The Long Haul

On Saturday I paddled my canoe above the dam at Glendale. It was a warm late summer day, and yellow-bellied and painted turtles were basking on debris along the old mill pond’s far shore. It couldn’t have been more beautiful, and I couldn’t have been more happy.

As I paddled along I thought about how things were going to change a little in these turtles’ world. I knew, but they didn’t, that we hoped several of them would soon be working for science.

One of my colleagues at Wofford College, Dr. “Ab” Abercrombie, is beginning a long-term study on the population of turtles at Glendale. The kind of work he wants to get started at the old pond is known in the science world as a “longitudinal study.” It’s a study that involves repeated observations of the same things over long periods of time – often decades. What good could this possibly do?

These sorts of studies can help show us what’s changing around us. These studies don’t work out causes of environmental problems, but they show us the affects of change over time. They may be some of the most important work for understanding climate change.

There’s longitudinal work like this being done all over the country, and in some places there are careful observations going back over 100 years in a single spot. Keen observers in these places have recorded things like when the first spring wildflower bloomed, and when the first frost occurred. They’ve watched turtles and noted when birds migrate.

Ab’s only got a couple of years left teaching before he retires, but he’s hoping that what he gets started this fall might go on long after he’s left.

I’ve bought into the idea of the study, so on Saturday I was out to paddle my canoe, but also to check turtle traps. “Trap” sounds ominous for the wildlife, but this is a “catch and release” sort of study that doesn’t harm the turtles.

A few days before, during Ab’s Thursday lab, I’d worked with a first year student to place the traps-black mesh crab traps with a punctured can of cheap sardines wafting fish stink to entice the turtles. We’d each paddled out to set them among the debris.

What Ab will do this fall is establish some of the base-line observations for the study. He’ll get his students to measure and mark each individual turtle, keep records as to which and how many turtles we catch, and epoxy a small, short-lived transmitters on three of the painted turtles so he can show his first year biology students some data on water temperature.

When English professors are doing some of science’s grunt work they often come up with interesting observations of their own that are usually outside the realm of science. The “why” question gets asked as often as “where,” “when,” and “what.” These questions can lead to essays, poems, stories.

How we work at Glendale can be the transition zone between the disciplines. It’s easy to get students excited about living animals, and in such field work there’s plenty of material for asking value questions that help settle the complex issues associated with our tenure on the planet. This sort of study is a way of getting turtles (and students) to work double duty. With a good environmental studies program every experience can offer different perspectives.

I’m no scientist, but Ab’s got me excited about doing my part through the years to continue this longitudinal study. Atom smashing and DNA sequencing are way beyond my capacities, but this ancient task-detailed records and observations of places, weather, and creatures-is something I can do and excite others about doing, and it’s also important information to gather over the long haul.

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