Agroecology in Southern IL: Week Two Notes from the Field

This guest post is from Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies major Allison Breeding, who was awarded a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) fellowship this summer at Southern IL University. This is the second installment of weekly blogs this summer from Allison on the work she is doing for her research fellowship.

SUST major Allison Breeding, at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm, Feb. 2013

SUST major Allison Breeding, at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm, Feb. 2013

The week of June 2nd through the 9th was pretty exciting and jam-packed! On Monday the 3rd, we had the first of our “Ecological Measurement” sessions, which will occur weekly and cover a range of useful topics/exercises relevant to our current and future ecological research efforts. For this week, it was a 3-hour class on basic statistics in experimental research, led by Dr. Jennifer Koran.

Mondays will also typically include an hour-long seminar taught by an ecologist, an hour Q&A session with the same ecologist, and a “Ecology Interact” (EI) group session. This past Monday, our seminar was led by Dr. Matt Whiles (Director of the SIU Center for Ecology) and covered tropical amphibian declines in Central America from chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease triggered by the chytrid fungus. Shortly after the seminar and Q&A, our REU group reconnected for our EI session — we discussed Hurlbert’s landmark 1980s paper on pseudoreplication in ecological experiments, and David Schindler’s paper on the importance of scale considerations in ecosystem experiments (“Replication vs. Realism”).

On Tuesday, we met in the morning with Ben Wodika to go over research proposal basics and formatting instructions for our independent research projects. On Wednesday, I met with Dr. Sara Baer (professor of plant biology) to discuss and formalize plans for my summer project. I had run into a little snag last week when I realized that my assigned mentor, Leslie Duram, isn’t leading any research this summer and couldn’t offer much guidance or assistance in my research project (!). As a result, Dr. Baer will now be acting as my co-mentor this summer.

One of the LOGIC plots at SIU. Sydney, the grad assistant who's currently managing LOGIC's day-to-day, is clipping some cilantro.

One of the LOGIC plots at SIU. Sydney, the grad assistant who’s currently managing LOGIC’s day-to-day, is clipping some cilantro.

After meeting with Dr. Baer, I’ve decided to analyze agricultural soil for my summer research project. The loose plan for my experimental design is to take soil cores from 3-4 different ag plots in Carbondale (all of which will exhibit different till methods and soil treatments) and store them in incubators for a month for monitoring/testing. I will mainly be comparing the carbon and nitrogen levels of the different samples, looking at soil productivity, rates of denitrification, etc. When I fine-tune my hypothesis and full design I’ll let you know more! I’m beyond thrilled to have this opportunity to conduct real ecological research in a topic that greatly fascinates and inspires me (agricultural production) — and to do so with the phenomenal guidance and support of a lot of smart, wonderful people here at SIUC.

Heron Pond in the Cache River basin

Heron Pond in the Cache River basin

On Thursday, June 6th, we spent all day in the Cache River basin — an incredibly rich and beautiful biological landscape. The Cache River basin is the intersecting point of several physiographic regions, and boasts ~32,000 acres of floodplain forests, 52 miles of streams, 43 known caves, 1,000+ year old trees, 430+ aquatic macroinvertebrate species, and dozens upon dozens of mammal, amphibian and reptile species!

My REU group was lucky enough to have natural heritage biologist and Illinois DNR employee Mark Guetersloh show us around for the day. We visited three main sites: Wildcat Bluff and Heron Pond in the Upper Cache area, and a Cypress Swamp in the Lower Cache. After first hiking up to the lookout point at Wildcat Bluff, we were greeted with beautiful vistas of green woodlands below, the sight of turkey vultures wheeling in the sky, and smatterings of vibrant purple cone flowers and yellow butterflies. Hiking there and back, we spotted many green tree frogs on the trail itself, and a couple people picked up their first ticks of the day!

Heron Pond

Heron Pond

The second site we hiked to (and my favorite of the day) was Heron Pond. The trail in followed the Cache River for a spell, giving us an up-close view of the river itself, as well as some of the bank erosion that Mark’s been trying to repair. Heron Pond was breathtaking — the water’s surface was completely still except for the occasional ripple from a frog, snake or water skimmer, and it was almost entirely covered with bright-green duckweed. A wooden boardwalk allowed us to walk out to a central part on the water and, at a glance, the cypress, tupelo and sweet gum trees appeared to rise up from a mossy carpet rather than a pond…making for a very lovely and ethereal effect. Occasionally, visible lines were traced across the duckweed’s surface cover where a copperhead or cottonmouth had slithered past.

