The Species Race
The world is losing plants faster than scientists can find them

What's in a name?

Garrett Crow also gives his students extensive training in fieldwork, often in wetlands and sometimes in remote areas-like the Bolivian rain forest or Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Hampshire, where Mare Nazaire '03 has been studying the vegetation in two of the state's largest bogs. On her early morning commute by boat down the Magalloway River, the evergreen boreal forest bulges out over the riverbanks, mirrored in the glassy water. At the bog called Harpers Meadow, she is more likely to see signs of moose than humans as she sets out over the hummocks and hollows of what is, in effect, a 350-acre, sodden sphagnum sponge. She gets her feet wet immediately. Although she never knows exactly how deep she'll sink with her next step, she has learned that she is much less likely to leave a sneaker behind in the muck if she avoids the muddy moose paths.

Graduate student Mare Nazaire '03 and professor Garrett Crow talk sedges {Carex spp.] in Harper's Meadow.

In July, delicate fringed pink orchids called rose pogonias appear among the pitcher plants and unripe cranberries in the bog. When Nazaire notices several rose pogonias that have been trampled by moose, she reflects on the human activity of naming. She wonders if we value this beautiful flower even more because we have given it the name "orchid."

It is Nazaire's job to identify--with Latin names--all the plants in the bog, so that even the smallest flowers and berries underfoot can be recognized and protected by the refuge. From the earliest times, people have believed that to know the name of someone or something is to have power over that person or thing. In Genesis, God asked Adam to name all the newly created creatures and plants, Sullivan reminds her students on the first day of plant systematics class. Thus, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, man was given dominion over the natural world. Taxonomists from Aristotle, with his Great Chain of Being, to the present have been interested in the rightful relationships between different species. Crow believes that "Adam's naming gave creatures value, and having 'dominion' was actually about stewardship, not power. Humans have largely abused the responsibility laid down in Genesis."

Nazaire's work will help the Umbagog refuge to fulfill that responsibility, according to wildlife biologist Laurie Wunder. "Harpers Meadow is a National Natural Landmark," she explains, "so we have a responsibility to be a good steward. There are some rare plant species in the bog. Mare will give us a detailed survey map of the plant communities there, and then we will set up permanent monitoring plots to see how we're doing and whether fluctuating water levels are having an impact on the plants."

The Art of Science

What toils, what science would be more wearisome and painful than Botany" wrote the great 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus, acknowledging the challenges of the profession he embraced. Nazaire has spent two summers in the great bogs at Umbagog, marking off plots, identifying plants within them, and assessing the degree of dominance of different species. Since many plants need to be flowering or fruiting for accurate identification, she must comb through the same plant communities again and again. When she gets back to the refuge headquarters at the end of the day, her feet are wrinkled from standing in water--and then it's time to begin pressing and identifying the specimens she has collected.

At Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Hampshire, Mare Nazaire '03 and botanist Garrett Crow measure the depth of a bog with a peat probe. In places, the bog is 30 feet deep.

But Linnaeus also described the "singular spell" that botanists fall under in their devotion to plants. Crow says simply, "You have to love the work," and Nazaire clearly does. She loves being far away from civilization early in the morning in a desolate landscape of stunted tamarack trees where the only sound she hears is the haunting laugh of the loon. The refuge already protects the loon by adjusting the lake's water levels. She knows her hard work will help the refuge protect endangered or threatened plants as well.

Nazaire, who received her first undergraduate degree from the Portland School of Art, was an artist before she became a scientist. "I think art and science are very deeply connected," she says. "They both have to do with the observation of things. What drew me to plants is geometry. Most of my paintings worked with geometry. And I have always been interested in the relationship between order and chaos."

Out in Harpers Meadow, the cargo pockets on Nazaire's tan vest bulge with the tools of her trade. As she turns to examine a plot she has roped off, the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing a pattern in the vast meadow that only moments ago seemed like a chaotic blend of broad- and narrow-leaved sedges. Now the broader blades stand out, leaning in one direction, shining in the light. For an instant, it seems as though Nazaire could be holding a pallet and paintbrush instead of a field press and compass. She is painting a picture, after all, preserving this shining moment in Harpers Meadow for the people who will come after her, as well as for the moose and the loons. ~

 Easy to print version

Page: < Prev 1 2 3 4
blog comments powered by Disqus