By Sam Blair
Sam Blair is a University of Vermont senior studying Natural History, an individually-designed major focused on close observation of the natural world and humans’ varied relationships to it. Sam worked for Audubon Vermont for the past two summers, first as their inaugural Conservation Education Fellow, and then as a Bird-friendly Maple Project intern. This summer he is working with Steve Faccio as a Seasonal Field Biologist for VCE’s Bird-friendly Maple Efficacy Study.
This is Sam’s second article chronicling his reflections from the field. For more information on the study’s context and goals, see Sam’s first article, “In the Field with VCE’s Bird-friendly Maple Efficacy Study.”
Today has been a rainy, wet day. The late-summer sound of a single grasshopper singing to the evening is faint through the patter and drip of raindrops on the roof. I’m sitting in bed, much cozier and happier than I would have been out in the field, reflecting on what has been a summer full of growth and meaningful work. The question I’m asking myself is this: what can I say about the work of VCE, and the Bird-friendly Maple Efficacy Study (BFM) in particular, that I wouldn’t have been able to say at the beginning of this summer? And more to the point: what can I say that someone who had tagged along in the field for a few days with a notebook and a camera (perhaps for the purpose of writing a VCE blog post) couldn’t say, either? The following is my attempt to answer these questions, if only briefly.
First, I have learned that fieldwork is hard work. The BFM vegetation surveys alone can take up to two hours to complete at a single point, and we have a grand total of 161 points to survey this summer. These points are laid out across seven sugarbushes (a term for maple sap-producing forests) spread throughout northern Vermont, and just getting to them, especially when you drive a Toyota Prius, is a challenge in itself. When I, together with our field crew, first tackled these “veg surveys,” we found ourselves a bit bemused, to put it lightly. At every point, a strange geometry of lines, squares, and circles nested within circles—which together constitute the “sample plot layout”—radiates out from “plot center.” Each geometric feature corresponds to a sample protocol for a particular condition in the forest—like leaf litter depth, seedling and sapling abundance and diversity, or species and “diameter at breast height” (DBH) of overstory trees, to name just a few. We went through a fair bit of head-scratching and mumbling to ourselves before this all started to make sense—and it took even longer for us to get really, truly efficient at it.
I should mention, too, that because this particular study is designed to quantify not only forest vegetation conditions, but also populations of birds and bird food in the sugarbush, the vegetation surveys are only a portion of the work we have to do at each point. We also have three rounds of arthropod surveys (Arthropoda is a large phylum including insects, spiders, and crustaceans), two of which involve sampling for critters under cardboard squares meant to mimic the leaf litter layer, and one of which (I’m not kidding) involves the use of a vacuum to suck bugs off of understory vegetation. That’s not even to mention the bird surveys which occupied our attention for almost the entire month of June. All told, this means that we have had our work cut out for us—and then some.
Speaking of things I’ve learned this summer, the abundance and diversity of arthropods in our Vermont forests has surprised and amazed me. As I’ve vacuumed hobblebush and beech brush and peered beneath disintegrating bits of cardboard, I’ve gotten to know the sowbugs, pillbugs, flat-backed millipedes, lepidoptera larvae, ants, and varied (and sometimes truly frightening) spiders through close, daily observation—to my mind, an unusual privilege.
Fortunately, (returning to the subject of the sheer quantity of assorted leaf bits and spider appendages with which we’ve filled our plates) we have been lucky enough to enjoy a very productive collaboration with the UVM Forestry Program this summer. At the behest of program director Professor Tony D’Amato, UVM has provided us with a rotating field crew of between three and six past and present students. Their tremendous dedication and competence has been the backbone of this work, and has enabled us to tackle a truly Herculean task with smiles on our faces despite sudden torrential downpours, clouds of bugs, and stifling 90° F days at 90% humidity. I want to extend huge thanks to each of them for their invaluable help, as well as to our newly hired, three-person VCE field crew, who are working with us for the month of August as we push to finish all our work by the end of the field season.
That sums up most of what I wanted to say. My big thanks to everyone at VCE and UVM are the most important words I have to write. But if you would like to, I’d encourage you to read on. Because the truth is, as I’ve been working in our field sites this summer—and, at the same time, working on a thesis which involves producing a detailed natural history and ethnography of a single Vermont sugarbush—I’ve been thinking about a lot more than how hard (and enjoyable) the work is. Instead, I’ve found myself drawn to think again and again about what the act of “doing” science actually looks like from the inside. I think it’s important to share this perspective, because, speaking at least for myself, I didn’t have a lot clarity about what the process of scientific investigation actually entailed when I embarked upon this summer’s work. I come from a background of natural history study, a discipline which, although it shares much with the natural sciences, is also distinct from them in its outlook and methods. Natural history (my individually-designed major at UVM) focuses on observation rather than experimentation, and as such is not a good place to look for statistically-significant studies, but rather for insight into the world as it presents itself to the observer. This summer, then, has been an education in more ways than one.
