In Search of a Better Scraper

One of my main pedological field tools (pedology is the science of dirt), other than my trusty shovel, is the “scraper.”  The search for the perfect scraper is the focus of all my gear-hunting efforts.  The scraper is used when looking at a soil profile to get a clean, flat, clear soil face to look at.  I have tried, or seen tried as scrapers: old army shovels; the head of a Pulaski firefighting tool on a shorter handle, like a hammer handle; garden hoes; garden trowels; masonry trowels; barbeque spatula; and an ice scraper.  I even used a pie knife for a while.  The very best scraper tool I have used, though, and perhaps the most widely used and deeply loved, is a pointed Marshalltown Trowel.

Wenas Mammoth Dig: 2005 Field Season

There have been no updates on the site for quite a while because I have spent the last six weeks (June 28-August 05, 2005) working at the Wenas, WA mammoth excavation. This was the first season of excavation at the site. The dig was set up as a field school through Central Washington University’s Office of Continuing Education, with participation from the University’s Geography and Anthropology Departments. My participation in the dig was as a member of the field school.

Mammoth left humerus next to the same bone from an adult cow

In February of this year, a construction crew was building a private road to a house on the hill on the south side of Wenas Valley, when the backhoe they were using to create the road-cut struck bone. The bone that they found was determined, after examination by a member of the faculty at CWU, to be the left humerus of an elephant-sized mammal. The excavation field school began in the end of June, with nine students (only two of us from the Geography Department: the rest were archaeology students from the Anthropology Department), three CWU professors, and Bax Barton, a paleoecologist with the University of Washington’s Quaternary Research Center. At the time, the primary objective of the dig was to establish a geologic context for the left humerus that had been found, with finding more bone, and identifying the species of the animal as secondary objectives. One of my tasks, part of establishing the geologic context of the humerus, was to work on the stratigraphy and sedimentology of the site.

Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the field school, much of the first week was spent in the classroom, where principles and techniques from the various disciplines involved (geomorphology, paleontology, archaeology, stratigraphy, geology, ecology, biology, etc.) were presented to the members of the field school. The time not spent in the classroom during the first week was spent preparing the excavation site for a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey. The GPR machine only has a clearance of a few three or four inches, so all the brush and grass had to be removed from the site in patches large enough to create two survey grids, something like 20m x 15m, each.

The GPR machine is walked back and forth across the survey site at 50cm intervals, both laterally and horizontally, measuring the rate of reflection of radio waves at depths, in slices across the grid. When the lattice of slice, lateral and horizontal are put together in advanced software, and interpolated, the result is a three-dimensional image, and map slices at various depths, showing spots where reflected returns are higher, or lower than average, suggesting buried materials that reflect radio waves better or worse than the surrounding soil matrix.

Based on vague returns from the GPR survey, an excavation grid was laid out, and two backhoe trenches were dug, at an average depth of 2m, and with a total length of something like 35m, in an L-shape around the East and South of the excavation grid. I spent the better part of five weeks in those two trenches, with Dr. Karl Lillquist, a geomorphologist, and chair of my department at CWU, working out the stratigraphic story of the site, in a way that is both understandable, and defensible.

Mosaic of the North trench stratigraphic drawings.  Click to view a PDF of the Wenas site stratigraphic drawings.  Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Viewer is required.


The field school was originally set to be four weeks long. However, Jake Shapley, the field assistant, and the greatest champion of the Wenas dig, pushed for a six-week field school, and it was approved, extending to six weeks before it was advertised. The thinking for the four-week school was that, with only one bone, and no real reason to believe that there was any more at the site, it might be a stretch to fill up even a four-week course. The first three weeks of the excavation seemed proof that there just wasn’t enough to fill up the time. While Dr. Lillquist and I systematically described the site stratigraphy in the trenches, using orange-flagged nails on a 50cm grid to mark boundaries between layers, and while Ryan Murphy, the other member of the field school from the Geography Department, used a total-station (an advanced piece of surveying equipment that uses lasers and prisms to plot three-dimensional coordinates of surveyed points) to map the topography and excavation geography of the site, the archaeology students (with participation from the rest of us: everyone doing their part, especially when large volumes of dirt had to be moved) proceeded to open 2m x 2m excavation units, and dig them down, in a controlled, scientific manner, using archaeology techniques, 10cm at a time, screening all of the dirt from their units, looking for bones or artifacts. The excavation units really turned up nothing but shattered fragments of bone, mostly spongy material, for the first three weeks.

