Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Citizen Scientists Saving the Past for the Future - by Guest Blogger Sharman Apt Russell

This week I'm delighted to introduce Sharman Apt Russell as a guest blogger on OpenScientist.  She is the author of last year's popular Diary of a Citizen Scientist and, to me, she personifies many of the values held by our field.  Though a writer by training she has never lost her love of science, and despite not being a "professional" researcher, has no problem contacting experts in the field to discuss her findings.  She also has a strong commitment to the environment and uses her research passion to help improve our understanding of nature.

Yes there's  more.  Sharman discusses in her book not only her investigations with Tiger Beetles and other native Southwest species, but also her interest in the native people who inhabited the land before us.

Last November she kindly published an excerpt from Diary of a Citizen Scientist on this blog (if you have not read the book I strongly recommend getting a taste for it here).  Today she looks back to the past, writing about the time she spends protecting local archaeological sites for the New Mexico Site Steward program and her experiences spending time in those sacred places.

Site Steward Programs: Saving the Past for the Future 

On my first walk through this archaeological site—a flat gravelly field of mesquite and prickly pear–I soon see signs of looting, dozens of illegal excavations. Most of the digging is around the collapsed stone walls of above-surface rooms dating from 1000 to 1150 AD, known as the Classic Mimbres period, when this village in southwestern New Mexico was flourishing. Artists then used the white interiors of clay bowls as a kind of canvas, drawing with thin black lines narrative images and geometric patterns. These artists, who were likely women, often had a good sense of humor. A bowl might show a fantastical creature half bighorn, half snake or a wolf wearing a deer mask. Today these pots sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is why this site has been so heavily “pot-hunted” in the past.

My job as a New Mexico Site Steward is to protect the scientific value of this site by preventing more damage. Pot hunters look for the pots and funereal goods often buried under the floors of ancient Southwestern homes, buried with the dead, whom many Native Americans see as being on a continuing spiritual journey. To disturb these graves is to disturb that journey. Moreover, to disturb archaeological sites on public land is also illegal, punishable by fines and imprisonment. This site, in particular, is still of interest to archaeologists who in the future can use nonintrusive methods such as heat-sensing to do their research. In this citizen science program—a partnership of agencies funded by the National Park Service and operating in a number of states--the emphasis is on preserving archaeological sites for that future.

Since that first day, I have been to this “village” in the Gila National Forest at least twice a year for the last three years. The thrill never gets old. The ground here is littered with the remains of broken pots from a human occupancy that lasted from 800 to1200 AD and again in 1375 to 1450 AD. I am free to touch and finger these clay shards as long as I carefully put them back where I found them. I pick up (and put down) a square of white with thin black lines, part of a Classic Mimbres bowl—perhaps the image of a crane spearing a fish or a woman giving birth. I pick up (and put down) a curved piece the size of my palm of corrugated brown or cooking ware—all those stews, simmering meat and roots and herbs. I pick up (and put down) a zigzag pattern of red and white, part of an Escher-like complexity, geometry and the human aesthetic: look at the world in this way.

The thrill never gets old. The sun is hot on the back of my neck. I breathe in the smell of earth. My heart beats its pulse of blood. And I feel that connection to this life, this potter, this woman. Maybe she had children. Certainly she had worries. A difficult mother-in-law. An abscessed tooth. Danger in the form of snake and mountain lion. Suddenly my own life in the twenty-first century seems like a dream--an amazing, amusing, fantastical dream. Smartphones, restaurants, traffic lights. None of that is more real than this moment among the mesquite and prickly pear. 

Although I pick up and put down shards for my own pleasure, I am also taking notes and photographs of the area, looking for signs of new damage caused by humans or animals or other natural forces. This is the job of the site steward, explained in the Site Steward Handbook: Find It, Record It, Report It. The program is carefully set up to avoid confrontation between its volunteers and any potential looter or criminal. Approaching my designated site, for example, I am instructed to move quietly and cautiously, muting any cell phone or radio. If I see anyone on the site, I should watch them from a distance, collect whatever information is possible such as license number and “subject description,” and then leave. The New Mexico Site Steward manual warns, “Never place yourself or your vehicle on a hilltop or on the skyline of an open ridge—this makes you easy to spot. If there is no obvious way to conduct your observations safely—do not observe!” I am also reminded that the sun reflecting off binoculars can signal my presence and that I should dress for weather, carry plenty of water, tell my site manger when I am going, travel in teams if possible, watch for natural hazards, not pick up litter (a clue as to who else has been here), gas up my vehicle before leaving, stay near the vehicle if it breaks down, be careful while driving through arroyos, and avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight. Sending people out to remote areas in the Southwest is no joke, and we all take the job seriously.

As well as this village, I have one more nearby site to visit: a small cliff dwelling high and hidden on a crumbly slope that requires some climbing. Here a still-solid adobe wall blocks half an overhanging ledge to create a darkened, cave-like room. The narrow entrance to the room still has its wooden lintel. Peering into the dark, hand on the lintel, I feel the frisson of time-travel scented with mice urine. Elsewhere on the ledge, I check to see if the quartz crystals are still wedged into porous rock. Because of these crystals, my mentoring archaeologist has speculated that this dwelling might have been a shaman’s camp, used ceremonially. But he doesn’t know when. People were doing a lot of that in the 1960s, too.

 The way back to my car is through a slick-rock canyon, the streambed only a few feet wide, pinkish white-gray rock above my shoulders. Next I pass under a cliff of yellow and orange, weathered and oxidized, showing a bit of iron before the canyon narrows again. Now the boulders pile against each other, creating a narrow space, flood debris caught in the cracks and angles, tangles of root and dirt and stone. The air is rich with oak leaf and the musk of some animal. The world is pink and white under the sky’s blue bowl. The silence is broken by my own steps and the gurgly thonk-thonk-thonk and ka-ka-ka of a raven. I feel lucky to be here, connected to both past and future, in a world filled with so much treasure. 

Sharman Apt Russell lives a mile from the Gila National Forest in Southwestern New Mexico and teaches writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and at the low-residency MFA program in Antioch University in Los Angeles.  Her recent book Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World was named by The Guardian as a top ten nature book of 2014 and is available now from the Oregon State University Press.  For more information, go to her website at   She will be speaking about citizen science this April 4 at the Audobon's Woodend Nature Center in Chevy Chase, MD.