From Bowies to Quercus

I am informed that my first word was “Bowies” which meant flowers. That should give some indication of how I got where I am today, which is to say botanically oriented. Actually there was a long lag period between bowies and the point where I used Latin names for plants.

The first Latin name I knew for a plant was Quercus, the oak. Quercus came into my head during a round trip across the country from Baltimore to the west coast and back, just in time to start graduate school. Edith rode with me on that trip in a Chevy Camper Special. On the way back we traveled through Canada.

It was the end of summer, and the road was hot and long. Did I say the road was hot and long? I meant it was Hot! and Unbearable. Our lips were chapped, our mouths were dry, our eyes were stinging, and we always seemed to be going against the wind. The scenery was mostly semi-trailers rushing past us within inches of our lives. The truck rocked and lurched on the bumpy ribbon that goes for a highway, and being American we were accosted by strange customs like driving on the shoulder, and figuring our gas mileage with a dwindling supply of Canadian dollars and Imperial gallons.

Halfway across the continent we came to the north shore of Lake Superior, where we found a campground and conked out. As we slept, the sky opened up with the crack of thunder and a deluge. The roar of water on the roof was truly the most wonderful sound I had ever heard. We were back in the humid east. The covers were soft, our skin was soft, and the world was soft.

I dreamed I was alone on the strand of a vast ocean, where there were no people or animals or anything but sand and sea and sky. In the dream, the sky was blue and a voice was calling to me. I felt as if the world was cleansed of all its sorrows, we were forgiven, and there was laughter in the air.

We awoke refreshed, rejuvenated. Edith was beaming. Our vacation was nearly over. We had penetrated to the edge of rocky clarity where the west meets the western sea and now we had returned safely to the mists and fogs of the east.

We had a deadline to resume classes in a few days, so we kept up an even speed. The pleasant Ontario countryside flew past us, a sea of deciduous forests rolling past our window. And as we drove along we thought about our lives together and how they might soon change. I was about to begin classes at the School of Pharmacy at UM Baltimore. Edith was embracing the arts, language and dance at UM Baltimore County.

For me, graduate school was the dream of a lifetime. I was enrolled in the Division of Pharmacognosy and Medicinal Chemistry. These are studies of the biochemistry of enzymes, drugs, medicines and poisons. I ended up in this discipline somewhat vicariously. I had originally started out as a geology major at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, followed by sampling all the other sciences over the course of ten years at six colleges. Now I would be taking classes in mass spectrometry, neurochemistry and genetic engineering.

But there was one class that really caught my attention. It was different from the other classes in that it didn’t involve working in a laboratory with goggles and pipettes full of nasty chemicals. It was a course in plant taxonomy, taught by the renowned Dr. Elmer Worthley. In that class, I would learn the Latin names of plants. At the time, I didn’t realize that I would be in that class for the better part of the next three years before leaving the school, more so as a botanist than a chemist.

I had prepared for this class by collecting plant specimens along the route. These were duly pressed in the pages of a notebook, where I suspected that they would be of interest to my new botany classmates. I didn’t know any Latin names at that time–not a one. Driving through the Ontario countryside I had an inkling that I should try to learn a name or two to prepare myself. But I had better catch up fast.

We decided to take a detour to Hudson’s Bay. … Um, I decided to take a detour. Being a college student not accustomed to practical matters, it seemed reasonable looking at the maps. There was a long tongue of the bay jutting practically all the way to the Great Lakes. Practically. I commandeered the wheel and veered northward.

The cars quickly thinned out and the scenery got boggy. Unfortunately there were not many places to observe plants. The road shoulders were thin and treacherous looking, not much more than loose mounds of gravel angling steeply into mosquitoey quagmires. Once or twice we parked in the middle of the road and peered over the edge. We drove on into dwindling daylight and gathering mists, hoping for a place to park.

Finding no dry ground, we continued connecting the dots on the map toward our destination. But the dots were depressing and forlorn. Around midnight we stopped at a gas station only to find it filled with dirty men and mud-splattered trucks and two whorish looking women carrying on loudly while their engines revved. We got out as fast as we could and skipped the restrooms.

Around midnight we were still deep in the boreal forest. There were few signs of civilization other than intermittent patches of strange debris in the middle of the road. We grazed within an inch of the largest of these, which turned out to be the remainder of a semi truck that had lost its roof and contents until it finally wrecked part way in a bog. The men were bloody and torn, and asked us to send help from the next government office, which we finally reached after several hours of travel.

At daybreak we reached a motel with sandy campsites and spent the morning there. The boreal forest had given way to open misty meadows interspersed with clumps of Christmas trees and mushrooms. The ground was still moist from recent snow flurries. But there was a voice in our heads telling us to turn back before it was too late. Or it may have been Edith’s voice.

We had pancakes and then headed south that morning. Classes would begin in a couple days. We were getting out of there. This turned out to be a good move, as we were destined to run into more fog, fog so dense that we could barely see a foot in front of our camper and had to open the door to see the line down the middle of the road, hoping nobody in the oncoming lane was doing the same thing.

By that afternoon, we were again passing through the hardwood forests close to the International border, intent on getting home.

Suddenly I spied a sign advertising a scenic nature trail and we swerved into the parking lot. This being the land of the maple leaf, I imagined that there might be signs along the trail giving the Latin names of the trees. Upon this unexpected opportunity, I explained to Edith how important it was that I assimilate some plant names before class started. But in the interests of getting back on time, we fairly raced along the nature trail, hoping to accomplish this assimilation as quickly as possible.

I can only vaguely recall that the trail was in a charming setting decked with handsome outcrops of granite. These tumbled willy-nilly into an endless canopy of hardwoods that stretched away to the southern sky.

Indeed, the trail was one of those affairs where they have the little placards with cute stories about the Indians or the ecology. And as if it had come to me in a dream, there on the placards were the names of the plants along the trail, given in both the common parlance as well as in scientific Latin.

Ignoring the scenery, I pulled up at each sign along the trail, and repeated the Latin names of each plant several times over, hoping this would imbue me with instant taxonomy. But as we pulled out, only one new Latin word remained fixed in my consciousness: Quercus … Oak … Quercus … Oak.

A few days later I was in my first class with Dr. Worthley. There were a half dozen other students in the class. Each had brought in botanical items to show and tell and these the professor identified in turn. When someone lifted an oak leaf, he asked the class what it was and I fairly shouted it out: Quercus!

Without stopping, he calmly responded, “Correct, Quercus rubra, the red oak.” And then it was my turn to open up the pages in my book of plants.

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