View Southat the Wenas site, up the North trench.

During week four, everything changed. All of a sudden, starting on Tuesday of that week, all of the excavation units started to have large bone. From the fourth week on, a right humerus (possibly a mate to the original left humerus), some possible rib bone, and what might be large pieces of cranial bone, were all uncovered at the site. The finds started to be of a great enough volume that the dig, which was only originally scheduled for four weeks, has been approved for a second field season, and there is talk of third and fourth field seasons.

The last few days of the dig were spent marking the stratigraphies of the excavation units, and marrying them to the stratigraphy of the trenches.

Speaking of the significance of the dig, Bax Barton mentioned that this might be the largest scientific excavation of Pleistocene mega-fauna that has been done in the Northwest. While that may seem to be a rather focused and qualified achievement, it is some kind of contribution.

Photos, diagrams, maps, and more explanation of the results of the dig will be posted here, in a revision to this article, as they are available.

Global Earth Observing System of Systems

It must be going on a couple of years now that we have been getting e-mails at work talking about GEOSS, a new “system of systems” that will somehow greatly increase our knowledge about the Earth, but it wasn’t until just a few days ago that the real importance of the project hit me.  I got so excited about the whole thing that I wanted to write an article about it, but realized that I couldn’t really remember any of the specifics about the system from the few years of half-read e-mail.  An EPA document helped supply the facts that I haven’t really been paying attention to over the last couple of years.

GEOSS, which stands for Global Earth Observing System of Systems, is an attempt to “connect the dots” between thousands of individual pieces of technology that are gathering earth observations around the globe.  The global initiative is spearheaded by the United States, through the Group on Earth Observations, and supported by sixty countries, the European Commission and more than 40 international organizations.  NOAA’s Earth Observing System Web page, in speaking of GEOSS, asks us to “imagine a world in which we can forecast winter weather months in advance; predict where the next outbreak of malaria, SARS or West Nile virus is likely to hit; and, in the U.S. alone, reduce energy costs by about $1 billion annually.”

Of the system, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said, “Our environment knows no boundaries. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water. We all cause pollution—every one of us. And working together, we can find the solutions and affect the changes needed to protect people, promote prosperity and preserve our planet,”

I don’t think I quite understood the significance of GEOSS, and I still probably don’t realize it fully, but I see GEOSS as something like the Google of Earth data.  It is the very discontinuity of data about the Earth’s systems that causes so much contention in making policy and management decisions.  We don’t know exactly how to fix the Earth’s problems when we don’t exactly know, from our fractured data, what the Earth’s problems are, or even if it really has any.  GEOSS represents an opportunity to finally get a whole snapshot of the Earth’s health. I am so excited.


I will post more about GEOSS as I know more.

Tips for Taking Field Notes

While digital cameras have helped to improve our ability to capture a site visually, photos cannot provide a record of experience.  You cannot determine the smell of a sub-alpine forest from a photo.  The feel of the wind or the temperature of a certain day cannot be conveyed with a photograph of the area.  Detailed field notes can capture observations and experiences at a site that cannot be preserved any other way.  A photograph can show what a soil profile looked like, but a detailed drawing shows what a soil profile looked like to you.  Properly written notes can give full access to feelings and observations, even years and decades after they have been forgotten.  Just as important, or even more important, is the fact the other people, who have maybe never been to the site where you took your notes, and have maybe never even heard of it, can experience the same things that you did, by reading your detailed, well written notes.

Detailed, properly written field notes can be the difference between  being able to write that report in a year or two, and not.  They can be the difference between proving that the bug you saw really was a silver-headed watzitcalled beetle, or not.  However, taking those detailed, properly written field notes is an art, and in this age of clipart, word-processors, and digital cameras, it seems to be something of a dieing art.  This article will present some tips that, hopefully, will help you to keep better notes.

