Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nature in Cubeville

Stll life on my cubicle desktop:
earthen turret of cicada nymph, bur oak twig with bullet galls,
wax replica of morel mushroom, flash drive, coffee cup/pen holder

Conservation work is not always conducted in the great outdoors.  To be effective, fieldwork must become paperwork so that it can be shared, remembered, and used effectively.  Field biologists look upon paperwork as a necessary evil, akin to dental appointments, traffic lights, and election campaigns.  Their sense of indoor sacrifice is intensified when they conduct their paperwork in overpopulated complexes of those undersized workspaces known as "cubicles", the cookie-cutter units of the communal workplace which the Dilbert comic strip has satirically named "Cubeville". 

My office is a cubicle in the Wallace State Office Building on the Iowa State Capitol campus. In fact, the Capitol itself is just across the street.

The Iowa State Capitol Building
Wallace State Office Building
(note reflection of the Capitol in its gold windows)

Check out my office with me on this virtual journey from the street...

through the lobby...

up the stairs (I don't use elevators - electricity-burners! - if I am carrying no load)...

and through the maze to my cubicle...

As you can see, my office is a small cubicle in a maze of many small cubicles that could easily be the physical backdrop of any Dilbert episode.  Although I joke about the "cubeville" aspect of my workplace, it is actually a pleasant place to work because it is located in the headquarters of the Department of Natural Resources and is filled with people earnestly working to sustain and improve prairies, forests, streams, wildlife habitat, water quality and many other features of the natural environment. 

And although I cannot spend all of my time outdoors, I receive many opportunities to enjoy nature within the confines of my cubicle when people send me photographs of plants to identify.  For me, it's a kind of virtual field trip!  Here are several examples:
Joe Zito of Cedar Rapids posted this photo of a brilliantly red inflorescence blooming in a prairie restoration at the Indian Creek Nature Center.  I recognized it as Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), an uncommon species occurring in both rocky and mesic prairies in eastern Iowa.  I last saw it growing on a rocky prairie opening several years ago, but who can forget such a distinctive flower?  (Botanically speaking, the red "petals" are actually colored bracts subtending the "real" flowers, which are the less conspicuous, slender green tubes between the bracts.)


District Forester Bruce Blair relayed this photo to me on behalf of Mari Wolter, who owns forested bluffland along the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa.  She recognized it as a honeysuckle, but wondered if it was an invasive species that should be controlled.  Many honeysuckles, particularly introduced shrubs like Lonicera maackii, are indeed invasive and are targeted for removal in woodland restoration efforts.  However, I was able to assure her that this one was Grape Honeysuckle (Lonicera reticulata), a native vine that posed no threat to the natural woodland community.

Photographer Dick Lutz is constructing a website about plants in the Iowa City area and needed to know what this abundant, but unshowy species was.  Having seen it innumerable times as I traipsed through the forests of Iowa, I recognized it as Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis), a common forb throughout the state.  In the upper left corner of Dick's photo, you can see a close-up of its tiny white flowers and a visiting honeybee. 

When my new cell phone emitted an odd trilling that I had never heard before, I fumbled with buttons and discovered that I had just received my first-ever MMS message.  It contained the above photo, an unfamiliar phone number, and the text "John, what is this?".  The sender proved to be Jeff Korsmo of the Howard County Conservation Board, who was searching for the rare Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica) in a riparian forest.  Knowing he was in suitable habitat and that the plant sported palmate leaves, he had encountered this likely candidate and needed confirmation.  Unfortunately for his search, this was not the rare Glade Mallow but a common Black Snakeroot (Sanicula).  Happily, he spotted Glade Mallow nearby.

While visiting my office, Luke Wright of the DNR Rivers Program tried to describe a plant to me that he had seen while constructing a portage trail around a lowhead dam on the Iowa River at Iowa Falls in Oak Park.  Experience has taught me that it is nearly impossible to identify plants from verbal descriptions, so I asked him to send me a photo.  He relayed my request to Mary Hyland (who lives near the park) and she cooperatively emailed several images to me, including this one.  A picture is indeed worth a thousand words!  I immediately recognized it as Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), a native forest species forming large colonies with heart-shaped leaves in moist, shaded woods. 

Not all of the identifications I have made have been of plants or even of photographs.  Earlier this week, Jimmie Thompson of Ames posted this note on the Iowa Native Plants Listserv:

"I had an interesting large flying bug bounce off my chest today at the Pohl Preserve. I picked it up off the ground, put it in a baggy, and brought it home. I am a little curious as to what species it is and what it's abundance is in Iowa. It is one of those jointed beetles that makes a clicking noise. It is 1 1/4 inches long, black with sparse gray mottling on it's wings, and two large, black ovals surrounded with gray rings that look like eyes on it's front joint. With the big ovals that look like eyes, it looks very ferocious for its size."

Contrary to my experience that it nearly impossible to identify a plant (or insect) from verbal description, Jimmie's description stirred a memory of an insect that I had photographed two years ago in Lake Ahquabi State Park.  I had posted it on BugGuide, where it was identified as the Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus).  When I extracted that photo from my files and forwarded it to Jimmie, he replied "Yes, that is exactly the beetle I found today!" 

All of the people I helped with their identifications were very appreciative, but I have learned from all of these interactions as well.  Their photos and inquiries took me on a virtual journey across the eastern half of the state and showed me things I could not have seen from my cubicle, briefly bringing the great outdoors into my small indoors.