The Gazing House–Research at the Reserve (essay)

“Now, what shall we call this new sort of gazing-house that has opened in our town where people sit quietly and pour out their glancing like light, like answering?”

–Rumi, 13th c., excerpt from poem “No Room for Form” from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.

 

I feel like I’m on the moon. This vast green space is punctuated by white PVC pipes jutting up from flat plots like receptor signals for alien life. The interns look dwarfed as they crouch over plants, and there’s a humming of purpose. No, wait, that is actual humming, from wind on metal fences surrounding the plots.

Climate change, biodiversity, and the impact of increased CO2 and nitrogen on ecosystems are some of the processes being researched in these plots, and they need educators Mary Spivey and Caiti Langer to interpret them for us. Over the time I’ve been at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, they talked with many groups including master naturalists, a class of local high school students, a birding group, and 80 seventh graders who arrived from Minneapolis in yellow school buses.

The Biodiversity Experiment

Scientist ‐ Dr. Dave Tilman

Research question: How does plant biodiversity affect plant productivity?

“In this plot two species are planted—purple prairie clover and little bluestem.” Mary motions to an area of plants making up a square the size of a modest living room. “And in this plot over there are eight species. Both plots are given no water or fertilizer. They receive rain and sun and what the plants themselves give to the soil. What do you notice?”

I feel the panic some of my students register when I ask them an open-ended question. The plants in the two-species plot struggle against the wind in dry, sandy soil. The clover and bluestem look like child soldiers. It is hard to find words that don’t anthropomorphize and I want to because I am in the domain of science and quantitative analysis. “They look forlorn. Not thriving.”

In the eight-species plot the purple lupine blooms are lovely amidst the pleasing contrasts of green textures of leaves at differing heights. The plants exude a thrumming vitality, nestled together in the dark soil. If Professor Dave Tilman’s research project was shot for a Hollywood movie the two-species plot would be filmed with an ominous sound track of the beating of tympanies, and the eight-species plot would have a score of spirited harmonies played on stringed instruments.

“In the early ‘80s people were interested in ecological diversity,” Mary says, “but Dave Tilman was the first scientist to test the hypothesis that the interplay of species would yield a stronger community of plants. His study began in 1995 and he chose productivity as the indicator. Tilman’s work shows that plants growing in more diverse plots produce more biomass (plant matter, both above and below ground.) In other words, plant productivity increases as plant diversity increases. This was the initial groundbreaking result. Further research supports the idea that increased plant diversity also increases community “stability”, but there is debate on what stability really means. His initial finding is the big “aha” moment. These findings and those since vaulted Dave Tilman to a level of global recognition. His work is featured in many college biology texts, and he is the most cited ecologist of the past decade.”

I feel like a plant, working hard to absorb and synthesize this information, which, for a writer, is a kind of nutrient. The term biodiversity first surfaced for me during the late ‘80s when I was coordinating an environmental community group in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon. The ecologist that worked with our watershed group was walking with us through a clear-cut that had been planted repeatedly with two species–Douglas fir and white pine. The sun beat down on the saplings that were struggling in the dry rocky soils, and against the voracious appetites of gophers. We left the plantation and entered the dark coolness of an adjacent old growth forest of pines, cedars, and firs. In the past when the ecologist and others would explain the mutually beneficial relationships that inform a natural community, they would use a phrase like ecological diversity, but this time he said “biodiversity.” The new term was a marble I rolled on my tongue, and it will forever be connected to harsh sunlight on a clear-cut-turned- tree farm juxtaposed with the dappled coolness of an ancient forest.

And now I’m standing with Mary and Caiti looking at plots where the seminal research for biodiversity began. There’s something immensely satisfying about being at the origin of things. So much of our lived experience is sheered off and occurs leagues away from the source.

The eight-species plot reminds me of the community my colleagues and I try to cultivate in our classes at the U of M. There is the obvious racial diversity that the Somali, African American, Indian, Native American, Hispanic, Hmong, and other Asian students bring, as well as the other kinds of rich diversity that abounds in all the students. This community occurs when students can bring in their lived experience and knowledge and desire to learn and work together. The community extends beyond the classroom.

When I look at my students I see their ancestors and their children’s children, because my own relatives and my young daughters’ potential offspring hover near. My Romanian grandmother left her country village when she was ten to cross the ocean to come to America, where she endured a hard arranged marriage, birthed six children in her home, and worked long hours at a meat packing plant. I do not lose sight of the wonder that, one generation removed, I find myself raising two children in relative comfort while teaching at a university, and I work with the hope that my contribution will help my children’s children’s generations thrive as well.

