Enlightenment within, without, but most importantly, out and about! -G. Gobbato

They say enlightenment has been reached when we individually shed all the layers giving us the illusion that we are an identity; that we are somehow removed from the everything continuously occurring around us (and within us). In a sense, when we shed these layers, we metaphorically become lighter beings, less weighed down by the everyday complications ranging from angry roommates to data entry. It is also said that wild places facilitate these realizations where many people find themselves being a part of the everything. It is easy to feel that way here in Zion National Park.

Checkerboard Mesa

Kolob Terrace Road, post burn

The last couple of weeks have been exciting for the herbarium because I am trying to daily go somewhere in the park, and target specific species that are missing in Zion’s collection. I have collected 50 species, most of them new to the herbarium. I have also recruited: the Vegetation crew; the Fire FX crew; the Chief of Resources; and even an amazing botanist who has worked in this region the last ten years, to all collect and look for the species we are missing. I am hopeful that in this upcoming month we will be able to drastically reduce the number of species we are missing.

On that note, I have had some really exciting finds recently. I went to a hidden hanging garden with a new vegetation seasonal employee who also happens to be my new, very cool roommate. He is amazing with plants and also knows the animalia and fungi kingdoms. He was great to have out in the field. We found the rare local endemic Viola clauseniana, which according to USDA plants, occurs only in this county. We wonder why it is not federally listed. It is the first time I’ve ever seen it; our Annotated Checklist of Vascular Flora of Zion NP states that this species was described here in Zion NP in 1936 by Baker.

Viola clauseniana

The other awesome plant I found was Cheilanthes feei (slender lipfern). Mostly, it is awesome because it was the last fern I had to find and collect in order to have found all 19 ferns; Historic, Rare, and Present in Zion.  C. feei is also very special regardless of my perception of it because it has uniquely glabrous leaflets above and very finely scaled white underbelly- xeric adaptations. And, for a million other reasons I probably struggle to comprehend, such as that it is a cosmopolitan genera, and its DNA sequence is probably triple mine.  I am glad I am, in a sense, a part of it.

Cheilanthes feei

Gear for collecting the last fern for the Herbarium!

It Smells of Daisies

Every time I write the date at the top of a new page, I feel a small shock as I register the year. Already 2012. For a life which can only be lived once, it flies by rather quickly. One excellent characteristic about Zion National Park is that regardless of how long one has been walking the galleries of its canyons or speculating from the rims of its plateaus, there is always something more to be seen. Some new adventure waits to suction the minutes from my days. Fortunately, the diversity of activities also makes the moments string comprehensively into a full year, which is almost how long I have been here.
Being a returning CLM intern, I find these next three months to be particularly productive; at least they will be in my mind. I have finally figured out all the ins-and-outs of the park, I have used GIS to make maps guiding me toward my now weekly expeditions. There is an overall order to the internship’s progress, a more clearly laid out path toward success.
I suppose I should have begun by explaining what my internship consists of. The official herbarium collection is safely locked away since it has specimens dating back to the 1930s that cannot get tarnished with daily wear and tear. As such, years ago, the vegetation department and the fire research crew began a herbarium that was meant to be more readily accessible.
The working herbarium is constantly being updated; Northern Arizona University donated hundreds of vouchers from two areas they surveyed after wild fires. When I arrived, there were about 800 species that had yet to be collected, processed, and filed. That has been my job since last May. I also volunteered for three months over the winter. During these months I wrote project proposals for federal funds with a colleague who soon became a close friend/ coworker/confidant/ and house-mate.
Now, back on herbarium work, I am concentrating on the early blooming species starting from the lowest elevations and moving upward. My latest trip was somewhat of a botanical failure because few species are blooming. However, I got to take the ZNP Chief of Resource Division on a multiday trip; this in itself was fantastic. Hearing all his stories, laughing from curious life situations, keying out anything we found in bloom, and hiking through beautiful remote canyons was altogether spectacular. I suppose this is a new beginning for CLM but I feel like I have lived a lifetime in this wild land. Oh, and the manzanitas smell of honey, the daisies of chamomile, and junipers of the Colorado Plateau.

Para bailar la bamba

Extraordinary… just about five months have passed now and my whole life has changed. Cliché? Perhaps, but true none the less. I flew from Guatemala expecting a structured job consisting of plant collections and completing the working herbarium. Now memories flood my mind as I recapitulate the actual occurrences of these months. Learning database management, re-using html I learned in tenth grade, organizing hundreds of vouchers, monitoring fire plots, figuring out GPS units, getting excited for finding new or beautiful plants, learning GIS, learning traditional climbing, canyoneering, hiking more than 15 miles in a day (with a heavy pack), archaeology, diving deep into the curling stamen of cacti flowers, cooling down in waterfalls, walking for hours in a river (The Narrows), getting caught on slick rock in the dark because of watching the moonrise, using telemetry to find desert tortoise (found 7!), seeing condors, big horned sheep, owls, rattle snakes, a mountain lion, peregrines, and crazy tourists… yet still being more excited about finding a rare fern or gentian in bloom than any of the animals I have seen, hence reminding me that plant science was the right career choice… all these moments sum up a fraction of what this season has been. When work feels more like play, and all these 150 days feel like the most brilliant time of my life, I know I am in the right place.

