The top of Wytham

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The woods at Wytham are do not look very ordinary. They are cut through by roads and instrumentation, because this forest has been a home for ecological research at Oxford for over sixty years. This week I had the chance to make the short cycle trip from the city center to the top of the forest, where my host Yadvinder Malhi has begun to study carbon dynamics and functional ecology. This part of the forest hides a tower, built of steel scaffolding and wooden planks, installed to give researchers access to the canopy of the forest.

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We went up, a climb by ladder of some thirty or forty feet. The dark light of the forest floor changes to a harsher glow as one reaches the level of the highest leaves, and epiphytes like lichens begin to appear. It is difficult to navigate the top platform for all of the recently-grown branches obstructing the path.

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Our goal for the day was to test out a gas exchange instrument (a LiCor 6400XT) for canopy photosynthesis measurements. These instruments take up as much space as a large suitcase, weigh the same as a sack of concrete, and are unbelievably expensive. Too dangerous to hand-carry it up the ladder, where in any case it would not fit through the scaffolding.

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So we brought it up by rope and pulley – a short journey, thankfully free of any accidents, and we were shortly ready to go with measurements for the afternoon.

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These towers exceed the expectations set by any childhood treehouse dream. There is something magical about climbing up through layers of forest, only to emerge into a whole new world where the wind blows, the sun streams in, the floor sways, and the leaves respond. These are days that hardly feel like work at all.

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