Featured volunteer Randal Pair started volunteering with PEEC last year. His hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed. Randal assists with behind-the-scenes work in the herbarium and feeding the birds before the nature center opens. We hope you enjoy reading about Randal and the work he does.
PEEC: Where are you from and how did you end up in Los Alamos?
R.P.: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado – a lot like Los Alamos, at the foot of mountains amid Ponderosa Pines and also a center of scientific research and excellence. I went to college in Santa Fe, and later UNM in Albuquerque, and fell in love with northern New Mexico. I was an environmental technician for a proposed geothermal development in what is now part of Valles Caldera NM.
When I retired in September 2017, after 5 years working in the Chihuahuan Desert, I knew I wanted a retirement home in the mountains. I still have family in Boulder, but it is far too big, far too crowded, and far too expensive. Los Alamos is the perfect mountain town and the ideal combination of a small town in easy reach of a larger city.
PEEC: Tell us about yourself.
R.P.: I attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe, where I discovered the Humanities, and, most importantly, learned how to think critically. Critical thinking is a commodity sorely lacking in the U.S. today. My M.S. degree in Biology (Plant Ecology) led to several natural resources jobs. I eventually found my true calling in environmental compliance, where I spent nearly all of my career. In private life I’m a softy; as a regulator I am very strict. I’ve traveled extensively in the western U.S., a little in the east, and have worked mostly in the field. Photography became my main hobby, and in retirement remains my primary interest. I remain close with my family in Boulder. But my constant companion is my dog “Avalanche,” a Golden Retriever mix. BTW – his name “Avalanche” comes from a flower, the Avalanche Lily, Erythronium grandiflorum.
PEEC: How did you get involved with PEEC?
R.P.: In retirement, I wanted to maintain some expertise in ecology and natural resources. Volunteering for Bandelier or Valles Caldera are possibilities, but require a lot of driving.
I was initially hesitant about PEEC, because it is, properly, very children-oriented; and I have little experience with kids. But a conversation with another volunteer revealed that PEEC maintains a herbarium, so I dropped in to have a chat with Chick Keller, who runs the herbarium.
PEEC: What other volunteer work have you done in our community?
R.P.: In the summer of 2018, I worked with a crew of volunteers in the Valles Caldera. Our project was a wonderful combination of natural resources and historic resources – we combed the woods searching for carvings on aspen trees by early-1900s Hispanic sheepherders. We documented the location and carvings with photos and sketches. I learned of that opportunity through a program at PEEC. I also maintain my lifelong practice of donating blood regularly. When I worked for federal and state governments, donating blood was another aspect of public service; something more towards the first-responder end of the spectrum than the paper-shuffler end. I still regard it as a form of public service.
PEEC: Why do you think it’s important to volunteer?
R.P.: There is far more that needs to be done in this world than we can afford to hire people to do. Many people, especially later in life, have more time available than needed to fill their individual needs. On a basic level, it is “Need meets Resource.” But more importantly, it is a way of building community, working together to achieve shared goals together. It helps us recognize humanity, and us, in our fellow citizens, and thus fights the tendency towards egotism and selfishness. An additional benefit is that it provides opportunities to practice skills, and exercise knowledge, that we may no longer use in the workplace but value highly and wish to maintain.
PEEC: What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
R.P.: Meeting so many interesting people and learning from them! The volunteers I’ve met maintain an active mental and/or physical life. I find there are many more ways to get involved, even if I haven’t taken advantage of them yet.
PEEC: What are your jobs at PEEC?
R.P.: I work in the herbarium. My plant ID skills (and my eyes) have declined to amateur status. But enough remains to assist in preparing plant specimens that have been collected and pressed by others. I have collected one or two specimens in the field. Occasionally, when Chick Keller is out, I have been able to assist PEEC visitors with plant questions. I started a project where I can apply my photography skills. There are some 4,000 specimens in the herbarium that need to be photographed so that they can be entered into nationwide databases. I also fill the bird feeders and stuff envelopes.
R.P.: The herbarium is part of a PEEC project to document all of the plant species growing in the Jemez Mountains and where they occur. Chick Keller and other botanists (both expert and amateur) carefully observe plants in the Jemez. If they find one that may be a new discovery, or in a new location, they will collect a specimen and dry it in a plant press. Then at the herbarium, it is compared to specimens of similar species, and against botanical reference books. Unless it is already recorded in that location, it is mounted on a display sheet and kept in one of several cabinets. Such a collection can be useful to researchers in taxonomy and systematics (how plants are classified). It also helps land managers by identifying the presence and location of weeds and rare plants. But it also serves as a thorough documentation of current plant conditions. In future decades, botanists can revisit which plants are growing where. Some plants may “move” to higher elevations than now, or to wetter locations; they may bloom earlier or later than they do now; or the plants may become more stunted, or more prickly, or have fewer flowers. Some species may be lost (at least in the Jemez), others may move into the Jemez for the first time. Without today’s specimens to compare against, such important information would be lost.
The herbarium is open to the public on Tuesdays from 12-4pm.
PEEC: In your opinion, what is the most important work PEEC does?
R.P.: Inspiring kids to explore the natural world and come to know and love it. Parents do this on walks/hikes, etc. But there are specimens available at PEEC that may not be seen on every walk, and the wildlife habitat always has something new going on. The docents can help fill in any gaps. The displays on topography and geology render complex subjects very clear, and help make sense of the kids’ everyday world. PEEC also serves the adult community as an important source of information about local science and new scientific developments.
PEEC: What outdoor hobbies do you enjoy?
R.P.: Bad knees drove me out of backpacking, cross-country skiing, and bicycling. But I still hike – with the understanding that for me a hike is more of a naturalist’s stroll, with frequent stops to look at plants, rocks, lichens, and whatever else catches my eye. And frequent photos of same, plus landscapes and weather. My camera is always with me. I frequently take off to some scenic natural area, just to wander around and take photos.
PEEC: Best outdoor experience in Los Alamos or White Rock?
R.P.: Hiking the various canyon rims and overlooks, in all sorts of weather, hoping to catch the rare moment when weather, clouds, light, and topography combine to reveal the essential character of the Pajarito Plateau.
PEEC: What do you love about the Pajarito Plateau?
R.P.: The light and the topography and the light on the topography. I remember once, from one of the rim overlooks, a cloud over the Rio Grande that was lower than the plateau, and one could see the shadow the cloud cast on the valley floor; and the rays of sunlight using the ragged cloud edges to sculpt scalloped edges on the shadow. Canyon wrens, whom I rarely see, whose song often echoes through the canyons as a cascade of musical whistles.
PEEC: Do you have any advice for people interested in volunteering?
R.P.: Just jump in! Both the volunteer community and nature-lovers, in general, are very open and welcoming. Everyone has something of value to contribute, and all of us still have much to learn. There is a spot where you can add to the community, and get back from it. Both will add to your life.
PEEC: If you could be a local animal which would you pick and why?
R.P.: The Hermit Thrush. Because I am something of a hermit, but wish I could sing so beautifully.
-If you are interested in learning more about our volunteer program, please email Christa Tyson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Christa Tyson, PEEC Visitor Services Manager