Chris Rempel, 31, has spent the past several months quietly walking the trails of Tryon Creek State Natural Area observing the plants of the understory, and thinking. He’s been absorbed by the change in the plants and the cycle of the season. As the rain stopped and the temperature crept up to triple digits, he watched the plants leaf out and flower and develop seed pods. It’s those seed pods he’s been waiting for so patiently.
Chris is the Field Ecology Intern, a position that works with local organizations and agencies in implementing the Understory Species Increase Project. The project is focused on researching and amplifying resilient native plant communities in order to provide useful information to groups doing restoration work.
The understory, Chris says, is the forgotten part of the forest that he’s interested in preserving. “It’s overlooked,” he says. “You see the trees, flowers and berries. But the understory is the basis. Pollinators love the understory. It’s one of the great building blocks of the ecosystem.”
Chris was born in Klamath Falls then moved to Aloha. He moved around the country with his family and then served in the Army. He then studied at Portland State University where he majored in mathematics and minored in indigenous nations studies.
It was the courses he took about indigenous nations and his mentorship with Greg Archuleta, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, that sparked his interest in plants and their many uses. With Greg Archuleta, he’s been learning about the cultural side of the forest: the plants, the land and first foods. “I want to approach my personal and professional life through the indigenous lens,” Chris says. “I want to base everything on that.”
When it comes to restoring land that has been developed or damaged in some way, Chris explains, the plants in the understory are often ignored all together. The Understory Species Increase Project, a partnership between Friends of Tryon Creek, Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, Clean Water Services, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and Metro, hopes to make research and seeds for those plants available for restoration projects.
While projects at other sites around the region have several people working together, Chris is virtually alone at Tryon. He scouts and maps the areas of interest and then collects, cleans and labels the seeds. The next step is to plant a mix of seeds this fall and study the plots to monitor success.
Strolling through the forest with Chris, he steps gingerly, always mindful of the smaller, less obvious plants. There are 20 plants the project is focused on, but only about a half dozen that Chris is working with in Tryon. He points out his subjects: Pacific waterleaf, piggyback plant, hedge nettle, sweet cicely and inside-out flower. He slips into a cluster of stinging nettle and carefully tickles the seed pods into the palm of his hand. “I learned unexpectedly that the seeds have stingers on them too. It’s certainly been interesting.”
This study of the understory will take several seasons for these researchers. The plots Chris has established this summer will hopefully be studied for years to come. For Chris, the effect is immediate. “It’s nice how I’ve gotten to see the life cycle of the plants. From flowering to seeding to dormant. I like seeing what changes every time I visit.”