The right place is more than just a physical point in time and space. It’s a state of being. And I see now how open-mindedness, expansive personalities, and general excitement to be alive is really what makes any physical place the right place to be. I came to Zion a novice in life and love, and now I finish the internship knowing that I am capable of so much. We are all capable of infinite knowledge, of independence, or countless opportunities, all as long as we believe in ourselves and give those around us a chance to confer all their learned lessons, thus enriching our lives and expanding our horizons. For now, Zion is really the physically right place to be, and I am lucky enough to be volunteering here for another two months after the internship ends. This way, I will finish the projects I have developed. Staying also gives me the opportunity to further expand my repertoire of techniques and get me ready for the next great adventure. I thank CLM masterminds for making this internship a possibility, my mentor for giving me so much freedom yet still expecting the best of me and in this way keeping me constantly striving for excellence on every dimension. I thank all the wonderful people I have had the honor and pleasure to meet, those who have taught me to love the world more deeply…


As the second to last month winds down to a closure, I almost feel as if the month that remains were slipping away alongside too. I think of how many things I have yet to do, so many places to fall in love with, and definitely not enough time. I’ve even began planning how I can come back next year. This last month has been a mixture of working with vouchers, working with different divisions learning their skill set (or some of it anyway) and field work. But most its activities have proven to make it a month of personal reflection. It is of my belief that humans can have almost anything they want, but it’s finding the wanting that is difficult. I have learned so much about life through this job: How to push my boundaries so far they get lost in the distance; how to be grateful for life in every situation, just for simply being alive; how to wake up every morning and decide to have a marvelous day…
For example, just a few days ago I went camping to this beautiful and remote area of the park. I chose to go here because it had never been surveyed. I knew this because of map I made using GIS; I plotted all the points that have been entered in the Herbarium Database, of both the Working and Historical Collection. These points give me a good idea as to which areas of the park should still be surveyed and using the points of the Historical Collection, I can find out where the plants that the Working Herbarium is missing actually are. As I was hiking in, I saw a beautiful gigantic butte. It was basically impossible to get to it, but I knew I wanted to, and that no one else would go there. So the next morning I climbed up the steep mountain for several hours, finding different interesting Haplopapus (Asteraceae) on the way. When I got to the butte I felt I had taken myself further than I would normally have, and I succeeded. Thus, now I know that the furthest point I think I can reach, still falls short of what I can actually do. As it is with everyone, I think. Among the Manzanita and Quercus gambelii slithered out the biggest rattle snake I have seen in my life. It was going toward me, so I moved to let it know I was there. It stopped dead in its tracks and when I left to get the camera, it disappeared. I left soon after that, just finished making Chysothamnus and Eriogonum vouchers and bolted down the mountain. When I got to the trail I saw that the way I had come down was probably the only way that was remotely possible to ascend. I had not noticed, but there were small cliffs to either side of the path I took. And that leads me to the idea that gratefulness is really key in life, because anything can happen, yet we are still here with the possibility of loving life. I went on another long hike and found many other plants but by the time I got back to my car and the trailhead leading to my campsite, it was already dark. I left the excess gear and started down Lee Pass. About mid way I saw probably the only other sight that would have shot my adrenalin more than a rattle snake… The glow of two bright green orbs 50 m ahead of me. Mountain lions are common in this area, but if I was to see one, I had always hoped it would be at least in the day time… Alas it was not this way, so I did what I was taught and got ready to fight, just in case it came to that. After waiting some time, hopefully giving the cat time to mind its business, I continued onward to my tent where I laid awake feeling wonderfully alive, albeit in a tad of peril (just the way life usually is).

