Fieldwork in the pandemic springtime

Western Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia var. brevifolia, within sight of the snow-dusted eastern Sierras in Kern County, California. (Photo by jby)

The first thing I did after getting my first dose of the Moderna vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 was to drive from the City of Los Angeles mass vaccination clinic at Pierce College to my home campus, California State University Northridge, to print out a sheaf of field collecting permits.

I’d planned fieldwork well before anyone had any firm idea when the vaccine roll-out would reach college faculty and staff, and it was sheer silly luck that I landed the appointment at Pierce the day before I drove into the desert. That was more than a month and thousands of miles of road travel ago; since then I’ve had my second dose and seen very nearly every kind of habitat where Joshua trees grow.

The bulk of that travel was for a project aiming to build a “genomic inventory” of Joshua tree, with the support of Revive & Restore, a conservation nonprofit specializing in applications of genomic data for underserved species of concern. In concept, it’s a very simple study: collect tissue samples from trees growing in the full range of climates which naturally accommodate Joshua trees, then use exome capture to collect genome-wide DNA sequence data from them. On its own, that data will support landscape genomic analyses to find genes with potential roles in local adaptation to climate, and new high-resolution reconstructions of Joshua tree’s evolutionary and demographic history. In conjunction with other projects in the pipeline for the Joshua Tree Genome Project, it’ll let us triangulate climate-adaptive variants for higher confidence, and maybe even project the genetic potential of Joshua tree populations to cope with projected climate change.

Eastern Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia var jaegeriana, in Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area, Utah — the northeastern edge of the species’ range. (Photo by jby)

In practice, though, managing that work has been … interesting. CSUN’s policy to manage travel during the pandemic was developed by porting the existing approval process for international travel to apply to all trips on essential university business — a whole new set of paperwork just to drive up Interstate 5, much less into states subject to travel restrictions under California’s COVID containment policies. Lab members who weren’t already in the same household couldn’t share a vehicle to get to field sites, and we’d have to follow procedures in place to screen for infection before working on campus, even while off campus. Understandable and appropriate precautions, all of them, but also a knee-deep river of extra tasks to wade through before anyone could go anywhere.

Eastern Joshua trees in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada, near the upper elevational limit of the species’ distribution. (Photo by jby)

Fortunately the genomic inventory collections are simple enough to withstand the extra logistics — the total collection protocol is to walk up to a tree, take a fresh leaf and bag it with silica gel, take down its geographic coordinates, and label it all for transport back to campus. If we were going to have to have one person per car, we might as well cover as much ground as we could solo; I sorted out field kits for every lab member, and identified target collecting sites within a day trip distance of the city for grad students and undergrads to tackle. I plotted out overnight trips for myself, to get longer-distance locations. We maintained a safety check-in protocol via the lab’s Slack workspace, and got through a Spring Break of fieldwork in which no two members of the lab actually stood together at a field site. Between what we got that week, a few of those longer distance trips on my own, and my good fortune to have a collaborator with a deep store of previously collected samples we can apply to the project, we’re well set to have hundreds of locations represented in the final data set.

Western Joshua trees within earshot of Interstate 5, north of Pyramid Lake — a good candidate for the westernmost natural population of the species, growing among chaparral shrubs. (Photo by jby)

After a year of working from home, it’s been a particular kind of relief to get out into the wild and empty landscapes where Joshua trees grow. Nowhere was totally unoccupied — near Gold Butte, Nevada, miles from the nearest paved road, there wasn’t a campsite to be found that didn’t have neighbors; and of course a lot of the Spring Break sites were scattered through the suburbs of Lancaster and Victorville, California. But being alone in the desert is a feature, not a public health requirement. Watching the sun set over the eastern Sierras after a day of collecting north of Owens Lake, the risks and worries are simpler, more familiar. Where should I spend the night? How much ground could I cover the next day? Did I need to stop for gas? Had I finished off that bag of my favorite trail mix? (Yes, back in Lancaster.)

Over the last year, a lot of folks rediscovered the outdoors as the only venue for comparatively safe recreation. I am, all things considered, mighty lucky to be able to go outside for the work I’m paid to do, as well. The mountains and the Joshua trees don’t know about pandemics, and standing out among them, it’s almost possible to picture life after COVID-19 has finally passed into memory.

Eastern Sierra sunset. (Photo by jby)

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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