The champion Cherrybark Oak

The champion Cherrybark Oak

Further up the trail from Heron Pond we encountered one of the Cache River basin’s state champion trees: a Cherrybark Oak that stands 100 feet tall and is estimated by some to be over 300 years old. It took four or five of us REU’s (holding hands) to reach completely around the trunk’s circumference. Other interesting trail sights and sounds on this leg of the trip included multiple varieties of wild mushrooms, a copperhead curled up after a dip in the swamp, and a chirpy serenade from a group of bird-voiced tree frogs in the distance.

At our final Cache River destination, Buttonland Swamp along the Lower Cache, we viewed bald cypress trees adrift in a shallow wetland, jungles of buttonbush (an invasive) that are currently clogging the swamp edges, and a couple bighead asian carp floating beneath the surface in all their ugly, unwanted glory.

Swallowtail caterpillar

Swallowtail caterpillar

On Friday I helped LOGIC harvest produce again for the Saturday farmers’ market — spotted some black swallowtail caterpillars feasting on the carrot greens (!). While others on-site encouraged the quick annihilation of these produce pests, I couldn’t bring myself to kill the lovely green- and black-striped scavengers :/ I relocated them away from the beds instead. Perhaps this shows my “greenness” in the garden, or else I’m just a softie for pretty markings and soon-to-be butterflies.

Friday evening was mostly a work night, with readings for next week’s EI session to tackle, as well as independent readings of ecological soil studies — to inform my own project preparation and design ideas.

Saturday was a fun day out with some of the REU girls. In the afternoon, a few of us drove west from Carbondale to visit Scratch Brewery — a microbrewery and farm tucked in the middle of nowhere. This place was definitely a haven for the craft beer aficionado or the casual beer drinker. Not only does Scratch grow their own hops on site, they have a constantly rotating menu of seasonal beers that highlight locally foraged ingredients like mushrooms, spice bush, nettles, etc. Located off the main roads and surrounded by woods and farm fields, the place is quite peaceful and has a lovely outdoor patio on which to enjoy your “lemongrass saison” or “forest honey ale” on a sunny summer day. They also make homemade ginger soda and a couple other NA options.

After Scratch, we went to watch a roller derby match between the Southern Illinois “Rolling Blackouts” and the visiting “Clarkvillians”. This was another first for me! A lot of the derby girls (e.g. “Jessica Rabbid” and “Eartha Kill”) were clearly having a blast. It was quite something to watch and there were no resulting injuries, so I applaud them! I’ve got neither the roller-skating skills, the affinity for fishnets, or the bruise-resistant skin needed for such a sport. :)

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds

Today, Sunday the 9th, we drove to Cahokia Mounds! First we toured the museum and learned about the Cahokia Indians and the actual site itself. I was fascinated by the Cahokia Indians’ skills with carving and pottery, and their creation of the “Woodhenge” circular post site for use as a clock and calendar. I was also surprised to learn that the largest earthen mound at Cahokia (Monks Mound) has a base area slightly larger than the Giza Pyramid, of course it isn’t as tall. From the top of Monks Mound we could see the St. Louis Arch, as well as miles around in all directions — truly a remarkable structure and civilization. One downside to this amazing site was all the urban development right next to and around it. The back of the Woodhenge circle was mere feet away from a fenced-off, industrial asphalt supply company…and all the run-down depression of East St. Louis was just up the road. :(

Fellow REU students on the Monks Mound trail

Fellow REU students on the Monks Mound trail

They say it’s still unknown what caused the downfall of Cahokia (which reached a population of 20,000 at one point). Based on the amount of resources they had to deplete from the immediate area to supply such a large city — and the fact that archaeologists and researchers claim to have found no distinct evidence of a disease epidemic or large-scale warfare — I think it’s possible that the city reached a dissolution when resources became too insufficient or scarce to maintain its population.

So, that about wraps things up for week #2! :)

Allison Breeding
9 June 2013, Carbondale, IL

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One Response to Agroecology in Southern IL: Week Two Notes from the Field

  1. Linda B. says:

    Loved the descriptions of each day. Felt like I was there. I found the info on the Cahokia Mounds very interesting in that the industrial center is just a foot from an industrial site. Another example of over development using every inch of space. Where is the respect for the richness of the history within cultures. The heron pond is beautiful. The champion Cherrybark Oak was a great pic. Now I know what it means to be a tree hugger! Keep up the articulate and eloquent writing.

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