The Colgate Scene
November 2001

The branch office

Pop quiz: Imagine being an undergraduate flipping through the introduction in your ecology textbook and you spot a picture of a woman suspended within the Costa Rican canopy, examining plants growing on a tree trunk. What do you do? Depending on your personality, there is more than one right answer, but mine was to say, "I want to do that!"

Thus began the process that led to a summer of fantastic people, places and extremely positive vibes while working on a canopy-research field crew in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State.

Reading about her research in National Geographic during a plant evolution class two springs ago planted the seed (no pun intended) for what was to come, but I never expected that Nalini Nadkarni's picture would show up when it did and catalyze my journey to the Pacific Northwest. So, after corresponding about my experience in arboriculture and biology, and recognizing my extreme interest in applying it to her current canopy project, Dr. Nadkarni invited me to learn by contributing.

Actually making the crossing from Pennsylvania to Washington would have been a feat if it weren't for my flight being delayed three hours by a storm in the midwest. In retrospect, this delay was the first in a series of serendipitous events that would occur throughout the summer. Several hours after climbing at Seattle's REI and passing with the local juggling club, I found myself at my supervisor's home in a small Douglas fir grove in Olympia. My reeducation began two days later when I ascended one of these young conifers with techniques and equipment I'd only used on rocks before.

Enter Matt Dunlap, a Tao-minded skateboarder, surfer and arborist working in Nadkarni's lab at Evergreen State College. We talked about everything from branch-lowering systems to longboards as we hauled the climbing rope over a Douglas fir branch, clipped mechanical ascenders to the rope and inch-wormed our way up into the tree's crown. This arboreal ascent was unlike any I had made previously, in that it optimized body mechanics (thanks to Petzl's great hardware) to yield a fast run to the treetop anchor. Technical aspects aside, this experience instilled in me an impenetrable wonder and put a smile on my face that has yet to fade. And that was only my first day on the job.

During the next three weeks, and through the intellectual synergy of the fieldcrew, I began to wrap my mind around the complexity of the study in which we were engaged. The hypothesis was that as a stand of trees ages, its canopy becomes more structurally complex and causes it to absorb more light and water. Simple enough, right? But to quantify each of these factors was the challenge. Although some tedium and some statistics were involved, no psyches were permanently damaged in this study. Along straight-line transects in several stands, we conducted ground vegetation surveys; determined light attenuation with computer-analyzed digital photographs of the understory; measured water throughfall with randomly placed two-liter soda bottles; and collected canopy structural data, my personal favorite, from within trees.

I can barely articulate the sensory impact of stepping into our Ohanapecosh site in the southeastern corner of Mt. Rainier National Park for the first time. It won't be considered old-growth forest for a few hundred years, but still, there were logs nearly the length of a suburban block scattered within one of the most luscious and serene environments I have ever witnessed. Seeing Bambi wouldn't have been a surprise, but I continue to be awed by the half-Rambo-half-Robin Hood spectacle that is the means of ground-level access to tall tree crowns.

With compound bows drawn, Bob Van Pelt (U. of Washington postdoc) and Steve Sillett (Humboldt State College faculty) fired fiberglass arrows trailing fishing line over branches in trees selected for mapping. Watch the Wild California IMAX film if you don't believe me. After a well-placed shot, a light nylon line was tied to the fishing line, hauled over the branch, and a climbing rope was then tied on and pulled into place. With one end of the rope fixed at ground level, a lead climber would ascend to the branch where the rope was hung and free-climb as high as possible to reset the rope in a pulley. Using both ends of the rope in addition to arborist lanyards, a pair of climbers could sample and record an exhaustive data set on their tree. Subsequent analysis of these data by multiple-linear regression revealed several interesting correlations, and also suggested questions for future studies.

Rock climbers know about exposure, but pulling a measuring tape up from the ground and tiptoeing on the smallest branches of these evergreen spires to measure total tree heights added a new dimension to the concept. The giddy sensation of tree surfing, riding the waves of air that course through the highest foliage, becomes an even greater experience when the ground below is fully obscured by the undulating and irregular surface of the upper canopy (a la the Beatles' trip through the Sea of Green). Now, if I haven't convinced you of the fantastic intersection between work and play that comprises canopy research, imagine going on a "big tree" hunt in the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula.

While Bob (a.k.a. Lorax) and Steve have measured Coastal Redwoods more than 300 feet tall, 20 feet in diameter and more than 35,000 cubic feet in wood volume, they settled for the more pedestrian Douglas fir giants of Quinalt National Park. Upon instructions not to poach-climb or disclose the location of these trees, I'll just say that a small group of us hiked to two monolithic specimens (Windigo and Rex) to calibrate our eyes for diameter, height and volume, and set out in search of a specimen that would compete with these record-setting trees. After measuring several individuals with nine- ten- and 11-foot diameter trunks and testing our directional senses, we returned to Windigo and fixed a rope in its previously established rigging.

Steve went up first to secure the second climbing path and I clipped in after hiking out to pick up my gear and barely finding my way back. My whole body dwarfed by this tree's immense height and 13-foot girth, I clipped a measuring tape onto my harness and jugged up the rope past ancient moss and lichen mats sprawling across gnarled branches. Since the surrounding trees were on the same scale, it was difficult to put Windigo into perspective.

However, my first glimpse of the tape when I reached Steve let me know that he was rigging a pair of treeboat hammocks at a trunk bifurcation around 85 meters. I climbed a bit higher, and it finally made sense that I had ascended an organism with a height nearly the length of a football field. Scanning the horizon and the areas where we had hiked earlier, Steve was sure there were some big ones out there, but left those discoveries for another time. After this journey of mental, physical and spiritual impact, we headed back to Mt. Rainier for another week of tree mapping. Yes, we did indeed take our work home from the proverbial office, and kept at it all weekend.

Meeting Windigo was one of the many serendipitous events that I alluded to earlier and I'd be happy to take you through others, if you're interested. All I can do now is to believe in such a thing as the right place and time and to keep the wonder in trees, and passion, for that matter, alive. But be careful, it's contagious.


Kelley is a molecular biology major with almost the same level of intense interest in genes as trees.
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