I've always been a little bit jealous of those students I see around five o'clock pm walking back from the Arb holding buckets and measuring tapes and all covered in mud. When I would ask them where they've been, they'd answer "oh, I was just at lab." And then I would think of my own labs, running PCR analyses and looking at termite guts under the microscope. Don't get me wrong, those labs are awesome - they're a big part of what made me want to be a biology major - but sometimes, on those spring days when the birds and the bees and the sunshine are calling, all I want to do is be outside.
This term, for the first time, I'm in a class with one of those highly sought-after outdoor labs. It's a class on population ecology, and the lab is entirely based around student-directed small group research. At the beginning of the term, we were placed into groups of four or five and asked to observe something of interest in the Arb and plan a research project around it that the entire class could partake in. And so each Thursday afternoon, a different group of students leads the rest of the class in a four-hour data collection session regarding something - really, almost anything - in the Arb.
A couple weeks ago, we looked at the location and number of galls on a certain type of prairie plant. Last week was my group's turn to lead lab and we looked at the succession of regrowth in two fields, one which had been farmland up until 1992 and one which had been farmland until 2001. The former plot bordered a Best Woods forest on one side and a pine forest on the other, while the latter was bordered entirely by prairies and other plots that had recently begun the process of reverting back from farmland to their natural states. We wanted to see if the patterns of succession were different because of those factors, and so we went out and identified tree species along transect and measured their circumference. Before the end of the term, we'll analyze the data the whole class collected and give a presentation explaining our results.
This week was a bit different. Instead of studying plants, we set out study animals. More specifically, worms. Animals are a frustrating bunch in ecology simply because they happen to move around a lot more than plants and they prove to be quite elusive. But worms? We were pretty confident we could find some of those. To coax the worms to the surface, we were going to follow is a well-established technique: if you mix mustard seeds with water, let it fester for a while, and pour it on the ground, the chemicals in the mustard will irritate the worms' skin and they'll come to the surface for relief. Once they got to the surface, we were going to snatch them up, measure them, maybe scratch their skin a little bit to make them happy, and then release them. We were going to do this in two different habitats in the Arb to see if there were any differences in worm size or density between the two.
Unfortunately, my research group proved to be really, really bad at finding worms. After we had spent almost four hours in the Arb and poured gallons and gallons of mustard water on the ground in many places, we had caused a grand total of zero worms come to the surface. All the other groups were quite successful - some people said they had to measure seventeen worms in a one-square-foot quadrat! But alas, not us. We remained wormless.
But here's the thing: worms or no worms, that was the best possible way I could imagine spending my Thursday afternoon. It was sunny, warmish, the Arb is beautiful, and I was surrounded by spunky, adventurous classmates. And we were even joined by a baby.
Since I'm on the subject of happy spring things like worms in the Arb, here are a few more:
Studying on the bald spot
Baking berry pie
Flowers and dandelions
I'm ignoring the fact that snow is forecasted to happen tomorrow and wishing you a VERY HAPPY SPRING (go away, snow! go away!)!!!