Northwest autumn.

Look at this sky. This is how moody the Northwest is in the fall.

On Wednesday I left after my Norwegian class and began the drive up to Washington. As is the case more and more often now, I was traveling solo, leaving the postdocs on campus with their spreadsheets and paper revisions. As I drove north I crossed through bands of drizzle and lashing rain; every time I passed through a small patch of sunshine I would hope that it might be sunny at our field site, and then immediately acknowledge to myself that this was a ridiculous thing to hope for. No way would it be nice, and I might as well not set myself up for disappointment.

When I arrived at Tenalquot Prairie, though, it was actually sunny. I was confused. This was impossible. I quickly set my tent up – yes, I was here for two days – and got to work. First I took the NDVI in all the plots. That’s the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or basically a fancy way of shooting light down at the ground and assessing the “greenness” based on how much light comes back at you. It’s most frequently used in remote sensing from a space platform, but also in agriculture and, I’m discovering, ecology. I held the instrument at hip height and let it do its thing. At least I’d have the fancy equipment all packed up and dry in the car if it started raining, I thought.

And after I had moved on to weeding the no-competition zones of our plots for about twenty minutes, by golly if the rain didn’t appear. I pulled on my rainpants, zipped up my raincoat, and steeled myself for a completely miserable two days.

It was cold. It was wet. My gloves, which I needed to get a better grip on the plants I was yanking out of the ground, had the effect of just turning my fingers numb. I couldn’t work as fast in the rain, either – the plants were more slippery and I also was thinking about how I moved so that I wouldn’t end up with a river of water running down my back or something like that.

I worked until it was too dark to see the plants. I had originally planned to keep working after dark with a headlamp, but by this point there was no way I was going to keep working in the rain. I fired up my electric kettle – yes, our plots have electricity in them – and, I’m ashamed to say, crawled in the car. I turned the heat on and ate my cup noodles (I felt like a college student, and I promise I never eat that crap when I’m at home with a kitchen) and stared out at the rain.

At some point I had to make the dash to my tent with my sleeping bag, and I was not psyched to venture out into the rain. But the car was packed full and tiny to boot, and I had a little too much dignity to sleep in the back. So dash I did. With my rain fly on my tent stayed pretty dry, but even when you aren’t actually wet knowing that the rain is right outside never makes for a fun night of camping. I might have felt a little sorry for myself.

I fully expected to rain for the whole of my second day, too, but when I woke up in the morning I couldn’t hear any raindrops. I peeked out the tent and saw a beautiful sight.

The rain had stopped and just a few cotton candy clouds dotted the sky. Literally, I could not have been more happy.

The good weather enabled me to have a solid second day of work and I got more done than I had expected. I could almost forget how grumpy I had been the night before! As I learned when I got home, this is what differentiates fall from winter in Oregon. When it rains, it’s just as cold as it is in the winter, and just as miserable; but in the fall, you still get a few sunny days, some brief respite from the soggy chill.

I guess I’d better enjoy them while they last.

Washington sunsets.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning, cooked up some oatmeal, and threw it in a tupperware container before climbing in the car at 5:30 with my coworkers to drive up to Washington.

One of our three field sites is between Tenino and Rainier, and we go up there once every week or two. Sometimes, we bring as many people as we can find and try to get all of our fieldwork done in one day. It’s a long day, but when we get back at 8 or 9 p.m. we can crawl into our own beds and recuperate.

Other times, though, people or busy or there is simply too much work. And so Tim, Sean and I brought our camping gear and prepared ourselves for a night in the field.

Wednesday was hot and as we worked we became quieter and quieter, trying to minimize our energy and to not take our discomfort out on each other. We clipped biomass and measured plant after plant. At about four in the afternoon – after we’d been on the clock for almost eleven hours – Sean and I discovered that we had made a big mistake and had to try to fix it as we measured our next cohort of plants. It took some intense focus and reorganizing our brains. Then we discovered that the correction we had made was the opposite of the one we should have made. Start over again. We knew we each had only a few plants left to measure but my brainpower and patience was seriously fading. When we finished that cohort, we were done for the day, unable to imagine checking the basal area of even one more Microseris laciniata.

Luckily, by then it was cooling down. We headed into town and Sean bought some bread and peanut butter at the grocery store while Tim picked up takeout Chinese. We drove to a state park and ate our dinners at a mossy picnic table amidst the tall, quiet trees overlooking a deep lake. Ah. Peace and quiet. And shade.

When we got back to the site and each cracked open a beer, the temperature was quite manageable. I even put on a sweater when I headed out into the prairie of the Nature Conservancy preserve. It was a beautiful evening and I was in a beautiful place, and most excitingly, my 12-hour workday was over.

When I got back to the site, Sean asked whether I had seen Mount Rainier.

“No,” I replied. “The trees were in the way.”

He implied that I simply hadn’t walked far enough “around the corner” and so we headed off together, me insisting that the corner did not exist and we couldn’t see the giant mountain, and Sean protesting that I was wrong.

We never did find the mountain, which we only saw on the road driving to the site. But we did get to revel in dusky savannah, which was enough. The moon rose and the cows stopped lowing. We headed back to the sites, where we still had work to do that night, under the cover of darkness and in the absence of the daytime wind.

Thursday dawned foggy and cold. The sun came out at about 2:30. We were tired from working the night before and knew there was no way we were going to make it through all of the plants we were supposed to measure. Even a trip to the Giddyup Coffee Corral in Tenino, where I very uncharacteristically bought an espresso drink called a “nutty pony” (it was delicious) couldn’t change the fact that we were going to leave five cohorts of unmeasured plants for the next trip. While Tim mowed around the site with the push mower, Sean and I dictated measurements to each other. Plot 38. Nail B7. Pink Pin. Two leaves. Basal area 27 x 14 mm. Unassisted height 54 mm. Longest leaf 87 x 2 mm. No flowers. 30 mm SW of the nail. Repeat.

By the time we were driving home we were cranky and sick of each other. To make matters worse, we got stuck in Portland traffic. When I arrived back on Grant Street at 7:30 that night, I couldn’t be more relieved to have the house to myself and to take a shower. But even though work had been hard and it was unsatisfying not to check more tasks off of our list, I still had the memories – and pictures – of a beautiful night on the prairie, so the trip was worthwhile anyway.