Sawdust and Mosquito Wings

By Neil Pederson

When embarking on research in Mongolia, though in all other situations, too, it is best to couch your disposition in two important mindsets: patience and persistence. Perhaps the best way to begin these journeys is to take on an almost Buddhistic mindset and not get too clingy to objects. It is best to let it come as it should. Of course it is easier to type that then to sit in a jeep for a few days and see nothing that warrants sampling like the below. Oh, it is beautiful, but not helpful for study.

birch forest

It seems like every sampling trip here in Mongolia begins like 2011 did: searching for a goldmine site, but finding little of research value. It has happened so often that I have finaly learned to sit back and have some kind of faith that the trees will appear. This mindset finally paid off during the first leg of our field season. In fact, it paid off so well that by the last day, it seems our bodies were running on sawdust and mosquito wings. suggested the field season would be cool, nicely cool. A colleague in Mongolia came back from the field and reported that it would be one of the worst field seasons in terms of insects. So, as Murphy’s Law sort of goes, both expectations trended in the opposite direction as we would like.

After spending about a day and a half of looking for good sites, we finally got a lead through a village elder for potentially old forests. Most of that conversation is recorded below:

Listen to his accent. Can you pick out the word davaa? How about nars? [nars = Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris; davaa = mountain pass]

This is why we should listen to our elders – in the end, they are often correct. The key phrase is “in the end” because as we drove up into the steep and narrow valley he suggested, again, all we saw was this:

beautiful, but not what we came looking for

Even the drive back down valley held little promise. Baatar had noticed some rocky slopes that might have something good. But, from our perspective, the trees didn’t look as old as we needed [we are constantly on the search for 300-400+ yr old trees so we can learn what the long-term trends and patterns are in climate and ecology]. We decided it was worth a look and shortly after beginning our hike, we found a decent pine with 5-7 fire scars, “ok, this seems ok”.

Bayaraa retrieving a sample from our first tree; note: no trees were killed in the collection of our samples. There is no evidence yet that plunge cuts change mortality least for 7 yrs.

We continued up the slope and found middle-aged trees (~150-200 yrs) with a few fire scars (4-6). It was fine, but not what we really hoped for.

We finally found a tree a little bit older and with 7+ fire scars. Like Pavlov’s dog, we started dreaming about rewards. We started racing upslope to find more of these trees. Along the way, we started noticing remnant wood – trees that likely died 50-100 yrs ago – that could help us extend our knowledge of fire history back to the 1700s, perhaps even the 1600s!

Having an extra crew member in Erdene, I became the bird-dog: “dog will hunt!” [for old, fire-scarred trees]

I went on ahead and started searching all slopes for old, fire-scarred trees. The slope and bedrock made the work fun. The heat, on the other hand, required rationing a bit on water. I finally treaded up a narrow ridge in hopes of finding more. While hiking this ‘knife-edge’, I kept coming back to the idea that I get paid to do this; I’m a lucky dog.

a knife edge

Perhaps the neatest thing I saw was a planking tree (you know this fad is really getting out of hand when a tree in northern Mongolia planks).

planking nars

Towards the upper end of the ridge I came upon a couple trees that looked pretty good. I didn’t fully inspect them as I had been ‘out’ for an hour and didn’t hear the chainsaw behind me. I was concerned that I had gone too far ahead. I circled back and found our crew hunched over the saw where I left them an hour earlier. Seems some bad gas hampered the saw and Bayaraa and Erdene were on their way to becoming chainsaw technicians of the first order. They finally got the saw fired up after another 25 minutes and we headed upslope to collect a couple of samples from stumps near the false-peak.

Bayaraa retrieving a sample from the false-peak stump

It was now getting late in the day. I was sunburnt, it was hot, we were running low on water and food. Spirits had plunged a bit following the Chainsaw Repair Hour.

"ah! we are getting nowhere!"

I showed Amy the two trees I had spotted on my camera’s small screen and mentioned they were a bit upslope. Our samples were not great at that point and the general feeling was that we should go for it.

We decided to walk halfway there, combine our food and have a small late-afternoon snack (bread, peanut butter, sardines, an apple and some water [but not all of it!]). The energy intake seemed to do the trick. Spirits came up as we walked the knife-edge.

Then, upon closer inspection, we knew that our patience and persistence paid off. Amy was the first to rush over.


And, why not rush? This site finally turned into the Goldmine we were looking for.

indeed, it is a goldmine

We quickly went to work scouring this little pocket of Mongolia for all that it might contain. Bayaraa went to work, retrieved some fine samples and showed off the A1 Sawyer that he is these days.

the rich vein of golden fire scars

Again, no trees were killed in the collection of these samples.

Upon further inspection…

...... scars bain uu?


Yes! Gold!! Scars bain aa!!!

Everyone was thrilled. It was time to celebrate hardwork.

The lessons on topographic location, aspect, landform and a few tree characteristics paid off over the next few days as we located the Three Amigos and a Field of Onions.