What to Write

  • Even before leaving for the field, make of list of things that you need to look for to fulfill your purpose for going out into the field.  For a soil study, this list might include topography, parent materials, time, biota, weather, and anthropogenic impacts (the six soil forming factors).  Observations on all six of these should be necessary in a soil study, so they would all go on your pre-list.  If you are keeping a birding journal, and your purpose in going out in the field is to see birds, your list would include things that you should notice about the behavior, location, and setting of the birds you see, that you might forget to make observations about if you don’t have a list.
  • Note the time, weather conditions, location, elevation, and the people in your field party at the top of your notes.  All of these things can affect the quality and quantity of your notes.  When it is cold or wet, I take fewer notes.  When my wife and son are with me, I take fewer notes.  When I am on a steep slope, I take fewer notes.  Written comments about these things can be important later, when looking back at your notes, to help you understand the reasons for the observations that you made and the things that you wrote (or didn’t write).
  • Record your location(s) in your notes.  Exact locations are very important because they allow your observations to be replicated, and they give meaning to your observations (i.e. seeing a penguin in Africa, which is special, as opposed to Antarctica, which perhaps is not).  Use a GPS, mark your location on a map, or give directions and distances from permanent landmarks (i.e. 153 meters directly West of BM5326, etc.)
  • Write down what you see when you see it.  Don’t rely on your memory, or your digital camera (or your friend’s digital camera).
  • Include observations that are obvious to you, but might not be obvious to someone else.

When to Write

  • Observations and drawings of a specimen should be made before consulting field guides.  A thorough, accurate written description can be used to identify the specimen, and as proof of identification.
  • One idea when observing wildlife is to spend all of the time the animal is visible in observing, and then writing observations down after the animal is gone.  While there are many advantages to this method, there is also a great chance that something will be overlooked, or forgotten in the space between seeing and writing.  Sometimes scribbling while watching gives a better chance of recording all observations.
  • Spend some time when you get back from the field going over your notes.  You will be surprised at the number of things that you remember, but that you didn’t write down, and at the number of things that you thought that you wrote much clearer.  Spend some time filling in things that you missed, fixing any errors you made, and editing for understandability.

How to Write

  • When you want to record a high resolution of detail, a hierarchal outline is often much better than prose.  Sentences smoosh ideas together, often with little thought for relationship, and make them hard to find.  A hierarchal outline will keep your ideas together relationally, and will make them easier to find and understand later.  Also, outline points are often much easier and quicker to write out than long sentences.
  • Leave extra room in your notes between points.  When you come back to your notes when you are back from the field (see the point above under “When to Write”), it can be very helpful to have space to add all of the things that you remember, but that never got written down.

Drawings and Figures

  • Use drawings and diagrams as much as you can.
  • Draw at least one overhead map, and make a profile sketch of your site, even if you have topographic maps and air photos.  Maps and air photos generally show only a very course resolution.  Hand-drawn maps can often be drawn at a larger scale, with a much finer resolution.  Use mapping tools such as a pocket transect and measuring tape, if you have them.
  • Can’t draw?  Don’t worry, neither can anyone else.  The key is to draw what you see, and not what you would like to see.  Practice is very important.  Don’t just practice drawing, though.  You must practice drawing what you see.
  • A good way to start practicing drawing what you see is to copy pictures out of a field guide.  Trace if you have to.  It may feel like cheating, but if it helps you to get a feel for the relative shapes and sizes you are looking for, it certainly seems worth it.  Pay attention to detail.  Copying out of field guides not only gives you practice in drawing what you see, but it gets you familiar with drawing the things that you will be looking to see, such as particular species, or landforms, or minerals.  As you get better at drawing what you see, check out the book []Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards.
  • Drawing and diagrams should be kept as simple, and easy to read as they can be, while still maintaining accuracy.

 Where to Find More Information

While many of these links are to birding sites (I am not a birder), and tutorials on keeping birding journals, the information in them applies pretty well to most situations in the field.


Image Credits: Creative Commons Photo uploaded to Flickr on April 26, 2008 by Dvortygirl –


How much do you know?

The University of California, Berkley School of Information Managment Systems has conduct research since 1999 to determine how much new information is created each year. This topic of study, and the results have direct implications for grassroots science. First, this is the kind of thing that armchair physicists and free-time mathematicians could and should be working on. What other topics like this could be addressed?

Second, with so much information being created every year, how do amateur and underfunded scientists stay on top of it all? With all this information out there, how do those same scientists get their results out to the world? Just a couple of thoughts.

Read the study at:


I found this site while looking for something else, but it makes some points that I think are important in the grassroots sciences. The page talks about narrowing the focus of research topics until they are focused and relevant. It gives points to design research projects worth doing. A thought that I took away from this page was that we need to ask more questions that we don’t already know the answer to.