I might be in heaven

Life becomes complicated when you are having so much fun that work and fun become inseparable. Can I really call hiking around spectacular places looking for beautiful mysterious plants work? That is way too much fun. I feel almost guilty at enjoying myself so thoroughly hiking from one valley to the next, one canyon to another. These last two weeks have been epically busy. First I had to work through inordinate amounts of data to find out what species are in Dakota Hills that have already been collected. Dakota Hills are in the far north east of Zion National Park. In 2007 there was a massive fire, thus changing the ecosystem quite a bit. The archaeology department at Zion National Park invited me to come along on a four day trip to Dakota Hills.  I, of course, quickly said yes. Passing up opportunities to go wonderful new places is out of the question. To get to Dakota Hills was a mission in itself; we road on BLM land with horses for two hours until we finally made it to the park boundary. We bade our farewells to our cowboys and set up camp among burnt Pinus ponderosa, Juniperus osteosperma and beautiful bunch grasses, Penstemons of various kinds, odd fabaceae, and many jasper flakes Native Americans had left thousands of years ago.
The first day we dedicated to finding out where the archaeological sites where and how to get there. It was lightly raining as thunderstorms continuously rolled in from the south east. The maze of Quercus gambelii felt like a car wash for humans as we bushwhacked out way around countless hills and washes. Finally we found the tributary system upon which the sites were. Throughout all of this hiking, I gathered a good sense of what species were out there and which I had to key.
We got back to camp, ate a quick dinner of pre-made parmesan pasta that would have made my nonna reconsider having me as a granddaughter. Honestly, for camp food it was pretty good. The next two days were an array of hiking crazy amounts, learning the history of the Americas the last 40,000 years, finding amazing projectile points 10,000-8,000 years old AND finding out what EACH plant species up there was. The main archeologist said it was the best trip of his career! My collection is now up to 28 specimens!
It was wonderful to have an inter-departmental cooperation between vegetation and archaeology. I think the two archeologists I went with enjoyed learning the flora of the sites they visited and I lack words to describe how happy and thankful I was learning how to treasure hunt and protect historical patrimony.
My plant collection is still missing all the plant I collected last weekend when I hiked to the most beautiful part of Zion I have yet been. On the far west side, there is a whole array of canyons and valleys that take ones breath away. I was hiking out there for recreational purposes but I knew I was bound to find magical plant species so I brought a small plant press along. I was absolutely right. There were columbines twice the size of the common red and yellow ones we see in the main canyon. There was one absolutely phenomenal Ranunculaceae Aconitum columbianum that is deep purple, on a long raceme. It has a hood, two keel petals, and a morphology that looks more like an orchid than anything else. B E A Utiful. It is rare, and probably at the end of its season, so tomorrow I head out to try to find it again. Find it and the other 20 species out there that are, without a doubt, to live for. The crazy thing is, when I get back, I am going into The Narrows as part of work too! Then is when I start wondering if maybe I died rock climbing and went to heaven where work is the most fun one can possibly have…

Adventure and Uncertainty are synonymous

Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah; 1500 hours. 24th of May.

Maybe the only thing one can be certain of is that one can’t be certain. Here I am, having traveled Guatemala-Fort Lauderdale-Los Angeles-Zion, and yet my place in Zion is still uncertain (due to unexpected spinning of hamster wheels). But can I be bothered? By being surrounded with sandstone cathedrals, piercing blue skies, and, well, (as all things appears to be) a very uncertain weather pattern? Hardly a bother. “The vegetation is bound to be complex” I think to myself, “ever changing and infinitely enticing.” On the short but splendid trip up Zion Canyon, Columbines (Aquilegia spp.) reached out of the moist canyon walls to greet the passersby. Shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum var. zionense) decorated the slick, sky-reflecting sandstone. Rain droplets began to fall then… Soft at first, hanging in the air along with cottonwood seeds making everything even more magical. The wind got stronger as the Bernoulli Effect forced the fluid air and water between the canyon walls the Virgin River has carved. Cold and wet, everyone began to scanter about, trying to find shelter. It always rains on the important days of my life. Then again, what day is less than important? The day after the present is only possible thanks to the day prior. Life is quite peculiar. One either is or isn’t, and being only makes sense if we are in movement and continuity. Any single moment without the sustenance of past experience and future dreams and aspirations ceases to make sense. Half of life is just perceptions in our minds, and my mind is only experiences woven together. Zion, place of refuge. What will I perceive? For now, gratitude. Gratitude for being alive and surrounded by millions of flying cotton bits and red towers.

Now, three weeks after this journal entry, I look back on how many successes I have enjoyed. Working for the Resource Management Department is beyond an honor. Working with the herbarium is exactly what I have wanted. I am learning everything from systematic botany to computer management and databases. I have mostly dedicated the first three weeks to office work and data entry in order to know exactly which plants are missing. Touching every sample (770 and counting) and getting to know each collectors relationship with the specimen has helped get a good handle of the species in Zion. My education prior had, in part, been in the Mojave Desert. This has given me somewhat of an advantage since some Mojave species are here in Zion as well. Many species are new, but I feel wonderful every time I see a species and can at least know its family, sometimes genus. Memories of Natural History Field Quarter at UC Santa Cruz rush back as I stroke the softly pubescent and aromatic leaves of an Artemisia tridentata, or stumble upon a magnificent array of Opunitia spp in bloom. Here and there, a more mysterious Asclepias asperula var. asperula (spider milkweed) can be found, enchanting with its absolute symmetry in 5’s. Working in an air-conditioned room in front of a computer could be perceived as a negative aspect to database work, but one can always find the awesomeness if one is willing to look for it. Access has become somewhat of a game now. The database is quite user-friendly if one is patient and probing. I have found that the Plant Ecologist that works for Zion is a master at making splendid labels for the herbarium specimens. They are so complete, that I have been able to use them to pinpoint locations of plants that are still missing in the herbarium. I have done this by seeing what he labeled as the associate species of the specimen. Some of those will be new entries to the herbarium. Small but exciting details such as these make even a potentially dull exercise quite the opposite. I am looking forward to learn GIS, GPS navigation, Plot reading, traditional rock climbing, cacti pressing, and just about any opportunity I can find. Live Love and Learn, for uncertainty is everywhere, synonymous to adventure and change.