Down in the valley, the air was refreshing, warm enough for only a sweater. I was glad for the warmth, since I’d be training for my new once-a-week job up at Mount Mitchell, where it was sure to be at least ten degrees colder and much windier. I met my new supervisor at the inn down the highway where he stayed the night, and another person integral to the program joined us for breakfast. Over eggs and grits and delectable corn muffins my two companions talked, among many other things, of the importance of the site, and the unfortunate failure for it to maintain certain criteria to be “put on the map.” It’s up to me to put it on the map, really, since the main criterion is that a weekly sample be collected for so many weeks out of the year. Being “put on the map” means that the sample analysis data from a site are being included in the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s published scientific reports. The NADP has some 200 sites across the nation, and this site is really important, in my non-scientific opinion, due to its elevation and unique ecological location.
And then we drove up to the site, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, up, up, to Mount Mitchell State Park. We stopped at the Ranger’s Station there, and the winds that leapt over the ridge nearly knocked us off our feet. Such a contrast from the sweet Spring-ness below!
We went through a gate and up a well-graded, albeit somewhat rutted, gravel road that wound around Clingman’s Peak to the top. At the very top there are towers. Radio, TV, Highway Patrol, all kinds of communications. And just outside the fence that surrounds all that, nestled amongst Fraser Firs, sits the humble array of scientific equipment which I will be in charge of operating.
There’s a Belfort Rain Gauge–absolutely the cutest little piece of science I’ve seen. It looks like the Tin Man, and I think I’ll refer to it as that. There’s a bucket at the top, and underneath, inside a slide-up door, the science: a little drum around which a chart wraps. The drum turns ever so slowly and a little pen registers on the chart when rain falls, and, by weight, how much falls. It’s an old, mechanical piece of equipment, very straightfoward, and it uses purple ink. There’s talk of replacing the Tin Man with an electronic piece of equipment, and both my companions agreed that the Tin Man would be far more fail safe than a more modern piece of equipment.
Then there’s the precipitation collector, Ms. Buckets, which hasn’t the inherent personality of the Belfort Rain Gauge, but is the key piece of equipment. It’s really just two buckets and a lid. When it rains, the lid moves over to the “dry bucket,” so that the wet bucket can collect a clean precipitation sample. The lid keeps everything except precipitation out of the wet bucket. That way when the sample is sent to the lab for analysis, there isn’t any contamination of the sample from leaves, dirt, etc. I also have to keep my fingers out of the sample, since one little fingerprint has enough to throw off the sample. Must wear gloves, and other such protocol, when working with Ms. Buckets.
I have a few things I’ll need to be doing, bits and pieces to get the ball rolling, but that, in essence, is what I’ll be doing. Collecting, weighing, and sending off the wet deposition (aka “stuff that falls from clouds”) sample from Ms. Buckets, and changing out the Tin Man’s chart.
But that is not all that I’ll be doing, not in the least. The heart of this job, for me, is not the science, though that’s immensely important, nor the paycheck, though that provides incentive. The heart of the job is the weekly pilgrimage to the mountaintop. And it is a pilgrimage. It is a way for me to be in relationship with and make offerings to the Cloud People, the apex of the Mountain, the apex of my Self.
That chapter begins next week, when I return to the peak, prayers in hand.