Saturday, June 30, 2012

AW#47 -- Field Notes

This month’s Accretionary Wedge is being hosted by Jennifer at Fuzzy Science, and the topic is Field Notes.  Now that’s a broad one! ... I’ve been waiting to see what came to mind.  It finally appeared just in time for the deadline today, June 31.  These are botany field notes, perhaps at first glance not appropriate for the geoblogosphere, but they are notes about a plant that grows in rock ... and not just any rock.  And like all field books, when we peruse them we can visit the past, and sometimes even meet the early explorers and share in their discoveries.

The page above is from an early field book of Aven Nelson, Founding Father of Wyoming Botany.  The University of Wyoming Library currently is scanning all his field books, and soon they will be available online.
Nelson was hired by the University in 1887 as Professor of English.  It was only after all six of the faculty had arrived at the new university that the president discovered he had inadvertently hired two English professors.  Nelson had attended six botany lectures as an education student, and so was made Professor of Biology.  He went on to make many pioneering contributions in botany in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountains, and was an inspirational teacher, with many of his students becoming prominent botanists themselves.
Nelson's collecting areas in 1894 and 1895 (click to view).
Laramie columbine;
by Isobel Nichols.

In 1895, Nelson was in the midst of a “systematic survey” of the Wyoming flora, devoting his summers to expeditions by horseback across the state.  On August 4, he was hiking up a canyon in the rugged Laramie Mountains of southeast Wyoming when he discovered a small columbine growing in granite on the east side of Laramie Peak.  In his final report the next year, he described Aquilegia laramiensis, the Laramie columbine, one of the earliest of his many botanical discoveries.

[Fast-forward ca 110 years ...]
Field botanists collect a lot more information now than in the good-old-days (click to view), but of course we don't have to travel by horseback and care for our trusty steeds (until they break down).
In 2003, the Laramie columbine still was known from only a few locations, all in the Laramie Mountains, most on lands managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.  Off and on over the next six years, we worked for these agencies to inventory and prepare a status report on the apparently-rare Laramie columbine.  It was a tough job, but the scenery was fantastic, and I was awestruck whenever I found elegant little columbines growing in nooks and crannies of rugged granite outcrops.
In keeping with its name, the Laramie columbine grows only in the Laramie Mountains of southeast Wyoming.  It remains a rare plant even after extensive survey, though it is fairly common within its rugged and tough-to-access habitat.  It grows mainly in Archean granite outcrops, but also in metamorphic rocks from early Proterozoic accretionary events. The columbines are restricted to well-shaded sparsely-vegetated microsites, and looking for them is a bit like hunting for easter-eggs ... chocolate easter-eggs that is, i.e. well worth the effort!
I had a personal reason to be excited about this project, for I had "met" Aven Nelson during my first encounter with Wyoming botany.  As a budding botanist and seasonal ranger at Devils Tower National Monument many years ago, I was curating the herbarium and came across plant specimens collected by George W. Giles in a project for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the early 1930s.  In his field notes, I could feel and empathize with the enthusiasm of a young botanist.  I read correspondence regarding the specimens he had prepared and sent to Professor Aven Nelson at the University of Wyoming, the leading expert on the region's flora.  And now here I was, following in the great professor's footsteps in the rugged Laramie Mountains.
Aven Nelson in the field, from UW archives.
For more on Aven Nelson, the Laramie columbine and the northern Laramie Mountains, see Plants and Rocks: columbines and granite.

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