I am learning with my students at this brief moment in the river of their living. Our experiences together are like ropes flung backwards and forwards, tossed across the chasm of time. The students are at once distinct beings, and they are also all who came before and who will follow. Walt Whitman wrote, “Past and future are not disjoined but joined.” And in Abe Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he said of the previous generations, “In spirit, all of them come down to all of us, in a connection that, out of love, we cannot betray.”

I return to the present moment at the sound of Mary and Caiti laughing. We have walked over to the next research project where they are talking about the lupine seeds popping, what Mary refers to as “the great dispersal.” In the heat of summer, the lining of the black pods peels back and the seeds launch–pop, pop, pop. Mary says, “I remember the first time when I was giving a talk to a group of teachers and a woman goes, “Oh, I just got hit in the eye by something.” Caiti adds, “I’m lying down on the ladder which is suspended over the plants, checking on them and then pop, in the face.”

I watch the interns moving among the rows of plants. They have backed up a car and cranked up the tunes. The sun beats down and flies buzz about me.

BioCON

Bio = biodiversity

CO = carbon dioxide

N = nitrogen

Scientist – Dr. Peter Reich

Research question: How do these three variables interact to influence plant productivity?

“The plots we are looking at are part of the research project, BioCON,” Caiti explains. “If plant diversity is decreasing on a global scale, and atmospheric carbon dioxide and global nitrogen are increasing, how will these three factors affect Planet Earth?” Dr. Peter Reich, professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Resource Sciences at the UMN has been studying this question since 1997.

It is dramatic, the difference in size of the plants that are exposed to CO2, nitrogen, and most especially both. They are visibly bigger. Think Climate Change. Earth’s warming has a ripple effect on species and systems all along the life cycle of beings.

As I move along these plots, I am aware of my mind trying to absorb scientific information while my gaze is taking in the interns, who are the worker bees of the Reserve’s hives. During my residency, whenever I talk with the interns, they are articulate and informed about the projects they are working on, and aware of the big picture. And they’re having a good time together.

When I stopped in to ask Kally Worm, project coordinator of BioCON, about the 14 interns she oversees, she agreed. “They realize the magnitude of what it takes to conduct research. You read the academic articles in science journals and go, okay, but the amount of work involved in weeding, measuring, and calculating is immense.” Kally, who was an intern before she became a project coordinator, smiles and says, “Yes it’s hard to weed for 8 hours a day, but they’re listening to music and having fun.”

The scientists conceive of the ideas, find funding, set the projects in motion, choose good coordinators and interns, and work with them. It is fitting that the young interns are tending the plots day to day. The land will be theirs to inherit.

Wildlife & Biofuels Project

Scientist – Dr. Clarence Lehman

Research question: How does removing prairie biomass for use as biofuels affect the prairie and its animal populations?

I retreat from the hot buggy research plots to the air-conditioned center of Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Mary steers me to a white lit room full of interns peering into microscopes, using tweezers to tease out insects from small mounds of prairie grasses delivered in zip-lock bags from Morris, Windom and Crookston. Colleen Satyshur, director of the biofuels research project, looks up from her microscope and pauses to initiate me into conceiving of prairie grasses as a potential biofuel, then help me connect the intricate labors of the interns with the research question, how does removing prairie biomass for use as biofuels affect prairie productivity and animal populations?

Prairie Grass as a biofuel. My mind is a grasshopper, using its mental mandibles to chew on this concept. Readers, can we agree that we need other alternatives to the “alternative” fuels? The future is arriving degree by temperature degree, species lost by species gained, tillable ground turned desert or receding shoreline.

These research projects make the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve a kind of ark navigating the choppy waters of these dynamic shifts. The research is informed by a deep specificity of knowledge combined with an element of experimentation. The scientists have years of training and the tribal memory of those who conceived ideas and then implemented them, from Lindeman on, determining how energy moves through a system, be it an ecosystem, plant, animal, soil, and water. Because the reserve is grounded in the past, it is a gazing house for the future.

Bur Oak

(A kind of oak tree, and also the name of the house that field researchers and this artist stayed at while visiting Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve)

Artist – Linda Buturian

Research question: How do you get lost while on residence and relate it to your research?

I got lost on a bike ride while I was on residence. I was staying at Bur Oak, an old rambler, about a mile from the main offices. I was fortunate to have Bur Oak to myself as there were no field researchers staying there. Remember that hot, humid week? The temperature was 95 degrees, the Dew point about 83%, and after a long day of fending off the weather, I gave in.

