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Low Elevation Alpine Love - LIVE

by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Our second audio story is here! You can hear Caitlin's story using the video link below. A transcript is also available below:

I fell in love with alpine plants at the bottom of the mountain. In college I worked as an environmental educator at a backcountry hut in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Many of these huts are “high mountain,” perched just at treeline for beautiful hikes through alpine communities with Sound-of-Music-style panoramic views of open summits.

My hut, Zealand Falls, was not a high mountain hut. Our elevation was 2700’ and we were surrounded by lowland trees like paper birch and striped maple. But, Zealand Falls had waterfalls. During the lull of midday — the post-breakfast quiet when all of last night’s guests had hiked on to higher peaks, and that night’s guests were still trudging up the trail — I spent hours wading up the Zealand River, lounging in the rills and climbing the falls.

Little clumps of butter-cup-yellow flowers clung to the moss-covered rocks in the middle of the falls: mountain avens. In New Hampshire, mountain avens belong to much higher elevations; this rare plant with a truly weird post-glacial distribution is endemic to the White Mountain alpine zone and coastal Nova Scotia. Mountain avens are supposed to be high mountain hut plants, not inland valley forest plants.

The mountain aven

They didn’t grow on the banks of the river, or anywhere in the forest around the hut, just the waterfall. They seemed to know what I knew: the falls were a cool retreat from the July heat. Living with mountain avens, and sharing their waterfall microclimate for a summer, made me feel like I had a secret alpine plant “pet.”

Years later, as a graduate student, I returned to the White Mountains. I monitored plots full of mountain avens clustered around the high mountain huts. In the post-breakfast quiet, I’d grab a leftover muffin, walk outside while the college hut croo wrapped up washing dishes and settle in against a glacial erratic to record flowering across my plots, adding another season of data to a long-term project tracing the ecological impacts of climate change on alpine plants. The low elevation waterfall avens were not included in the study design, and when I started my PhD, my dissertation research shifted east to Acadia National Park, a dark spot in the mountain avens’ disjointed range map. I’d visit the waterfall avens in the off-season, hiking the familiar trail to Zealand Falls on long weekends in the fall, once dragging my labmates along through November snow flurries on the day before we had a conference in the valley.

Now, as a postdoc, my alpine plants are more abstract. I collect pollen cores from high elevation ponds in New England and sift through the layers of mud. For 15,000 years these ponds have kept a record of the plant communities along their shores; as leaves and seeds and pollen fall into the water, they are archived in the mud at the bottom. My research aims to read that archive and trace the changes in the plant communities over time. If we can reconstruct how alpine vegetation responded to past warming events, maybe we can get a better handle on how these plants will fare under future climate change.

I probably won’t see mountain aven pollen in my cores. Mountain avens are too rare, and they are insect pollinated. If a couple rogue grains of mountain aven pollen did make it into one of my ponds at some point in the past, they are probably swamped by contributions from other species, the wind-pollinators are so prolific, the spruce and fir trees at the edge of treeline so common. In my “student kit” — a box of pre-made slides to help me learn my pollens — there is no mountain aven slide. But, I’ve found mountain avens in unexpected places before.

Of course, the real question isn’t will I see mountain aven pollen in a slice of pond sediment from 8,000 years ago? The real question is this: will my daughters, and someday their children, be able to hike to the high mountain huts and find mountain avens in the alpine zone? What plant will they they fall in love with at a low elevation waterfall? And will they have to spend their careers documenting the probability of its extinction?

A young Caitlin in Maine

To read about Caitlin's PLS Live experience and storytelling check out her post in the PLOS Ecology Community Blog: On Story Telling.

Caitlin "mountain aven" McDonough MacKenzie is a 2017 Smith fellow and a founder of Plant Love Stories. She uses fossil pollen to study plants of the past alpine plant communities in Maine. You can follow Caitlin in Maine at @CaitlinInMaine


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