Field Poetry

Scott Gilb, Moya Moses, Megan Quinn and Mia Brann collect data on vegetative cover in Arizona.

I’ve spent many hours deliberating the best ways to conjure up inspiration – listening to TED talks, reading inspirational books, or spending time in nature? My degree being in biology, I often gravitate toward the latter. Working as a field biologist would be a perfect job for me also as an aspiring writer, right? This summer, I soon realized that standing in ninety degree heat, being clawed at by the merciless shrub Robinia neomexicana, it was hard for me to think about anything other than the sparkling water waiting for me in the cooler.

At the end of our team’s first 10 hour day, consisting of staring at a PVC 1m x 1m quadrat and arguing if soil or vegetation made up 40% of the area, my brain was exhausted. I gulped down my sparkling water, the bubbles threatening to migrate up my nose.  Mia and Scott were swaying in their hammocks, engrossed in reading their books. Moya sat down next to me with his notebook in hand.

“Poetry contest? Like we talked about earlier?”

Internally, I groaned. I wanted nothing more than to eat and go to bed. Instead, I grabbed my notebook from the car. “Sure.”

Moya flipped to an open page. “Scott and Mia, you give us a prompt.”

Scott smiled and spoke up first. “Vacuums.”

I wish I knew where Scott got his inspiration from, because I needed some right now.

I pleaded for extra time, arguing that I didn’t work well under pressure. Scott started the timer, and next to me, Moya scribbled away. I stared at my blank sheet of paper. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to write something, and ideas turned into a poem.

Fifteen minutes was up, and I volunteered Moya to read first. “There’s never much dust, all the / surfaces are incredibly sticky…I pull, it’s 8:45 time to start the vacuuming / straight lines meet suction and I spiderweb across…floors of his mind / sweet dreams I mutter…”

When he’s done, I take a deep breath. “Chip crumbs / crack / knead into my bare feet…vacuum sucking / up the mess of my room / the mess of my life / a littered trail…the dirt will never vanish / it sparkles in the sun”

Applause by Scott and Mia greeted the reading of both Moya’s and my poems. They pointed out how Moya had taken a more figurative approach, while I had taken a more realistic approach. We’d both taken our unique perspectives on the world – I, coming from a background mostly in science, tended to take themes from the environment around me and tie them into a theme. Moya, on the other hand, had more training in sociology, and incorporated the abstract as a way to relate to himself and others in his writing. Complimentary, both these approaches provided a richer, fuller understanding of our prompt – vacuum cleaners.

My heart felt like it grew as Mia and Scott encouraged us. The inspiration was flowing.

Moya grinned. “More prompts.”


The Devil.



Raining Tortillas.

Each evening, we entertained the ponderosa forest surrounding our campsite with our emotion and laughter. And even though the days were long, the sun was hot, and the plant names were hard to remember, it was the comradery that made the days enjoyable. Scott was always examining a grass ligule, helping ID the grass that everyone else thought looked like all the other green grasses. Mia was always there to remind us of a plant name code we had forgotten. And at the end of the day Moya was always there with his pencil and lollipop in hand, ready to write.

Seeing the unique genius in each person was enough to inspire me to keep going, everyday.  

Making seedlings suffer

Meagan Owens, Alex Gibson, Jess Guzzo, Emily Luberto, Katrina Urrea, and Megan Wilkinson in the greenhouse measuring 2500 ponderosa pine seedlings.

Can we induce drought resistance in ponderosa pine seedlings in the greenhouse before outplanting them to the field? An amazing group of undergraduates (Meagan Owens, Alex Gibson, Jess Guzzo, Emily Luberto, Katrina Urrea, and Megan Wilkinson) worked hard in the greenhouse all year growing 2500 ponderosa pine seedlings and subjecting them to different propagation strategies. The motivation for this study was two-fold: there is a dire need to replant and restore ponderosa pine sites all over the southwest, but typical greenhouse propagation techniques produce seedlings that are unprepared to face the harsh/dry conditions in the field. The students tested alternative watering and fertilization strategies, which appeared to make the seedlings suffer: they grew smaller. However, they were actually more drought-resistant because they grew more roots! Stay tuned to see how they performed once we outplanted them in the field.

Grazed and confused

Dr. Souther traverses a rocky outcrop to collect seeds from a relict mesa in the Grand Canyon.

Is the legacy of grazing in the Southwest written in the DNA of plants? The introduction of large numbers of domesticated livestock by 1800s by European settlers is believed to have dramatically altered vegetative communities in the Southwest. Since few records proceeding the introduction of livestock exist, we know very little about how grazed shaped current southwestern landscapes. Relict mesas, inaccessible areas that have received little or no grazing, offer clues to what these arid and semiarid grasslands were like prior to European settlement. We visited several relict mesas in the Southwest to collect seed for trials looking at how grazing affects traits and trait expression in grassland plant species. Understanding differences between historically grazed and un-grazed plant populations may allow us to better understand how grazing changed plant communities and altered ecosystem function, in order to develop improve methodology to restore degraded rangelands.

Tag! You’re it!

Dr. Aslan poses with a tag used to mark individual beardless chinchweed plants. After collecting years of detailed demographic data, researchers will build models to determine beardless chinchweed’s extinction risk and identify threats to this species’ long-term persistence.

Are populations of beardless chinchweed going extinct? In 2021, beardless chinchweed (Pectis imberbis), a small plant in the daisy family, was listed as an Endangered Species. Now government agencies and researchers are trying to figure out how to rescue this species from extinction. Demographic models are a key tool to look at variation in population growth across the landscape to identify threats to species persistence. Importantly, demographic models can be built from data collected in a way that does not disturb the species. Researchers tag and follow plants through time, measuring them, assessing reproduction, and looking for signs of disease or stress on an annual basis. Results are pending, but initial findings indicate that Pectis imberbis has an interesting form of rarity, occurring infrequently across the landscape, but at high densities in suitable habitat. Moreover, grazing and drought may depress population growth. Researchers will continue visiting these beardless chinchweeds in order to support species recovery efforts.