This is a field of broomsedge.

In the last week, I made two day trips up to this field, which happens to be in Jay, Florida, about an hour north of our place in Navarre. The drive up to Milton is pretty in a way that I always assumed Florida could be, but hadn’t seen yet – quiet! Trees on the side of the road! Rivers meandering languidly through the forest! Milton itself, which you pass through before reaching Jay, is a cute historical town of brick buildings and character. I saw advertisements for a farmer’s market and cursed the 20 miles separating me from fresh vegetables.

Back to the broomsedge. It’s not actually a sedge, but rather a bluestem, a member of the Poaceae  family. It grows to about a meter tall, or sometimes even taller. It was historically used to make brooms, hence the name. Broomsedge grows well on poor soils and comes back quickly after burns, of which there are plenty on the Florida panhandle. This characteristic has made it invasive in Hawaii and weedy in California, but in the southeast, it’s right at home.

Imagine yourself in this large field of broomsedge, which has turned straw-colored. It’s early morning and the grass is bathed in the sun’s rays and framed by a few tall, green trees.

Now imagine yourself pulling up this broomsedge, one clump at a time. For hours. When you’re done, there will be a large empty spot in the field. If you look in one direction, the sun, now high in the sky, will be beating down on the yellowy stalks. In another will be the void you have created, with a large pile in the middle. Your back will ache, your fingers will be blistered, and you will be covered head-to-toe, even under your clothes, in a layer of black soil. You will look like you’re returning from a coal mine.

This is how our work trips were. I listened to NPR podcasts to pass the time and drifted off into my own little world, where all I focused on was pulling one handful of grass after another. I lost track of my boss and coworkers, and lost track of time. The hours seemed like an eternity and yet I was surprised when it was already time to eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We pulled up several truckloads of broomsedge and transported it back to the island, where we plant it in the sand.

After a morning spent inland, being back on the beach was a shock. A bright, reflective shock. The sand was so white it almost seemed sterile, while the ocean was an impossible shade of blue. The colors of this beach are some of my favorites, but the landscape seemed static after a morning spent in another ecosystem.

Today, I finished my 25th consecutive day of work. Only two of them were pulling broomsedge, but at least a dozen were planting it. Now, I am done with both tasks. We have a lot of work still ahead of us, but rearranging the distribution of one of the southeast’s characteristic plants won’t be part of it.

I have an entire week off as a thank-you for my work, and I’ll spend it in Atlanta, Georgia and Santa Rosa Beach, just down the panhandle. I can’t wait for a little R&R and a trip to see my wonderful grandparents.

Touring the Coast.

I always mean to blog more than I do, and now is no exception. While we haven’t had a full day off of work yet – this will take some creative accounting since our boss can’t afford to pay us overtime – we do get off at 3:30 p.m. every day since we start so early in the morning. I like our early mornings because they beat the heat, and as anyone who has ever seen me rollerski on a hot summer day can tell you, heat is not something I adapt to easily.

One thing that has taken up some extra time is the fact that I decided to work on a long article about the mess the Russian women’s biathlon team is in. It took a few days and you can read it here.

Another reason I haven’t written was that on Saturday, I was having too much fun.

We haven’t had a day off, but Saturday was close. Instead of doing fieldwork, we spent the morning taking a class on riding ATV’s. All-terrain vehicles are available for us to use to haul our gear from site to site, but we had to get certified to ride them first. Hence, the class. We spend several hours zipping around cones and over obstacles. The point was to learn how to ride safely, but it was a lot of fun, too. Not to mention the easiest hours of work we will ever have.

And after that, we were free for the afternoon. Jamie and I took full advantage of our brief window of freedom, and began by hitting up a tourist-trap shark museum and shell shop.

Did I catch this guy with my own two hands? Yes, absolutely, like every other tourist. And I’m about to make him into shark soup. It will be especially delicious because he’s made out of plastic.

Inside, there was a museum which actually was pretty cool. I had never seen an armadillo, which are supposedly vermin around here, but luckily there was one for me to examine so I’ll know what to look for.

