its productivity this growing season.

In “un-prairelated” news (apologies for the pun), last Monday’s Tree Talk was presented by Christina Carrero on the importance of building a community around arboreta, and how the Morton Arboretum’s ArbNet helps do just that. It was a very enjoyable lecture highlighting how important communication is to maximise our conservation efforts.

A surprising event unfurled on Tuesday – due to a mix-up when I arrived, I was in the wrong housing for the first two weeks! Meaning that when my third week rolled around, I had to be moved from one house to another. I am now in the house I was originally meant to be in, and although smaller, I think I prefer it (the WiFi signal is stronger here).

TCJ - 03Also, this week was another lab meeting, this time focussed on the book that we have been reading: Improbable Destinies by Jonathan B. Losos. The intro and chapter one really sold the book to me, some very interesting points were made about convergent evolution and the nature of adaptation.

Friday also saw me start work in the lab… sort of! I was taken on a safety tour, then helped rearrange some vials from the freezer. Still, it was good to see the lab properly and spend some time there helping out. Next week we’re looking to start biomass collection if the weather permits and pretty soon I’ll be taking over in the field as Mary-Claire, the project leader goes on maternity leave. Exciting times ahead!

TCJ – 02: More Of Illinois

The Chicagoland Journals:

I’ve been in the US for just over two weeks and when I think about it, I’ve packed a fair bit into that time – lots of new experiences. One such experience was my first visit to The Field Museum of Natural History! After walking through the city, alongside the huge mass of water that is Lake Michigan, I received my own lanyard and ID, along with a set of keys for the Arboretums office space. It’s official. I’m a research affiliate at one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with roughly 30 million specimens! As I walked the corridors behind the scenes of the public museum, the sheer number of resources available began to sink in. Admittedly, I got lost walking back to the office.

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“Sue,” the largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

During the rest of the weekday mornings, I was back out in the prairie doing the necessary work of weeding plots that had seen undesirable species encroach, as well as sowing some eco-grass along the walkways to held guard off against the more nasty weeds and to prevent soil erosion. Wednesday and Thursday afternoon held a training session on R and a lunchtime meeting. The R training lecture was largely things I already knew, however, there were a couple of techniques which I was unfamiliar with. Also, different ways to achieve the same results – just goes to show how people have their own solutions to situations. The lunch meeting was helpful in further orienting me with the work being completed at the Arboretum and who by. Listening to people talk about their research is a wonderful thing, and I’m very excited to help out with more projects, specifically the work relating to the hybridisation of the Quercus genus. Another fun thing we established that meeting was the book that we’re going to read, hopefully before Christmas. I’ve read the introduction already, and if the rest is anything like it then I think I can say that I will enjoy it.

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“Root beer,” a non-alcoholic soft drink.

I read the introduction on the train, Friday night, as I was going to Macomb to see my friend, Molly, who was studying abroad at Edge Hill last year. Fortune has it that she lives in the same state that I am currently working in, so it’s almost easy to meet up! The time it takes me to get the train over to see her, across half the state, is roughly the amount of time it takes me to travel from my hometown to my university – that’s roughly half the country. Since I arrived quite late, we had a meal, went shopping, and then hit the hay. But not before I tried both root beer, and spiced apple cider (both non-alcoholic, despite their names) for the first time. The cider was truly delicious, especially when warm.

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Myself (left) and Molly (right).

Another reason for visiting Molly when I did, was that is was her homecoming. Along with trying various soft drinks, going to the homecoming parade and football game were valuable entries on my American Bucket List. Although I’m not all too familiar with the rules of American football, it was fun to watch, especially for the halftime show – the band sounded wonderful and the baton twirling was a sight to behold as well. Molly had even altered a bear mascot head to represent Rocky, the bulldog mascot of Western Illinois University.

I finished off that busy week with walking three and a half miles to the shops, bumping into an exceedingly complimentary man whilst waiting for my Uber back to the arboretum. Once again, I have to wonder if the next week will be quite as packed with activities as these first two.