In the photo above, I’m actually holding a throw ball line as Dr. Maya Nehme, a scientist studying Asian longhorned beetles, works to maneuver a heavier rope into the canopy of a tree. Technically, Ellen and I were along to watch Dr. Nehme work, and to gather details for our upcoming book on these gnarly beetles and the damage they are causing here in North America. But there was a moment when Dr. Nehme needed an extra set of hands, and I was nearby. (Thank you, Ellen, for catching it on film!)
Aside from holding the occasional throw ball line, I spent the morning gathering tiny details that will help me describe fieldwork like this in the book. I was hunting for specifics: small ideas, surprising imagery, unusual sounds, things that hadn’t come up during the interview process but which might help make my text come alive for readers. Like the fact that each scientist had his or her own method for getting the throw ball up over a branch. (I saw an underhand toss, an overhand rocket, and a magnificently simple and effective between the legs heave. Who knew?)
And there was this: When you are hanging beetle traps from the branches of trees, you spend most of your time looking up. And do you know what happens when you walk around an urban forest all morning with your eyes looking up? You trip. A lot. I did it, and I saw the scientists do it, too. Nice detail.
My absolute favorite detail of the morning was this one: Before hanging a trap, scientists have to measure the trap tree’s diameter. No big deal, right? Someone simply unfurls a tape measure, wraps it around the trunk, and records the number. But if the tree being measured is just the right size, then recording its diameter requires one to hug the tree, to stretch both arms around the trunk while passing the tape measure from one hand to the other. The sight of a beetle scientist with his arms wrapped around a trunk was poignant and loaded with symbolism; don’t know if I’ll ever use that nugget of an image, but I am certainly glad to have stumbled across it.
This is my favorite photograph from this weekend. It tells an interesting story, but only if I fill in some blanks …
The hand belongs to my Number Three Field Assistant. As you can see, she is young (small, pudgy fingers) and not-so-totally tomboy (dirty fingernails sporting cherry red polish).
The tool, an old-school wooden collapsible yardstick, belongs to my Number Two Field Assistant. (He found it at the Recycle Resource Center—where you bring your junk hoping it will, indeed, become someone else’s treasure—and asked “Why the heck would someone throw this away?” It’s been one of his treasures ever since.)
The holes were found in a dead-but-standing pine tree stump … and they looked suspicious to us. We live in central Massachusetts, where people have become acutely sensitive to holes in trees, especially perfectly-round holes with a half-inch in diameter. Why? Because such holes are the tell-tale sign of an Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation. If you don’t live around here—or in one of the other five places in North America where this dreaded beetle has taken hold—let me just tell you that they are Bad News. You don’t want to find them in the trees on your property.
So, we collected some data. We recorded the size of the holes with the ruler and on film, and we inserted a pencil to measure their depths and angles. We scoured the surrounding area for similar holes in other trees and anything else that seemed relevant. Then we came home and did some research. We checked out the US Department of Agriculture’s ALB website, and this helpful Beetlebuster website. We also consulted a slew of handouts collected at recent community meetings about the beetle and plans to eradicate it.
The good news: although our holes were the right size and shape, they were in the wrong sort of tree. Asian Longhorned beetles prefer hardwood trees; this stump was a soft pine.
The bad news: the beetles have been found in other places in our town, and eradicating them is not going to be easy.
The news that keeps us going: something made those holes. We want to know what!
And this: the ALB story is pulling at me. I’ve been following it for a while. I feel a book taking shape.