Jamie’s favorite was the pufferfish. She tried to mimic the little guy, but it was kind of tough, not being full of spikes and all.

We ended up spending much too much time in the tourist trap shop, looking at shells and cheap plastic crap. I bought some postcards because I felt bad making the lady stay open when it turned out that she was waiting for a bathroom break, and Jamie bought a couple of shells for her hermit crab and some saltwater taffy which turned out to be not very good.

Our next stop was the fishing pier. The pier sticks 900 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico and on Saturday, it was packed with fishermen casting bait fish far out into the Gulf. We watched one lucky fisher land what seemed to me like a quite large fish, but most of the men and women seemed to be relaxing with their friends while they waited for a tug on the line. Two cute girls drove a golf cart up and down the pier selling concessions and cold beer from a cooler strapped on the back.

It was cool to be able to enjoy the beach just for the beach’s sake instead of worrying about getting to work on time or already being exhausted and sweaty. Plus, out on the pier the wind was gusting and gave us a respite from the sun. I hate doing touristy things, but this was just what the doctor ordered.

After touring Navarre Beach, driving through the picturesque nearby section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and checking out Gulf Breeze (boring), we finally finished up the trip with some snow cones. Snow cones are becoming our weekend tradition. After picking mango last weekend, this time I went with “hula girl”, a combination of polar punch (whatever that is, it’s blue) and kiwi. We were served by the aging proprietor of the stand, who was on hand, unusually, to help out his younger, entirely female crew. He had an impressively dry wit. We sat at a picnic table and savored our treats.

We ended the day with a glass of wine and a dip in the pool. All in all, pretty nice.

And now it’s back to the fieldwork grindstone – something our RV park neighbors never cease to comment on. “You girls are working all the time,” they say. True – but not all the time!



Working on the Beach (updated).

My exit from Craftsbury was abrupt, much more abrupt than I meant it to be. After looking for jobs for the month-and-a-half after I decided to leave the Green Racing Project, with little success, I had decided to move back in with my parents for the spring while I continued to search for employment.

Then, my life took a U-turn. On a Friday, I applied for a research technician job with the University of Florida. I was interviewed over the phone the next day and by Monday had a job offer. I had less than a week to tie up loose ends in Craftsbury and move out, and then I drove down to Florida.

(And for the haters: the 1998 4-Runner got 22 miles per gallon, on average, over the course of the more than 1,400 miles I drove. Not so bad.)

So here I am, working on the beach in Navarre, Florida, studying the Santa Rosa beach mouse.

Every day we leave our cars at the Navarre Beach State Park and walk fifteen minutes along the beach until we come to our first field site. At 7:15, it’s a beautiful walk: it’s still cool and breezy, the sun is still rising, and the morning light is soft and pink. I drink my Earl Grey as we stroll but the surroundings are more than enough to jolt me awake.

Work so far is pretty much manual labor, but then again, fieldwork often is. Theoretically, we are looking at the foraging behavior of beach mice. Practically, we spend eight hours each day planting experimental plots of broom sedge in the sand.

My boss is awesome – she served in the Peace Corps after college and her last batch of fieldwork was in Bolivia. I am lucky to be working for someone who is happy to discuss the particulars of the study with me, and to explain how she selected an experimental design and all the nuances of what we are doing.

That interaction and education always makes it worthwhile to provide the legwork on a study like this. I’m not treated like a nobody; I’m treated like someone who also has a stake in whether the research works out. As such, I’m privy to a lot of the details.

Plus, we have to talk about something while we’re planting all that broom sedge.

Another fun part of the job is that our free housing is in a FEMA trailer in a trailer park. It still has its official U.S. Government plates on it, leading our neighbors to joke that we work for the CIA. Nope. We’re just beach mouse workers, hoping not to suffer from the formaldehyde that supposedly plagues these trailers. We spend a lot of time sitting at our picnic table outside.

So: it’s a pretty drastic change from New England. Exactly a week ago, I was skiing with Jennie Brentrup at Oak Hill. Now I’m watching people waterski as I work. Wow.