 The next day we headed across  the valley and found more of the same. Younger, few scars lower on the slope, a goldmine of older trees and multiple-scarred trees further up slope. Probably the best thing from that day, beyond the other goldmine, were the valley views. The most surprising things were the pivot irrigation fields. The resurgence of the Mongolian agricultural industry has been impressive, as was indicted towards the end of this post from 2010. The presence of pivot irrigation confirms Mongolia’s commitment for food independence.

Selenge Valley, Pivot Irrigation Fields

Bayaraa & Erdene on the peak of the South Goldmine Peak

Us on South Goldmine Peak

What drew us out of this goldmine was a peak to the east. It looked rugged and remote. We had high hopes for our next area of study.

We decided to head there immediately as day was falling. It took longer than expected and was nearly dark when we arrived in the new valley. It was indeed isolated and the grasses were tall, suggesting the valley was not heavily used. It was so nice that we jokingly called it Xanadu. We later learned this was someone’s Xanadu. A herdsmen stopped by our camp, we immediately gave him some tea. He was looking for his small herd of horses and told us this was his winter pasture, so it was his personal winter capitol. It must be lovely in the winter.

Xanadu entrance

Of course, the joke was on us. As we finished putting up our tents, the mosquito horde came out. We layered and wrapped ourselves; our source was correct – this was about the worst mosquito season I have experienced in Mongolia. We dashed into our tents soon after dark.

This part of the post will be interrupted to convey the specialness of night in the Wilderness of Mongolia. The only light in the valley was the temporary lamp in the tent next door.

light, no light

Here is what it sounded like:

During the middle of the night, the mosquitoes were gone and the Milky Way was out!

The next day we went for the rugged peak across the valley. It was getting hot and the initial forest didn’t look so old. But, we found some nice remnant pieces that should lengthen our record.

Bayaraa sawing remnant wood

There was so much material, I got into the sawing act.

more remnant material

We stopped on a saddle around midday for lunch before shooting to the looming and rugged ridge ahead. What do we do for lunch in the wilds of Mongolia? Here is one example.

It was in the forest beyond the saddle where ideas/hypotheses of forest development in this part of Mongolia started bubbling up. Instead of working in young or burnt-over forest, we hit a pocket of ‘old-growth’ forest containing a pine with a 20-30′ fire scar and 12+ scars. It was sitting next to a forest of mixed species and ages. It was a lovely site.

old-growth and mixed forests

We headed across the minor valley in pursuit of the marvelous looking pines across the way (below).

opposing goldmine slope

The area, again, was a goldmine. However, at this point, we had a nice collection of fire-scar samples. So, we went snobbish and decided to collect from the oldest, most scarred trees.

The slope we scrambled up was barren from the last fire and southwest facing. We later learned it hit 93 degrees F around the time we hiked up the open slope. We could feel it. We were on fumes. Even Bayaraa.

Again, efforts were rewarded when we hit The Three Amigos.

The Three Amigos

This trio of trees really made us happy! They were just what we have been looking for. I’ve not really seen these kinds of scars before, so I exclaimed, “OMG! It’s an onion!”

"it's an onion!"

Close-up: The Three Amigos

We retrieved our samples and relaxed for a bit. But, not for long. As we looked out over the valley, we saw and then heard the signs that we should get off the mountain quick.

thunderhead looming

As we were headed back to our camp, we saw the sky literally open up over the village of Hyagalant.

there's a hole in the sky over Hyagalant!

This storm, actually, turned out to be a benefit. Erdene’s mother was very concerned for our safety; she didn’t know it rained worse in the village than in our little piece of Xanadu. So, the next morning she scolded Baatar enough to come pick us up early. That was fortunate because we went to another ridge that morning (after meeting the herdsman and waiting out a storm). It turned out to be a complete bust. Baatar’s early arrival allowed us to drive to another ridge that would have taken too long to walk to.

ridge above the field of onions. can you spot Erdene, Bayaraa & Amy?

What I found soon after taking the picture above was thrilling. In fact, it was the scene below where I yelled, “Field of Onions!”

"field of onions!"

The pictures below ought to explain the term ‘onion’.

see the onion? the ridges on the base of this tree are fire scars. we estimate that this tree has recorded ~12 fires

once you start learning these patterns, they become a thing of beauty

This last day, the day in the Field of Onions, was likely the scientific highpoint of our 2011 field season. We found a high concentration of trees with multiple scars in a new region and the trees are of decent age. The climbing that day was fun, too. But, the battles with the mosquitos and heat left us on fumes. I am pretty sure we were only running on sawdust and mosquito wings [and, sure, some adrenaline].

We’ll top this long post off with a few more pictures.

back up sawyer

our little piece of Xanadu

pan of the South Goldmine Peak


6 responses to “Sawdust and Mosquito Wings

  1. If you use a tech the next time you go to Mongolia let me know. I’d be very useful; I can carry stuff. 🙂

  2. mongolianecologyculture

    oh, we hope to have literally a ton of toting to do in the future!

  3. Beautiful stuff Neil, its posts like these that make me miss research.

  4. mongolianecologyculture

    thanks Troy – you know, the door is always open!

  5. Pingback: the devil shivered in his sleeping bag | Mongolian Climate, Ecology & Culture

  6. Pingback: Oceans of Ancient Wood and Coming Full Circle | Mongolian Climate, Ecology & Culture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s