Dirty, as Defined by a Soil Scientist


This week has been an interesting one. The intern and seasonal quarters have become eerily quiet with the departures, but the swamp has been getting a number of visiting scientists from a couple different government agencies.

The first to arrive was another hydrologist from the US Geological Survey. A couple of weeks ago, while my supervisor and I were out checking water table wells, we stopped by and checked some of the wells this hydrologist had installed.

The project this guy is working on currently is really, really interesting – and completely outside the realm of what my summer has been so far. He’s going around collecting water samples for isotope analysis. In case your chemistry is a little rusty, a periodic element, like carbon, can have a varied number of neutrons. The most common form of carbon has 12, but it can have more or fewer, and this is useful because a greater amount of one isotope over another can provide some clues as to where the water came from – because not all water is created equal.

However, during previous analysis, the mass spectrometer (Organic chemistry has been more useful than I care to admit) ran into some funky data due to the amount of organic material in the water. In mass spectroscopy, energy is sent into a sample until it breaks apart, and the way the pieces break apart indicate the structure of the unknown compounds. Since the water at Dismal is basically organic soup, he’s collecting from different sites all over the refuge, and I’ve been tagging along.

The collection itself was way simpler than the science – it involved filling a small glass bottle with water at a certain site, after checking a few other parameters, like acidity and temperature. It was nice to be outside of the rigid protocol of an indoor lab – outdoor science is incredibly liberating.

As the day continued, the USGS hydrologist stopped to service his data logger, which is pretty similar to what we have on the refuge. While he was typing up a storm on his computer, I entertained myself with the surrounding wildlife. The dragonflies were out, making a lunch of the small flies and mosquitoes that were pestering us.

One perched on a branch, I watched as it’s little head jerked back and forth, looking for grub. As I waited, with vengeful anticipation, for it to make a meal of one of the mosquitoes I occupied my hands by pulling the thorns from an old greenbrier vine. I disposed of them by chucking them into the clearing, and when one passed in front of the dragonfly, it shot forward, connected, and returned to its branch.

Fascinated, I began throwing small pieces of plant matter in front of the insect, which would consistently zoom forward and smack whatever I had tossed out of the air. I like to pretend we were playing catch. Eventually, it grew tired of my antics and caught a fly out of the air. I watched it eat before I joined its picnic with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Later on, we met up with Fred and the soil scientist from the NRCS in the blocks at the southern end of the refuge. She had visited at the very beginning of the summer, and had consequently witnessed my misery the first time I went tromping through the blackberries. She also brought another scientist, who seemed a little unhappy with being out on the coastal plain.

I felt much more confident and much better equipped to meander through the brush this time around. I’ve had a little practice, over the course of the summer, with pulling thorns from my fingertips and scrambling through the saplings.

However confident I had been at the outset, I was humbled at the end of the day. The other three fully grown, fully educated scientists bounded through that block like it was going out of style. I felt like I was booking it – leaping over logs, jogging through the saplings but it wasn’t enough.

Alright, it was more of a fast trot, but still, my little legs had a difficult time adjusting to the pace. Every time I got snagged pretty good, I would pause to unhook the thorns or try to sidestep past them. These guys? Forget it, the USGS hydrologist was covered in blood by the time we made it to his well.

I couldn’t believe it, his forearms looked like Halloween. I was slightly horrified, though after that it was obvious that my problem keeping up could be traced back to my affection for my skin.

Though the walk wasn’t bad, I entertained myself by thinking up science-inspired curses for the blackberries, such as I hope a point mutation halts your chlorophyll production and you die a slow, miserable, anaerobic death. Or I wish you a terrible meiotic nondisjunction that leaves your progeny sterile.

The soil stuff was interesting – I had stayed up late in anticipation of this day, reviewing some of my notes from old readings. Obviously, I was no where near the level of the other scientists, but even just sitting there and listening was incredibly educational.

On the way back, it seemed like the rest of them were twice as fast as they were when we went out. When I finally popped out of the foliage, like an earthen intern born of blood and the field, they were all sitting casually around the trucks, chit chatting. They eyeballed me as I emerged, and I was a little embarrassed that it took me so long to get through the relatively unimposing walk.

Soil 1 then looked me up and down and said, with the slightest hint of Virginia twang, “You are just too clean.” By comparison, I was significantly less muddy, though I still had to do some scrubbing before I sat down at the dinner table.