Plot frames and pin flags: Stories from seasons in the field

By Nadav Mouallem, Crew Leader

December 2020

It was eight o'clock in the morning in early April, 2017, and Boris, our affectionately-named blue Subaru Outback, was packed to the brim: tapes, plot frames, pin flags, groceries, camping gear, and personal luggage. We were heading south to Roseburg, Oregon, to outplant Kincaid’s lupine (Lupinus oreganus). After double and triple checking that we had everything, we packed ourselves into Boris. We were all so excited, and it was my first day in the field. Meaghan, Lucy, Abby, Denise, and myself – assembled as a field crew for the first time. It was only my second day on the job as an IAE Native Plant Society of Oregon Conservation Research Intern. Little did I know, that day was more than my first day in the field: it was the start of an unforgettable and inspirational season, one filled with new friends, new sites, and most of all, a journey that would cement my love for ecological work.

Now, three years later and with names like The Nature Conservancy and The New York Botanical Garden under my belt, I was coming back to IAE as the Conservation Research Intern Crew Lead. I was excited and nervous to return to IAE as a Crew Leader, and felt a sense of fulfillment knowing I would be leading a crew that was so formative for me.

The Subaru Boris, packed to the brim, by intern Lucy Keehn in 2017.

My first week as an intern in 2017 (on the far right), outplanting Kincaid’s lupine in Southern Oregon.

I was living in Burns, Oregon, when I accepted my role as the crew lead with Matt Bahm, Conservation Research Program Director. I had just finished a position working in Oregon’s sagebrush steppe – the timing was perfect. So, I packed my bags, loaded my car, and made the five-hour drive from Burns to Corvallis, Oregon. My drive west took me through the rugged sagebrush steppe of Eastern Oregon, into the towering conifers of the Cascades, and into the valley I once knew so well. As I crossed the Willamette River bridge into Corvallis, I was flooded with memories of days past. Corvallis looked the same – the Willamette River still a hub for summer activities, Reser Stadium still towering above campus, and most importantly, The Beaver Hut still serving veggie burgers and $2 PBRs. But things were different this time, very different – the country was shrouded in panic as COVID-19 was sweeping the nation (and globe). While I knew we still had a season ahead of us, I was filled with fear and uncertainty. How was the season going to play out? How were the interns going to get to Corvallis? How was it all going to happen?

As I moved into my small studio apartment, I got more comfortable with the unknown. I accepted things as they were and promised myself I would make the best of the situation, for that was all I could do.

After speaking again with Matt he informed me that there were some changes to our crew. While the crew was initially supposed to have 3 interns, the pandemic re-dealt our hand and left us with just one in-person intern, Justin Ford, and one virtual intern, Amy Slentz. This was the first time IAE took on a virtual intern.

A week later, I met Justin at Herbert Farm and Natural Area, a local site purchased by the City of Corvallis that has undergone restoration and is now home to many native plant species. I was excited to finally meet Justin – we greeted with masks on, stayed six feet apart, and looked at many of the flowering plants Herbert had to offer. I told him what he might expect, and that we were planning to head south to Roseburg the following week to monitor Kincaid’s lupine. This was the start of the 2020 Conservation Research season!

Oh, the places you go. Always stunned by the beauty that Oregon holds.

Looking for plants in Oregon’s high desert, June 2020.

As the following Monday approached, I began packing for our first field trip. This time I loaded Boris alone – packed it with gear and my personal luggage and food, and began to drive south. I met Justin in his rental truck at a favorite IAE gas station outside of Eugene named Sequential and we caravanned the final stretch to our first site in Roseburg. As we parked at our first site and met up with Denise Giles, an IAE Conservation Research Ecologist, those same feelings from years ago came back and I was filled with excitement. I showed Justin how to measure foliar cover and count racemes, and we stretched out tapes on our first transect. And even though the world was so different, in that moment in the forest things felt the same as they always had (even though we were taking all the social distancing precautions) – bonding and making jokes in the field, pointing out cool plants, and cruising through transects. With each day we became more comfortable and efficient as a crew.

The days flew by and our first field trip came to an end as soon as it started. I was proud of our accomplishments, surprised at how quickly we adjusted to our new normal, and amazed by Justin’s flexibility given the circumstances we faced. Things weren’t so bad. Though many aspects were different, this was still the experience with which I had fallen in love many years ago.

The following weeks took us to the high desert of Eastern Oregon to monitor Mulford’s Milkvetch (Astragalus mulfordiae), to the slopes of Southern Oregon to monitor Cox’s mariposa lily (Calochortus coxii), to the West Eugene wetlands to monitor Kincaid’s Lupine (Lupinus oreganus), and everywhere in between. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months. With each trip, despite the craziness of the pandemic, the small team I now felt privileged to lead, became more tight-knit and capable. We had accomplished so much, and most of all, became the crew that I had always dreamt of leading so many years ago when I had first crammed Boris full, clambered in, and headed for the open road and Oregon’s vast natural expanses.

A special thanks to Matt Bahm, Denise Giles, and Lisa Schomaker, for without their guidance, assistance, and knowledge none of this would be possible. A special thanks to IAE NPSO Conservation Research Interns Justin Ford and Amy Slentz, for without their flexibility and enthusiasm, this too wouldn’t have been possible.