Things move quickly during the monsoon

I’ve started a field study on buffelgrass and its impact on native plants, also looking at water and at predators. One day, while counting seedlings up Chaos Canyon (in the Tucson Mountains), a field assistant and I both paused at a distant boom.

“Did you hear that?” I asked. After a few minutes wondering what had caused it, the other student pointed out to the floor of the canyon.

“I don’t think there used to be half a saguaro there,” he said.

We hiked out the long way to check it out, and sure enough, there was a freshly fallen cactus, juicy and meaty flesh scattered about from the impact. The air was thick with insects drawn to the moist treat.

I left town the next day for a conference, and when I returned, I tried to showanother friend the site. I almost didn’t find it again – already its skin had sloughed to its feet like a dirty pair of jeans after a long, drunken night on the town,leaving sad ribs exposed. Even the flies left it alone now.

A newly fallen saguaro August 4
The same saguaro August 14, after an untypically fast decomposition

Private Eye for Hire

Being a scientist is not so different than being a reporter or a detective, but much less conducive to making action movies. I am on to a new case that (if it all goes well) may define the course of my dissertation.

The crime: buffelgrass, a suspect you already know from my post a month or two ago, has been accused and convicted of invading the desert and decreasing biodiversity.

That’s old news.

The new twist: A recent PhD student from University of Arizona smelled a rat, you might say. The result: a new “personality of interest” has been fingered as potentially involved: the rodent community. Has that community been complicit? An innocent bystander? A silent victim itself? Or a shady superhero quietly attempting to ameliorate the damage?

Sounds like a case for Pacifica Sommers, Private Eye.

So I have been busily writing applications for fellowships that would allow me to focus on research instead of teaching. Like any good detective, I have been interviewing experts and reviewing the documented evidence day and night, fueled by coffee binges and Halloween candy (sorry trick-or-treaters). For these research proposals, I have to get to the bottom of the story, preparing the reader for the exciting climax where I put myself in a dangerous position in order to confront the culprit and reveal the answer.

And there’s where being a scientist gets a little less exciting in the action movie sense. Instead of one night of tunneling under the suspected site of the crime, pistol concealed in my pocket and tape recorder running, I will spend years tramping all over the mountains surrounding Tucson, digging in cages and measuring trees and trapping rodents. I will spend countless hours between in my underground office, gritting my teeth as I troubleshoot the latest MATLAB program that is generating the theoretical predictions I am testing out in the field.

On the upside, if you hire this private eye, the danger pay should be lower than if I were sneaking about with pistols in the dark.