Let me start by saying this: although we talk a lot about “the scientific method,” a quick Google search will reveal that scientists themselves can’t decide if this method has six, seven, eight, or even ten steps, much less what those steps are. This hints at a broader truth: as the work of scholars of science like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway reveals, the scientific discipline itself, while often claiming to have pulled off what Haraway calls the “god trick” of total objectivity, is shaped by the perspectives of the people actually doing it in fundamental and enduring ways. I don’t mean this as an indictment of science and all that it can reveal about the world—rather, I mean to echo Latour in his efforts to complicate science’s claim to study only “things-in-themselves,” and to point out that science is also shaped by human relationships (including, importantly, relationships of power, like those that determine what types of research get funded) and by the construction of meaning (like, for example, the kinds of meaning-making that determine what counts as “good” science, “bad” science, or not science at all).
Perhaps a couple of stories will help elucidate my points. It is a hot day in early July, and Steve Faccio and I have just finished our first day of vacuum surveys at a sugarbush in Enosburg Falls, hard up against the border with Canada. We’re sitting on the porch of the sugarhouse eating our sandwiches as we discuss how the BFM study is funded, and how much work applying for funding actually is. Part of the funding for this study, I learn, comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a program of the United States Department of Agriculture. Other funders, I should mention, include the Blake-Nuttall Fund, the Brundage Charitable, Scientific, and Wildlife Conservation Foundation, and the High Meadows Fund. As it turns out, in the current political climate, the NRCS has taken a hit (the Trump administration proposed an 18 percent reduction in NRCS funding for 2021) and some programs have been affected more than others. Receiving funding for the kind of work we’re doing, in particular, has become more difficult. This gets at what I term “relationships of power.” Science, it turns out, is literally shaped by such relationships—which shouldn’t be surprising, but kind of is, given how often we talk about science as if it exists outside of the vagaries of political winds and social mores.
Showing how science is also shaped by “the construction of meaning” may be a little harder, but I think a story from anthropologist Anna Tsing may prove illustrative. Tsing, in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, studies the natural and cultural history of the Matsutake mushroom, a Japanese delicacy which also happens to grow in the post-industrial lodgepole pine forests of Oregon. Tsing relates how Japanese scientists have done a remarkable amount of work to unravel the life histories of the Matsutake, but that American scientists have largely dismissed this work, deeming it too “observational” to be of use. This story illustrates how two different cultures have developed two different ideas of what constitutes good (and useful) science; and to the detriment of both cultures, one has been unable to translate the other’s work into its own scientific language. This is what I mean when I say that the construction of meaning shapes scientific inquiry.
All of this is not to diminish the rigor of the natural sciences as they are practiced here at VCE, and it is certainly not to deny those sciences’ ability to produce empirical knowledge about the processes and patterns that shape our ecosystems on all scales, from the life patterns of a thrush breeding on Mount Mansfield to the cycling of mercury through terrestrial ecosystems. It’s more to point towards how I’ve learned that the type of science we’re doing in the field is not only extremely rigorous, but also improvisational and translational. For proof of the “improvisational” clause in that sentence, look no further than our Milwaukee M18 wet/dry shop vacs, which have been repurposed (doubtless in ways unimagined by the designers) to suck up insects from understory vegetation in nine one-meter-radius plots at each of our sample points. I alluded to the translational nature of our fieldwork in my last article when I wrote that “all scientists are linguists, busy trying to make sense out of the unfathomable language of a messy world by simplifying a small component of it.” Since then, that notion has only struck me as more and more true. At its most basic, the practice of BFM fieldwork is a simplifying and translating process, whereby we apply the same methods over and over again at points laid out across an extremely variable landscape. Our ability to say anything about that variability is mainly a product of how consistent our methods are. Thus the painstaking accuracy with which we measure out our plots and sub-plots, establish boundaries between what is “in” and what is “out,” and nail down the minutiae of, for example, how to measure a red-backed salamander (from snout to vent, since tail length is variable) or what counts as herbaceous vegetation (only vascular plants with no persistent woody stems above the ground).
I realize this discussion may feel overly academic and perhaps a little wooden, but I maintain that it’s really, truly important for us to understand what the term “science” actually entails. Science as a discipline and a practice shapes our world in pervasive and fundamental ways. And the scientific method, whatever we end up deciding it is, can produce good as well as bad (and an awful lot that falls somewhere in between those two extremes). VCE, in its work to protect, respect, and come to know the natural world in all its complexity and variability, represents to me the good that scientific work can achieve. And VCE’s work is not simply directed towards the scientific study of nature, as its motto “uniting people and science for conservation” suggests. Rather, VCE seeks to mobilize and empower human communities to conserve and protect the natural communities they live alongside. By undertaking this study of the Bird-friendly Maple Program, VCE is working to support the livelihoods of rural Vermonters, and to move beyond the well-worn duality of “wild” and “tamed” landscapes towards a conception of “working landscapes” that produce economic, social, and ecological goods in tandem. As the light fades on this rainy, reflective day, I think this is a mission we can all get behind.