“Um, doc, my plant is turning yellow and has spots. Can you help it?”

April 23, 2012 by
Filed under: CPCRW, Field Work 

The new field season brings some anxiety as we scramble to get materials together for the coming summer of field work. The anxiety takes hold because we are trying to “catch” the trees sucking up the spring snowmelt water before their leaves come out.  Anyone living in Fairbanks knows that the leaves appear around the first week of May. We’re all excited to see some green on the hillsides after a long grey winter and brown spring.  Who would have thought that racing trees would be stressful? They’re so secretive about their pre-summer activities that I need to stick probes in them to figure out what they’re doing and why.

The scramble to accumulate materials for field work and probe building can be hard in Fairbanks because there aren’t a lot of places we can get some of things we need.  I tend to go to the obvious places like Radio Shack or Brown’s Electric. But, I also hit up Michaels, JoAnne’s, or the dreaded Wal-Mart. I’m often asked what I’ll be using a particular thing for, and depending on the day, I either talk about it, or I smile and politely back out of the conversation. It really depends on the time crunch I’m under.  I start by saying that I’m building sensors.  When they ask for what, I say that I’m putting them in plants to measure their water use. That’s when I get the response “oh! I love plants. But, tell me, what does it mean when a plant gets little spots on it and turns brown? An aspen in my yard hasn’t put on leaves in years and it’s turning a weird color.” Well, the lack of leaves tipped me off that the plant is probably dead, but I have to smile because the exchange seems like something that would occur between a doctor and a non-patient at a golf course… “uh, doc, I have this rash…”. I smile and suggest that the tree has passed into the world of firewood.

Then it comes time to make the sensors.  Lab time is interesting because I end up in my own head for hours and hours. Doing repetitive activities lets the mind drift.  It’s almost meditative and my thoughts turn to funny things. Today, I’m soldering wires (a stupid word – it should be spelled phonetically, as sautering).  Soldering irons have to be cleaned off periodically because they accumulate solder on the tip and get gunky. Cleaning just entails smearing the hot tip on a wet sponge. The funny part is that the solder is hard to get off so I have to keep rolling the iron around in the sponge to get the stuff off. It makes me feel like I’m trying to wipe a booger off a robot finger.

Off to buy super glue, Styrofoam balls, duct tape, sheets of foil bubble wrap, deep cycle marine batteries, and solar panels.

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