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Processing tree cores and other forest adventures

Wednesday, July 3, 2013, by Pat O'Hara
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When I was in the third grade our recess was cancelled because there was a rogue cow on our playground; in middle school, I learned of trail running as an escape from essentially anything; my high school years consisted of my friends and I drooling over pickup trucks and then eventually getting our own; and when I finally moved to school in Cambridge in the fall, my best friends, quite brashly (but playfully...), took pleasure in labeling me as some hillbilly who somehow slipped by admissions officers. Although this last part is far from reality, and I actually live in a typical Boston suburb that simply has the misfortune of being unknown to most other Massachusetts natives, I couldn't help but think when I got to rural Petersham: "It's good to be back."

[A walk to Harvard Pond with David Foster.]We're in the seventh week now, and I'm still thinking it. My project here at the Forest, in the basest terms, consists of my project group meandering out into the woods with a GPS, finding (sometimes after a bit of wandering) a small metal post in the ground, and measuring a bunch of stuff in a plot that we set up. Now I should probably fill in the gaps there.

Prior to the summer, two of my research group's fearless leaders, Audrey and Liza (think Lewis and Clark here), ventured into the wilderness to find some of the plots that were set up in 1992 by another team, pre-GPS days. Despite deft navigation skills by Motzkin et al. in 1992, the power of the map and compass is limited with a more granulated view of things, and not all of the posts that were looked for were found . Anyway, enough of them were.

[THE INCREMENT BORERRRRR!!!! (What I use to take the core)]So, once we find this post, our field team defines the plot using tape measures and compasses, and we're ready to get to work. The part of the project that I am most focused on is tree coring. I basically take giant hand drill into the center of a tree in order to get a core from it. The core looks a lot like if you were looking down on the stump of a tree, and you were somehow visually impaired such that you could only see in narrow slits. As many people know, there are defined ring patterns in the wood because of the different growth rates of the tree during the year, and we can gauge a tree's age by taking a count of these rings. This is what I do in the lab.

Right now, I have about 250 cores to process. 250 seemed like a big number to me when I was in first grade, and then as I grew older it became negligible in some situations. But right about now, 250 has regained its intimidation factor. Each core must be mounted on a piece of wood, sanded with four to six different grits of sandpaper, and eventually the width of every ring on each core must be measured using a microscope and computer program. My counting to ten skills are now highly refined.

The goal of my part of the project is to get a sense of how Harvard Forest is taking in carbon over time. We'll have a record of the rings and widths for different years and using the fact that bigger rings = more carbon, we can get a sense of how things are changing. We also have the 1992 on carbon stores and a 1937 one to look back on.

[Quality Snapchat by Dima.]Now you might assume that outside of work, I need to practice counting, but I have pretty effectively separated work and play. Though I do sometimes count my steps while running. When I get out of work, I scarf down about a full day's worth of calories of our chef, Tim's, cooking, and then try to run it off at about ten every night. It probably isn't working.

[If spiders had a higher survival rate, we would be in trouble.]Besides that, my roommate, Dima, has filled my time with a couple other things. A few others, he, and I try to go to the rock gym at least once a week to get some climbing in after work. He looks like a little monkey while I am more of a tree kangaroo (Google that one – they are horribly adapted creatures). But hey, I'll catch up someday. He also introduced me to Snapchat art. The versatility of Snapchat is much more impressive than I once thought – made me consider a secondary field in art.

As a tribute to the unshaven naturalists of the world, I have also decided not to shave or cut my hair for the remainder of the summer. Can't remember the last time my hair was nearly this long but, hey, when in Rome. 

Pat O'Hara

Are sharks mean because they feel unloved, or do they just have a mean way of sharing their affection with others?

Sharks, like alligators, are angry 'cause they gots all them teeth and no toothbrush.

If you could have only 3 electrical appliances in your house, what would they be and why?

See this one seems trivial on the surface. But you're not going to fool me. OVEN. HOT WATER HEATER. REFRIGERATOR. BAM. I'm assuming in this made-up, deprived world, there could be only three causes to your inability to have electrical objects. The first of these is that you have no space in your house. To remedy this, I have the hot water heater. This also implies that in imaginary space I am guaranteed at least enough space to have a shower. A refrigerator and oven are also quite large, and you have to allot me at least enough space to use them and to have all of the novelties that go along with them. You're not going to close me into this claustrophobic box of nothingness, Powers That Be. The second scenario is that I am being put into some remote place where there is, for some reason, only time or resources enough to have three electrical hookups. In this situation, I can be pretty certain that if we are unable to run electrical lines to my imaginary house, digging to install gas lines is total out of the question. This means I cannot have a gas stove or water heater. I love to eat and shower – therefore I have to cover my bases with those two things because I can almost be certain that I am not going to be able to run their gas-powered counterparts. 

If you wanted to earn $50.00 how would you like to earn the money?

PayPal has this function that allows you to send a text message out to all of your contacts in your phone asking them for a donation of however much money. My friend sometimes sends out requests for a quarter. I feel that this is a good test of your friends' humanity and sense of humor. Because I only need to make $50, I would want something long-lasting like this that doesn't make me the money right away. It is also the only way someone has ever asked me for money that has made me smile. 

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