Wednesday 6 May 2015

Country roads

We're in a limbo time at The Institute.  The teaching term officially ended on on 24th April 2015, and last week had some nothing title like 'revision week', so it was easy to get a parking place whenever you arrived for work. Today exams start, with my chaps scribbling on Friday morning and next Tuesday arvo, so we'll all still be able to get parking but I'm more likely to encounter my colleagues on the corridor. Yesterday, Lar,  my redoubtable and keen student, asked if I'd like to go out in the field and help him collect samples.  We have a cunning plan to get him an M.Sc., while sampling the chemical content of the water and plants of Co. Carlow.  What I'm hoping for is a geo-chemical map of the ground-water of the county to see how that correlates with the surface water.  The current plan is to use the native plants to concentrate [some of] the minerals for us and map those data as well. 

Accordingly, we spent the whole day driving the back-roads and bohereens along a short transect of the Southern tip of the county, knocking on doors, hanging out over bridges and culverts and clambering up brambly ditches to clip the very first leaf buds of Ash trees Fraxinus excelsior and also Ivy Hedera helix.  Most of the door-knocking fell to Lar because a) he is personable and born local b) it was the second time he'd been through the area.  It took him much longer the first time because he had to consume copious cups of tea, cuts of bread and butter, slabs of cake and shop-bought cookies as he explained what he was all about and confessed as to where his people were buried.  Now, on the second run, it was much more "Work away, lad, you know where the tap is".  On the other hand, as a chemist and aspiring geologist, Lar hasn't much of a clue about the biological world. As a boy who grew up in the country, he can recognise a dog if it jumped up and bit him, but would be a little sketchy to put a name on a chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, one of our prettiest small passerines. I saw a pair in our yard yesterday morning, which puts me in mind of them. For him there are two sorts of tree: conifer Christmastreeus genericus and the rest.  I'm kind of useless as a field biologist, not a patch on my pal Chris Burnett who could name any species of North American tree from its Winter silhouette, but I can be relied upon to know Fraxinus because I've spend hours and hours planting t'buggers, cutting them up for firewood and fashioning the branches into coat-hooks.  It's not so easy at this time of year, because Ash is only now coming into leaf - it's nearly the last species off the starting blocks every spring.

One of the things I/we noted is the remarkable diversity in the timing of leaf-set.  It seems to be partly genetic and partly environmental as you'll find two trees in the same ditch which are about 2 weeks adrift in the process; but in general the higher up the mountain the later things start.  Ivy is also remarkable in its own way: it is an ever-green so the leaf-set is continuous but leaf shape is highly variable with only some individual plants showing the classic 'palmate' three pronged leaf-shape.

It all worked out rather well, as we were able to drop by the home-place for a late lunch, so that I could check up [on company time, tsk!] on the lambs that had been born in the previous 24 hours before heading back to The Institute to unload a boxful of samples.  It was all a welcome break from sitting at my desk cultivating my repetitive strain injury; and I didn't drop my phone in a drain or fall off a ditch into the nettles.  A pretty good day, even without the sea-otters.

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