7:15 p.m. I put on my helmet and back my bike out of the house and when the heat hit me I feel I am in the scene from the Kirasowa film where the old Japanese couple are fighting against a tsunami wind. I am soaked before I take the first turn off the busy main road. From previous bike rides I had a memory map of the nearby area, but I am caught up in being the only person out on this sweltering evening, and I ride fast as I gaze at the new suburban houses, the sweep of lawns interspersed with remnant clusters of pines and oaks. I am imagining what an alien would state in her report on earthlings. People clear land and erect large domiciles and plant lawns in rectangle quadrants, which they use loud machines and poisons to control. People post replicas of deer and bear and tiny men in pointed hats, perhaps to declare their allegiance to the same deity that requires lawns.

And I am also feeling young again, peddling my bike in humidity much like Ohio’s where I grew up riding no-handed while I strummed my tennis racket, with neon green balls wedged in my wheel spokes, and the cicadas buzzing, and I am — lost.

Those cul de sacs start to look the same. I pull out my phone to plug in coordinates for directions only to realize I don’t know my street name, and the GPS has never heard of Bur Oak. I type in Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and apparently Google has not kept up with sprawl as I ride up to non-existent streets and get lost in new and different ways.

8:45. I brought no water and no one knows where I am. I pedal past a deeply tan man smoking in front of his clipped lawn, his two German shepherds pacing the black tar drive. As the light drains from the sky, I pass him a third time, and he nods as if expecting me.

 

I pedal through two townships. I remember real thirst. And no matter where I turn, I am always circling the gated acreage of Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. I see gate numbers 1, 7, 11, 13, 21, 22, 23–oak savannah, woods, burned-over lands, marshlands, creeks. I feel a surge of hope when I recognize the gated section that Chickadee Jim and I walked in, and where I spotted my first redheaded woodpecker, only to pass it two times more. One of my initial goals for my residency was to scout the Reserve’s perimeter of its 5, 490 acres of land, but this is absurd.

9:00. I pedal on blindly and spit out a bug as I am visited by Time Past. Glaciers moving implacably, mixing it up with weather and geological systems, creating three natural biomes here (prairie, northern boreal forest, and sand plain). Settlers moving in, displacing established societies of Native American tribes. Farmers toiling on sandy Anoka Plains hit by the depression and relentless heat. Women with a passion for wildflowers and a middle eye for seeing the future, married to university professors, purchasing acreage here and there, working to create the reserve. The early scientists, Lindeman and his wife Eleanor, paddling their boat in the bog, and walking through the prairie and woods, taking measurements, using their academic knowledge to track energy moving through a place, conceiving theories then applying them on the ground. Decades moving forward filled with scientists navigating the funding wills of the powerful and attempting to stay true to what they measure, see, and understand.

I pedal on in the dusk, now circling Fish Lake on my left. The heat, humidity, and thirst deepen my hallucinogenic state and I wipe the sweat off my upper lip when Time Future pays a visit. Highway 65 corridor welcomes the train and becomes the new vector for sprawl; accommodates septic needs, which spawns commercial and light industrial, all a half mile from Cedar Creek, which feeds into the Rum River, which feeds into the Mississippi, which feeds us. Climate change pushes the northern boreal forest further north until it slips over the border leaving us with two biomes and drought conditions. And the surreal becomes real when the Great Lakes are siphoned off to the highest bidder. The future reveals that Cedar Creek Ecosystem Reserve, which seems vast at the moment, is a remnant. What Time Future does not reveal is whether the people of the future agree, and what they choose to do.

9:15. I have no lights, I am scared, and profoundly turned around. Out of the dusk a couple roars up on a four-wheeler and nod as they cast their lines into the lake. I can just make out their bobbers settling on the silver water. The man and woman seem so human, and I feel alien or like the Elephant Man, made grotesque by my febrile brain overheating in my helmet. Part of me wants to fling myself on their four-wheeler and ask directions, but I am aware of being the first resident artist of the Reserve, and I don’t want the locals’ impression to be of a delirious woman who doesn’t know where she lives. I nod and pedal on in the falling dark, awash with heat, fear, and the life of the mind.

The yellow sign alerting drivers of bicycles casts a faint glow, and then over a rise, tucked back in the trees, I spot the lights of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve center and the dorm cabins where the interns reside. The lights seem to wink at me. From the headquarters of the Reserve it is a straight shot down the road to Bur Oak. I pull over when cars roar by, and I am now beyond thirsty and hot, but I pedal on in the darkness, buoyed by the euphoria of being found, just in time.

All Rights Reserved 2011 Linda Buturian

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