Friday, November 29, 2013

A Perfect Day for Gas Sampling

Black Friday
November 29, 2013

It is the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and I'm standing in the middle of a field contemplating the quiet beauty of late autumn. While others scramble to score the best deals in the malls of America, I think about the last time I stood in these fields. Corn, corn and more corn was all I could see around and above me. Corn surrounded me, forming tunnels through a vast corn fort. Huddled between the rows, I crawled under layers of leaves to reach the chambers where we test for nitrous oxide coming out of the soil.

Today the corn is gone, and the whole farm is a wide open space interrupted only by groups of trees in riparian buffers and experimental forests. Between my feet and the trees are acres of dried stubble and freshly sprouted cover crops shimmering in the sun. Bases of corn stalks with their tentacle roots float like octopi in a sea of green.

My job today, as part of the greenhouse gas group, is to measure nitrous oxide emissions from the soil. I place an air-tight chamber over the soil and use a syringe to extract gas at specific time points. The air makes a high-pitched whine as it rushes into the syringe, reassuring me that something is happening even though I can't see the gases moving around. I'm working on my first of three sets of chambers that I'll test today. 

At each set I pour myself a cup of hot tea from my thermos. There's an odd window of downtime between sampling points that's too short to get engrossed in something, but too long to just do nothing. So I sip tea and gaze across the fields, imagining that this is my farm. I feel proud of this vast swatch of land blanketed by winter rye. Then I realize a real farmer would probably be standing there thinking of all the work that is yet to be done, or be in the shed fixing machines. 

Watching each blade of rye vibrate in the wind I'm drawn into a meditative state. Today I'm grateful for the clear blue skies and the warm sun as I do this work. I'm grateful for the crickets still chirping in late November. I'm grateful for a reason to spend the day outside and enjoy the weather before winter sets in. Had I not been here sampling, I would have been busy with inside work, oblivious to the sheer beauty of the day outside despite the cold. 

The roar of the Kubota drowns out my thoughts as I drive down grassy lanes to my final sampling set. At my last stop, I set up the chambers and wait. I have just enough tea for one more cup, and I snack on sweet potato biscuits from last night's Thanksgiving feast. I could imagine a group of landscape painters setting up a plein air session out here. 

Back home I go on what is usually my morning walk. My route looks different and new in the evening light, and I realize how much I enjoy being outside year round. 

If you haven't taken the time to spend an afternoon outside lately, go for a walk and enjoy the golden light and the crisp autumn air. 

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