Friday, February 15, 2013

Research Began

The first year disappeared quickly. Summer was close and I had not yet gotten into any research project yet. I had been taking classes for a year. My professor’s proposal had not received any funding for the old growth study in the Adirondacks. I couldn’t wait indefinitely and he understood that. We had a discussion and he suggested that I join Porter’s and Mark’s project that they had started a year before. The Ash project was funded by the government since the wood of baseball bats was made by this kind of tree. You would think all the baseball owners should have funded our project (or get % of their earnings instead of being beggars forever). Porter and Mark were research assistants. Porter had found out that he could not do vegetation and tree rings at the same time after the first year. I agreed to take over the tree ring studies since I didn’t have time to wait. I started to prepare for my first summer field trip, started my literature search, familiarized myself with the research, and prepared my own research proposal at the same time a year behind them.
    My part of the research project was to study the tree rings in relation to climate especially drought, and in relation to a mycoplasma virus. We traveled within five states of the northeast including New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Hampshire during the course of three summers. My job was to extract part of the wood diagonal to the trunk of the trees by using an increment corer. It needed a lot of physical strength to operate by hand, especially hardwoods. Although I was a forest engineer in China for 4 years, I knew how this worked, but I had never done this work myself before. In China where we have so many people, we always had some young local helpers to do the physical work for us. We hired people to carry luggage for us, to cook, and drive for us, too. There was always a local forest station where we could stay. I never did any physical work except climb mountains and hiking.
     I didn’t have any idea about camping, just what I had seen in movies. Porter and Mark basically told me that I would need a sleeping bag, field clothes that didn’t matter if they got dirty and non-perishable food for when we would be in the field. So, I went to our local market and bought a few cans of beans and soda crackers because a real meal in a can was so expensive. I borrowed a sleeping bag from Mrs. Wang until I could get my own when I could get a ride from someone to a store. I started my first summer field trip.
     Porter usually did the driving and Mark read the county map to find the sites we had to visit. I did not know all the details for the field trip while they seemed to know what to do. I usually took my nap after the first 20 minutes of driving. Porter and Mark joked that I slept so much in the GMC truck. I tried to explain that somehow cars make Chinese people sleepy. If you take a long distance bus in China, you will see most people taking naps in their seats. But if I were driving, I would not feel sleepy. They laughed and said that they would not let me drive even when I got my driver’s license because I would fall asleep after five minutes of driving.
     After we parked our truck by the road, we carried all the necessary equipment and started to walk into the woods. Porter usually led the way with a compass. Mark and I followed. A flock of deer-flies and mosquitoes was all around and looked like they had not seen humans in all their lives. The flies and mosquitoes bit through the thick jeans that I wore. That was something I had not encountered in the sub-alpine mountains of China.
     When we reached our study area, Mark tried to help Porter set up his plot by pulling a measuring tape following Porter’s directions on his compass. Mark had to go through thick brush or over big rocks or whatever was in front of him to get a straight line. He was a big, heavy man so he had so much trouble keeping a straight line. It was like watching two big bears roaming through the woods. They shouted at each other since they just could not get the line straight. It looked so easy for me, so I volunteered for the job since I was small and had a lot of experience going through thick brush, setting plots in China. It was a “piece of cake” for me following Porter’s directions to go straight. I could help him finish the plot in less than half an hour. He was very pleased and told me that I was the best.
I am standing next to a giant ash tree in the field. I had stated to grow my hair since I could not afford to go to the hairdresser
     After I helped Porter set up his plot, I started my own work. First, I needed to drill cores into three trees that Mark had already sampled for roots and foliage for lab testing. Then, I randomly sampled seven to ten more dominant trees, maples, or other species. I did not realize how hard it was just to start coring a tree. I had to push the point into the bark first in order to start turning. It was so hard that I wished I had a hammer. I barely finished three trees when Porter and Mark were all finished with their sampling. Then they helped me finish mine before we moved on to the next plot. I felt very bad because I felt I owed them for helping me with my work. I cried to the trees for help since I could not even finish half of my work. I realized that my arms and back were not strong enough and I needed to master the skill of the drill by concentrating all my strength on the point of the increment corer. I tried and I cried to the trees as if I wanted the trees to know. I did get better after a while and the trees must helped me too; the second summer, I did not need Porter’s and Mark’s help any more.   
                                                  This is a pine tree, not a hardwood Ash
     When we finally got back to our campground, it was dark already. We started to eat our dinner. I started to eat my beans and crackers with some water. I could not eat much since I did not think the food was edible. I could not sleep on the cold ground; it was like “hell.”

