Lab Rats

Shiny plants

An explosive start to a professional ecology career

Tom Mahony 31 August 2009

Touching: not always advisable

I still had visions of parkland, but when I arrived at the site I was greeted by a churning oil refinery

My graduate thesis and early ecological work occurred primarily in state and national parks. I got used to primeval solitude, abundant wildlife, old-growth forest, and pristine creeks. Some of the landscape was so untrammeled that I felt guilty about crushing a few plants while tromping through expansive wilderness.

The Park Service loved the studies, as long as they didn’t have to pay a dime for them. Living like a student is not as fun after graduation. So I eventually had to acquire more gainful ecological employment.

One of my first such projects involved a botanical survey on a chunk of land slated for a housing development. I still had visions of parkland in my head. But when I arrived at the site I was greeted by a churning oil refinery and a nervous man who ushered me inside a construction trailer, foisted over a manual about unexploded ordnance, and rambled on about toxic chemicals related to some sinister process called “degreasing.”

I wondered what the hell unexploded ordnance and “degreasing” had to do with a botanical survey. It turned out the project site was a former ordnance depot, artillery range, and all-purpose dumping ground for the U.S. Army. I was told that, while I may or may not find endangered species on the site, I might possibly get blown up.

As I left the trailer for the survey, I was forced to sign an ominous waiver, admonished to stay within a strictly controlled area, and warned that, under no circumstances, should I “touch anything shiny.” So I trudged through the toxic minefield, in the shadow of the refinery, in search of rare plants. Normally I’m concerned about the impact of development on species and habitat, but not here. If any endangered species had survived decades of shelling, abuse, and “degreasing” by the U.S. Army, surely they were a hardy breed, and a few houses couldn’t possibly take them down. By now they’d no doubt evolved into a mutant, carnivorous strain, and humans had more to fear from them than vice-versa.

I did not end up finding any endangered species during that survey, nor did I get blown up or otherwise “degreased.” But I did learn a few things: (1) some species can survive the harshest environmental conditions; (2) wind direction makes all the difference when you’re working near an oil refinery; and (3) never, under any circumstances, touch a “shiny” rare plant on a former artillery range.

It might just explode.