Monday, June 16, 2014

Field Botany

I signed up for a six-session class in field botany this summer. I had taken a botany course in college, but I retained about as much information from it as many people do from seventh-grade Spanish classes. The attractive aspect of the short class was the field trips. I have bad memories of blurry microscopic images. The class included undergraduates and several nontraditional students, like me. One of the nontrads had been the instructor’s second-grade teacher.

Botany Bluff trail
Looking over the first few pages of class material was daunting. The eleven-page primer of botanical terms looked like it might at least help improve my scrabble game. Spelling the words had to be easier than understanding what they were on about. I tried to read the class material before each session. In class I tried to take notes on the printout pages. At home in the evening, I wrote up my interpretations of what I was supposed to have learned. I decided to transfer my notes to the computer, mostly in hopes that I could lay out the information in some way that would cause some of it to stick in my brain. I found myself explaining roots and shoots to my daughter. I actually sounded like I had a clue. This might just get me somewhere, I thought.

We shredded a few of these in class.
I managed to get the microscope to show me anthers and carpels on the second day. It also produced images of a ferocious yellow dragon with horns. Tiny insects that occasionally fall out of flowers look quite alarming at 25x magnification. On the field walk that day, the teacher asked me how many anthers I could see in the flower of a wild pink. This had about the same result as the medieval joke about tricking the devil into enumerating the holes in a colander. The poor dimwitted guy keeps counting over and over, “One, two, three. Uh. One, two, three. Uh.” At least I made it as far as nine.

I discovered by taking daily quizzes that I don’t mind drawing a blank as much as I mind thinking that I know the answer when I’m actually wrong.  Working my way through a botanical key was also a humbling experience. The key to local trees threatened to provide me with many delightful hours of wandering around in the timber, checking a printout and mumbling to myself. I collected bur oak leaves from two different trees on one of the walks. They didn’t look all that similar to me.

I know people who could
identify this tree in five
seconds. With the botanical
key, it took us half an hour,
but now I know what makes
it a bur oak.
I had heard rumors that botanists were sufficiently obsessed to jump over private fences to photograph neighborhood flora. Our teacher raided other classrooms on occasion. To illustrate the Liliaceae, he darted out of the room (leaving the undergraduates deep in a discussion of bands I had never heard of) and returned with a florist’s vase of Asiatic lilies, larkspur and coneflowers. “I don’t know who these belong to,” he warned us, “so don’t dissect them.”

On the last day we visited a local prairie held in trust by the state and the family of the woman who had treasured it. We went out in groups to find examples of plants from the families we had studied. For some reason, each group scored 16 of a possible 10 points. Botanists are evidently as generous as they are obsessed. The conserved prairie held a small memorial to the woman who had loved the wildflowers there — a pink quartzite boulder, a bench, some peony bushes and a plaque dedicating the wild grasslands to her memory. I can imagine no finer tribute.