     The next summer, our professor paid us to eat out instead of bringing food ourselves. That still didn’t change much for me. I had the hardest time adjusting to eating American meals especially when I was so exhausted. First, I did not know what to order. With Porter and Mark’s help, I did order something I didn’t like but I had to eat as much as I could for my sake. There was once though, I just couldn’t eat the food because it had very strong goat cheese on it. It made me nauseous. I had to order something else that made Porter and Mark not very happy to wait for me. They just could not understand why I was so picky about food, especially when they were hungry, assuming I was hungry too. I did try my best eating since I did not have any other choice. Finally, I found out that I liked American soup, but it often ran out because we went out to eat so late. In the morning when I woke for breakfast, I liked to have something light, no oil. A bowl of rice porridge and salted pickled vegetables or a boiled egg would do, but pancakes and syrup with oily eggs just made my head dizzy and sleepy.
     I did not understand why each local forest station did not have a guesthouse for visitors. Anything would be better than camping on the ground. Summer weather did not cooperate. It seemed like every time we were out in the field, it rained at night and poured on our tents. I just couldn’t sleep with all kinds of noises so close to me. When there was no rain, I always woke up cold and heard noises around my tent, maybe some animals but since I couldn’t see outside from inside the tent, I wondered what it was, maybe a big black bear or a big monster or a bad person. I was so scared inside that I could not even move. Sometimes, I heard Porter or Mark move while they slept and that gave me some reassurance because I knew that they were still around. I tried asking them to set up my tent as close to theirs as possible. There was once though that we had a lot of space in the campground. They tried to set up my tent far away. I said that I didn’t want to be too far way, but I didn’t want to admit that my fear was the main reason. They laughed and wanted me to admit that I was afraid. I did and I hated it.
     I was hoping that local foresters could offer more help. Once a local forester met us at a McDonald’s and gave us a local map and showed us where they thought we should go. Another time, a local forest station was exceptionally helpful in Gettysburg, PA. Three or four young men insisted on being our guides to find the patch forest since there were so many open fields from the American Civil War. It was very hot and we walked under the hot sun in the field. By 1 PM, we ended up with 3 groups and I was in the first group walking and talking. Then the local foresters changed their mind, and they told us that they had to go back to the office, and were not going to accompany us anymore. Later Porter told me that the local guys took us to the field hoping to make me cry since I was the only girl there and a Chinese girl, and that they were surprised that I kept up with their pace without any difficulty, so they gave up.
     Sometimes, our two professors joined our field trips. They treated me well since I was the only girl there. I did not like to sit by the campfire because it was either too bright looking at the fire or completely black looking around; I would rather stay inside the tent in the dark, not be watched in the open by whoever I could not see. I was listening to all the animals around making noises. A lot of chasing and mating of the animals was going on in the forests. I did not understand what they were talking and laughing about, but I got the idea it was something dirty. I wanted to fall asleep while they were still talking. Hoping I could sleep through the night, waking up in the middle of the night was never good because I could not ever go back to sleep.
   My mind was very alert when I was out on a field trip. One evening when we came out of a diner after finishing dinner, I saw a big black object on the hill close to where we parked. I just couldn’t help screaming, “Black bear, black bear.” It was a big fluffy, black dog. Porter and Mark laughed at me and made fun about it later on. I felt a little silly too. The hard labor on the field trips and extensive travel made me really nervous about the highway speed. Mark liked to follow so close to cars in front and even Porter complained that it was dangerous. Porter was a better driver. Mark was a very good map-reader. I was learning to drive at that time. After my field trips started, I did not like to drive any more. I was making very good progress before, but now I was tired of even being in the car.
    After each trip home, I was so exhausted. I basically slept day and night to prepare for the next trip. Hua in our house showed his concern, he was very worried. He worked on the computer all the time. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to work in the field and to camp outside with two American guys. He somehow made his way home on Friday afternoon right after I came home from my field trips, and saw me lying on the porch lifeless. I was trying to dry my long hair. I hardly had energy to talk and I could not explain my fieldwork to an indoor computer guy. He was more concerned what those two American guys did to me or whether they had taken advantage of me. He wanted me to change my major or just give it up all together as if he was in charge of my life. I protested to him that I wanted to get my degree.
     This made the girl who loved him very jealous since he was not supposed to be at home around that time (he went to work on the computer at noon and came back after midnight). She went to her lab from 8 am to 6 p.m. One day, I noticed that she was crying after she came home and found the two of us at home alone talking. I didn’t know how much was going on between them since I was hardly ever home. She did send me a clear message. Also, I felt that Hua on one hand was trying to impress me, and on the other hand, was trying to hide something. He was not so nice to her.