Monday, April 14, 2008

A long Update: week 2 Holistic Bio

This is an (insanely long) e-mail I sent to my family and friends today... Enjoy!


So much has happened since the last time I wrote. I feel like I've been here for over a month because every day is packed with lectures, field trips, homework, and fun. We're finally breaking out of our Holistic Biology shell and socializing with the other Belden (the houses where we live) people. We're doing dinners together and exploring the cities.

I've finally seen an otter on this trip! Actually, at this point I've seen tons of them, and up close, too. While we were scouting out our transect sites last Tuesday (to be explained later), we saw eight otters-- three mother-pup pairs and two solo. One of the pups was trying to run away from being groomed, and the others were in the water, tagging along with mom for a ride along the waves. Our instructors aren't huge fans of otters. They kind of scoff at marine mammals because they study invertebrates. They don't understand why people get so much more excited about vertebrates. I think you have to learn about the invertebrates before you can really find them exciting.

Class brings a slew of information, much more than I could ever hope to remember, but it is really wonderful learning from field experts. Susan Shillinglaw, out literature professor, is a Steinbeck scholar and has written many books about Steinbeck and introductions to many of his books. She is the most engaging of our professors and is such a wealth of Steinbeck knowledge that the five of us students want to read as much Steinbeck as possible with her around. So far, the only books slated are Cannery Row and the Log From The Sea Of Cortez. We're convincing her to read Tortilla flat with us, too.

I love Steinbeck. The more I read of his, the more I love it. It's also interesting to learn about Ed Ricketts, who I knew almost nothing about before I came here. Last Tuesday, after completing Cannery Row, we went to Ricketts' lab (still there) and looked out from the steps and learned what Cannery Row looked like in Steinbeck's time. She showed us all the sites mentioned in the book, and because she studies Steinbeck for a living, she was able to feed us her insight into the fictitious versus real parts to the book. Whose names he changed (Flora Wood becomes Dora Flood in the book). The lab itself is still intact, but it's not really restored as it is half owned by a gentleman's club. However, all the holding tanks and bookshelves and phonograph are still there. While there, we learned that Susan and Gilly had their wedding reception there! We also sat in the living room area and listened to a recording of Steinbeck reading aloud one of his short stories, The Snake, that takes place in the lab (the story is in The Long Valley). Apparently Steinbeck was self-conscious and only recorded two readings in his life!

In light of our discussions of sea-faring novels, we are want to read Moby Dick with Susan while we're on the boat in Mexico, since she loves it so much and none of us has read it. Right now, we're reading Robinson Jeffers poetry, doing close readings of one poem a day in addition to our other literature discussions.

On the more scientific side of things, we have been completing a science experiment, repeating transects that were first done sixty years ago and had not been repeated until last year. We were counting the number of organisms of a number of species that live in the high intertidal on vertical rock surfaces. I can now proudly say I can identify different species of limpits, snails, barnacles, and a whole host of other marine organisms and alga. There is nothing like hands on learning to help long-term memory. I feel like I could come back in ten years and remember these species because I didn't ever try to memorize them, I just started recognizing them with the help of my professors and TA.

My group for the transects was me, Cara, and Julie (our TA). We had tons of fun scaling rocks and trying not to drop into the rushing waves balancing to count species too high to see. At times we were counting over a hundred chthalmus barnacles, ones that look exactly like the granite they're burrowed into. We also had a square ( six by six, our standard measurement made out of a coat hanger) that was comprised entirely of mussels (152, but there were probably more, smaller ones underneath the large ones).

Spending Wednesday and Thursday mornings out counting sounds boring, but because there were three of us, there was tons of time to watch the waves come crashing into the rocks, the tide coming in as the day wore on. The sea grasses glistened in the sun, swaying as the tide flowed in and out with each progressively larger wave. It's meditative sitting out there for hours, watching the waves crash in cycles of extreme calm where you can barely tell there is a wind, to the thunderous crash of waves, spraying meters up and around. The first morning we were out, we were extremely close to a pair of otters. Gilly, our professor, thought it was a mother and her overgrown pup, spoiled with too much attention. Because we were so close, I took a picture. Looking back at the photo, we were witnessing otter mating-- you can tell because the female's nose is bright red. Apparently, when otters mate, the male is rough and mean and bites the females nose until it bleeds and is almost not attached! The picture is a little blurry because I was pretty far away, but you can still see the red nose.

Other field trips we've taken have been to Point Lobos to see Bird Rock and the Whaling Museum, Big Sur (twice) to go hiking and whale watching. We also went tide pooling at Soberanes Point in Big Sur. There we saw a pool of limpets and experimented with feeding anemones mussels. The view from the point was spectacular. I don't have many pictures because my camera battery ran out, but if I can procure some from the other girls, I'll post them, too.

Today we spent the day at Elkhorn Slough. I had heard of it before, but never been. It was an interesting trip. The slough is an estuary that was converted into pastures (by Meyer of Meyer Library on campus) and then restored starting in 1980. Visible the entire time in the landscape is the power plant at Moss Landing, acres and acres of crops, and the remnants of the pastures and dairy. It is not the pristine reserve I thought of before witnessing it myself. Our docent was insanely boring. I was fidgeting like a five year old, wanting to see more of the reserve and hear less from him inside in the visitor center. He also did not understand the concept of walking and talking at the same time. We're hopefully going to go kayaking in the estuary when we get back from Mexico.

The lectures in the class are really interesting, as is the reading, but there is only so long I can concentrate. Some days we have four hours of lectures in a row. I don't think anyone can concentrate that long! The information is all stuff I want to learn, my brain just gets full after a while. John Walton, a historian for the area from UC Davis, comes in a few times a week to give us a lecture about the peninsula. He's covered everything from the missions to fishing industries to Jeffers and beyond. His book, Storied Land, covers most of what we're talking about in class. A well-written and informative book, it you have time and are into history, it's a great read.

Our reading includes lots of articles compiled by the various professors and guest lecturers. It's too much to keep up with, but it's all fascinating. I'm hoping I'll have time to read all of it at some point in time. Susan and Gilly also have all sorts of books we can check out to read-- if only I had the time.

Congrats for wading through all these mundane descriptions. I will leave you all here, and hopefully I will be writing more often so that you don't get the boring accounts of my days and can get more color commentary.

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