Director’s Letter January 2021

To know a place

What does it mean to know a place?

As a field scientist, knowing often involves quadrats, binoculars, and sensors—data we collect and mine for insight.  But there are other ways of knowing a place.  One spring when I was at graduate student in San Diego, avid snowpack watcher billy barr gave me hope in early May—“come on out!  The road might be open soon.”  After two days of driving to get to Gothic as fast as I could, I spent a month sleeping on a friend’s couch watching storms.  One hundred and fifty inches of snow later, the county opened the road on June 9th, with snowbanks piled 10 feet high. I “knew” Gothic better; snow in the high country was less a vague abstraction.  The intensity of seeing winter extend into June opened my eyes to how dramatically snow shapes the plants and animals around Gothic.

I honor ranching as another way to know the basin.  Measuring sticks and sequencing genes are one way of seeing local ecosystems.  Time in the saddle is another.  Environmental literacy, even if ranchers call it something different, is a must for their economic livelihood.  Not surprising some of my most interesting natural history discussions are with ranchers.

In similar fashion, Wendy Brown has carved out a lifetime of field work in the Gunnison Basin.  A year-round resident, she has worked for innumerable research teams as a field technician, usually involving field research streams, ponds, and insects.  She has a website (what a great name—“Bugs Unlimited”), with photographs, descriptions of research, and a link to another of her websites on aquatic insects of the Gunnison Basin.  The aquatic work in treasure resulting from a love and passion of the local aquatic insects.  As a year-round observer, she sees and understands things about our local ponds that summer academic researchers will miss; I remember being fascinated by her description of how avalanches scour some alpine ponds; some summer pond communities, including insects, salamanders, and fish, can be a ghost of winter past.

One of RMBL’s changes that thrills me is that we have more people like Wendy.  The adjoining article profiles Amanda Henderson, a year-round field technician for the Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s Watershed Function project, hosted at RMBL.  Having a cadre of year-round field technicians, or RMBL staff like Facilities Director Steve Jennison that can help scientists navigate the winter backcountry, is just part of what it takes to explore Colorado’s high country.  Wendy, Amanda, and Steve, among others serve as bridges to community members, all of whom have their own ways of enriching science.  Understanding the world is a team effort that includes ranchers, amateur observers, professional scientists, backcountry guides and skiers, you, and many others!  It will take all of us, and many ways of “knowing”, to fully see and appreciate the world’s richness and complexity.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL