When Jacqueline picks me up at the corner of Mission and 6th, downtown Carmel, the stars are already bright. "Kelsey!" She waves me over as I dazedly exit the bus.
Jacqueline has covered the front seats of the UC Davis SUV in sheets and paper bags.
"The paper bag on the floor is safe too," she says, gesturing to the covering on the passenger seat floor. "Everything else, you should assume is covered in poison oak."
Ecologists work long days doing fieldwork, so the gatehouse where we're staying is dark by the time we wind all the way down Highway 1 into Big Sur. But the research station is only a short walk from the beach, so we walk the dusty track below the arching bridge to listen to the waves crashing on the pebbles and cliffs. Jacqueline knows how to find the Corona Borealis and Ursas Major and Minor among the thousands of visible stars, and the milky way makes a bright streak in the endless sky.
It's way too early when the house starts waking up. I'm in a bunk in the main room, so I can see the two young guys starting breakfast. Jacqueline has me try on various pairs of her army surplus work pants– protection, we hope, from poison oak– and her boss gives me a high-viz forestry vest, introducing tools: calipers, metal tags, basal diameter measuring tape, paint pen. Thick leather gloves.
I'm here for three days. It's a visit, but a working one. There's no room for idle hands, and there are lots of plants to catalog.
The ecological plot network we’re working with is a set of hundreds of randomly selected locations in Big Sur marked for long-term study. They're not selected for convenience in any way; we drive up to a ridge, swing our packs onto our shoulders, hike a path to a creek, bushwhack in through thick downed branches and across dusty slopes.
Today's plot was last surveyed in 2014, so we're looking for little flags and metal tags that haven't been touched in five years. Luckily, this plot hasn't burned since 2008, so it should be mostly intact.
I'm getting a just-in-time education:
"Try to step in each other's footsteps as we get close to the plot," our leader calls. "This square of flags is a seedling plot, so definitely don't step there. Stay in a line until we've done the ground transects, because we're sampling soil and measuring litter on the forest floor. And don't break any branches, even if they're dead on the ground. We're measuring their decay."
"And watch out for poison oak," Jacqueline adds.
It's all a bit hopeless, though. We're on a fairly vertical slope, thick dry leaf litter over very dry dust, and there's poison oak everywhere. We do what we can, and wince a little when branches crack or dirt cascades down the hill.
At the center of the plot is a piece of rebar hammered deep and capped with a plastic marker identifying the plot. For a radius of 12.6 meters around this point, we're identifying, marking, and measuring basically everything present.
Jacqueline's boss studies sudden oak death, so a major part of what we're looking for symptoms: twigs gone dead and bleeding cankers on the oaks; pixellated dead spot patterns on the leaves of the bays. But we also measure the diameter at breast height of every stem of every tree at least 1cm across, the basal diameter and shape of any shrub with at least 1x1 meter of foliage, the decay class of each downed log, the number and type of tree seedlings in the three 2x2m seedling plots, the height of burnable debris along the transects.
On day 3, I gather litter from the forest floor, anything dead that fits in a little PVC square gets gathered into a Ziploc bag for later analysis in the lab. Day 2, I’m laying on the ground recording numbers as Jacqueline drapes and twists around a 20-stemmed madrone tree to measure all its limbs. Day 1 we’re shouting, "what’s the next number?" to assign an ID to each of the thirty new ceanothus shrubs that need to be located by distance and azimuth from the center, measured at the base, health classed, foliage area estimated, identified, assigned a canopy class. The branches catch and tangle in my hair at the edges I’ve left exposed beneath a kerchief.
"I don't think people would believe this research actually happens," I remark on day three, picking each dried leaf out of the rocks on the ground for forest floor sample. "I feel like I'm in a mockumentary about ecologists."
Jacqueline laughs from her position beneath a nearby shrub, where she's wriggled in to wrap a tape measure around the base.
The dead tree stems get classed based on decay: if it still has most of its leaves, it's class 1. If it's got most of its twigs and bark, class 2. Spongy, rotten stems get classed as 4 or 5, but usually they'll detach from the base first, skipping to class 6. Logs on the ground make class 2 if they support their own weight, class 3 if (in Jacqueline’s terms) they look “fun to stab”. We knock on them with our fists, poke them to feel the give. We twist-tie numbers onto branches and paint numbers onto everything with paint pens. We hammer poles into the ground at the corners of seedling plots in case the wildfires come through and destroy the flags.
In afternoon dry heat, you can hear madrone trees shed their skin. The red outer bark cracks, peels, and falls away from the green beneath.
We break to hydrate, to snack. We carry wet wipes to rub poison oak oils from the potential exposure where long sleeve barely meets glove cuff. We get poison oak anyway, and sweat, and stop sweating because we need to hydrate better, and get headaches. But the five of us are cheerful. It's useful outdoor work. The guys rib each other endlessly. We sing songs, shout measurements, joke about the dead class 2 stems we accidentally turned into dead class 6 when we stepped carelessly.
"You know that Douglas Adams quote, 'the hours are good, but the minutes are terrible'?" Jacqueline asks me on the drive up to the bus station for my journey home. "It's sort of the opposite here. We do really long weeks sometimes, but you want to finish the plot. And the work is important. And you're spending all day with the trees.
"I remember the good parts," she says. "Yesterday's beautiful five mile hike in, which I actually got paid for. The shady plot with the oak trees."
I nod. It's good work, work with adventure and plants and camaraderie. That's what I'll remember about it once my poison oak rash fades.