|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. 207 November 16, firstname.lastname@example.org Victoria, B.C.|
Far beyond all that graduate school coursework in the finer points of comparative biochemistry of photosynthesis and glycolysis, the evolution of the stele, or the history of taxonomic philosophies, I reach back now as a professional botanist most often into my early lessons, sitting at the feet of Bill Weber. Whatever my current repertoire of professional wisdom might be, some its most fundamental principles come from those years as a neophyte and luckily, impressionable, field botanist, and first opportunities to travel the landscapes of Colorado, "herborizing" and exploring. Twenty years later, these lessons still resonate as I "herborize" with my own flocks of neophyte botany students. On this occasion of Bill's 80th birthday, I offer these commandments in respect for their wisdom and their longevity: Affectionately, Tass Kelso, Dept. of Biology, Colorado College.
If you don't know your field geology, go learn it. It may be the single most important feature determining plant distributions here in the West. As much as you know the Rose family from the Ranunculaceae, you should know a granite from a sandstone from a dolomite. Don't just read the botanical literature, read the geological literature as well. Go for the the gypsum, the chalks, the oil shales-that is where you'll find the botanical gold.
Every plant species has a "personality", and no book can teach you it. You can learn that personality only by exploration and experience. Once you know that personality, you will know where to go look for that species elsewhere.
Seeing the world's botanical canvas does wonders for experiencing your own locale in new and different ways. The plantscape becomes multidimensional across continents and across millennia as you see plant species in new contexts: Our X becomes the Siberian Y, or our supposedly mutual Z becomes a new and different Q and R.
There is more to exploration than just the flowers, so enjoy all that a place can offer: from ancient cliff ruins to opera, the local hot sauce or the local art museum, take time to appreciate more than just the natural history.
Whatever Jones' many botanical virtues may have been, collection notes were not among them. Lack of collection detail is a serious failing, so make sure you put them down, and better yet, commit them all to memory so you can return to the same place 30 years later and find the plant again.
The early botanists were often astute in their taxonomies, and their journals and papers are well worth reading. It may help you find locations again if you read journals of discovery, and reflect or reinterpret what they saw or commented on in light of today's landscape. The old literature is a priceless resource.
No comment or explanation needed here.
[Extracted from talk given by Barbara Ertter at the Missouri Botanical Garden symposium on Our Unknown Planet, 10 October 1998]
In 1858, Thomas Bridges wrote to William J. Hooker from California: "I can scarcely describe to you how pleasing and gratifying it has been to me to learn that in my collections you have found some new and rare plants--I was partially under the impression that from the labours of Douglas, Hartweg, Jeffrey, Lobb and other travelers from Europe with the many United States Exploring Expeditions that little or nothing remained to be discovered and only gleanings were left to those of us of the present day." This assumption, that the North American flora has already been fully explored and catalogued, with nothing of consequence left to discover, is no more true today than it was in 1858. Granted, the on-going discoveries tend to be among the rarest of the rare, but this only increases their significance in an era dominated by land-use management decisions that will irrevocably determine the fate of our floristic heritage.
Even for those botanists who are most actively involved in describing new taxa from North America north of Mexico, the sheer magnitude comes as a surprise. In a new publication, Hartman and Nelson (1989) tally 1,197 vascular plant taxa described from 1975 through 1994. This translates into approximately 60 per year, and the rate has remained remarkably steady. Dean Taylor (unpublished data) has extrapolated that a minimum of 300 vascular plants are probably still waiting to be discovered in California alone, and this in turn suggests that at least 1,800 taxa, nearly 5% of total North American vascular flora, are still in the undescribed category.
Furthermore, while most discoveries do in fact result from explorations of remote areas and/or monographic revisions, a surprising number result from new discoveries in well-populated and well-botanized areas: Ionactis caelestis within sight of Las Vegas, Neviusia cliftonii along a well-traveled highway, Clematis morefieldii within the city limits of Huntsville, Alabama, Lomatium observatorium among the buildings of Lick Observatory near San Jose. Some are even distinct enough to qualify as monotypic genera, the most recent being Sibaropsis hammittii from southern California. Nor are dramatic discoveries limited to vascular plants. Verrucaria tavaerisae, described just last year from the central California coast, is noteworthy not only in being one of the few known marine lichens, but the only one with a brown algal symbiont.
Although one might assume that the bulk of these on-going discoveries are resulting from the professional activities of harbarium-based plant systematists, this proves not to be the case. In a recent survey of 56 faculty-status vascular plant systematists at universities with significant herbaria in the contiguous western United States, where an average of 41 vascular plants are being described per year, less than half had described any taxa from the region, and only 10 had described more than one. (None of which should be taken as an indication of research productivity, it just doesn't happen to involve alpha taxonomic studies of the regional flora).
So who is doing the discovering and describing? A diverse crowd, consisting of emeriti, museum-based systematists, agency biologists, environmental consultants, non-systematists, and amateur enthusiasts. It might be argued that the increasing pool of para-systematists will suffice, but this neglects the reality that para-systematists get their start as a result of encouragement and training from a regionally based professional systematist who is actively involved in the local flora. Without a professional core, the system is in danger of collapsing, or at the very least suffering from a lack of professional-level training and quality control. In this light, it is particularly ominous that the largest herbaria in two states, Montana and Nevada, lack faculty-level systematists, and that not a single faculty-level systematist in Colorado is actively involved in describing the regional flora.
Morever, this is not a statistical fluke, but rather a direct result of the fact that the current academic infrastucture actually discourages alpha taxonomy on the regional flora. Several respondents indicated that they knew of undescribed regional novelties, but could not justify the effort required to publish them: "the value of new species descriptions in terms of professional prestige and satisfaction of university administrators (who control raises and promotions) seems low relative to other publications that could be generated in a similar period of time." In effect, the publication of regional novelties is not only of little value, it is actually counter-productive to career development in the current academic environment. Paradoxically, the fact that the amount of time and effort it takes to publish a novelty can be equivalent to that needed for other research activities, in itself provides evidence that describing novelties is not the trivial activity it is often perceived (and valued) as. A key misconception behind this state-of-affairs is the belief that describing species involves nothing more than static data, when it should in fact be understood as the generation of complex hypotheses, which are constantly being tested and modified in the face of new data.
In conclusion, what taxonomists have been up to is nothing less than one of the most massive scientific endeavours ever under-taken; namely, a centuries-long, internationally collaborative effort to model global biodiversity. If this does not qualify as "Big Science", I don't know what does! In an era when crucial decisions are being made that will determine the face of life on the planet, it is imperative that these decisions be made with the most comprehensive information possible. It is bad enough that we risk losing 5% of the floristic diversity in our own national "backyard" by ignorance alone; if this be willful ignorance, then we have only ourselves to blame.
[Excerpts from Love 1998]
Wilhelm Suksdorf was a remarkable, largely self-taught plant collector who made an inestimable contribution to the knowledge of western botany. The German-born Suksdorf lived for 56 years on the Columbia River at Bingen, Washington, and collected primarily in the Klickitat County-Mount Adams country. Most modern botanists agree that by the time of his death in 1932 he had encountered virtually every plant species in his chosen territory. He corresponded with dozens of the country's most important botanists; he collected innumerable plant specimens and pressed, identified, and mounted on paper some 150,000 of them over his lifetime; his specimens sheets reside in many world's major herbaria; and a genus and some 70 species, sub-species, and varieties have borne his name.
As he wandered and collected year after year in the Columbia River country, Suksdorf employed a singular habit: that of giving his own, usually German, and almost always highly romantic, names to various geographic features. These names, such as Wodanthal (Wodan's Valley) and Falconthal (Falcon Valley), puzzled later botanists who attempted to locate Suksdorf's specific collecting sites, as none appear either in German or in English translation on modern maps. In addition, Suksdorf was in the habit of employing a shorthand of symbols or abbreviations for many of these place names, making it still more difficult to determine his site locations. In the years shortly before his death, Suksdorf spent some time at Washington State College working over his collections and translating some of these place names. However, it may be just as well that he did not complete this task, as it was his unfortunate habit to change the names of his localities such as Schmetterlingsee, which was a specific lake and a favorite collecting station, to general descriptions such as "small mountain lake, Chiquash Mts."
In the early 1940s, Marion Ownbey, Herbarium Curator at WSU, assigned to Masters student William A. Weber, the task of determining Suksdorf's sites and collecting itineraries. Weber did a splendid job (Weber 1944) which should be applauded now and forever by anyone concerned with the flora of Washington. For the task, he needed to combine the skills of a detective as well as those of a cryptographer. The young graduate student was able to match Suksdorf's symbols and codes in notebooks with those on plant collection sheets, a few of which also bore complete place names. The result is that we now know the locations of virtually all of Suksdorf's sites. For example, his Donnerthal is the valley of present-day Big Muddy Creek on the south flank of Mt. Adams, and Falconthal or Falcon Valley is the Camas Prairie-Conboy Lake area of northwest Klickitat County. In addition, Weber provided a chronological day by day itinerary of all of Suksdorf's collecting forays in Iowa, California, Washington, Oregon, and Montana for 57 years, from 1872 to 1929. Weber's was a singular and very important achievement.
[Parts of the letter Bill Weber wrote to Rhoda Love, October 1998. Bill, I hope you don't mind that I am posting it on BEN ! - Adolf]
I have finally gotten a few hours to read, and have been reliving the Suksdorf story. You certainly have done a wonderful job of fleshing it out. Why didn't I do more with him? I just had no time. I had to type every herbarium label for all the duplicates in his collection (on that small Gothic-type manual typewriter, and no carbon copies!), and I was just a poor graduate student who had to finish. (The typewriter, incidentally, is still in use, as I recall I saw it and its current owner at the Hunt Botanical Library about a decade ago.) My "life with Suksdorf" did not end at Pullman. Actually, in 1944 I was sent down to Cascade Locks as a conscientious objector and was able to visit and stay overnight with Theodor [Suksdorf, Wilhelm's brother] and Hertha (my second daughter Eunice, now Heather, was born on May 12, 1944, in the White Salmon Hospital), and Hertha gave us a few pounds of their home-made butter to celebrate.
I am so glad that you were able to use the negative of the original house. Sometime during 1942 my wife's sisters came out from Iowa and took us in their car on a trip to central Washington. We spent a day hiking up Wodenthal to the snow line. My daughter Linna was only about a month old at the time. I flew to Seattle once, and somehow I was able to get an aerial picture of Falcon Valley. I doubt that it would have been good enough to use in your manuscript.
There must have been a lot more material that accumulated since I left Pullman. All we had was a single file drawer in Ownbey's office. You have been lucky to find so much more of interest to fill out the story.
And I am so glad that Suksdorf will finally be where more people can learn about him; I assume that the book you are getting out will have the Suksdorf story in it. I am so glad that I was still around to help you with it. I shall hit 80 on November 16.
As ever, Bill Weber