An Outing With the Experts

The intrepid botanists return in high spirits after a successful day of collecting and observing. (Photo Credit Todd Crabtree)

Especially in academia there is a negative tendency to believe ourselves more knowledgeable than we really are, or to believe our knowledge to be of a high caliber; and then there are moments that force a little more humility, where we must confront the fact that there is much we don’t know and many out there from whom we have much to learn. One of those moments hit me the other day with full force. I had the fortune to be invited to accompany an all star cast of botanists on part of their botanizing trip around much of Tennessee. They were heading from May Prairie to a site near Belvidere where I was to meet them. Knowing little about the trip other than that it was organized largely by Dwayne Estes, Associate Professor and Curator of the Herbarium at Austin Peay State University and that he wanted to show us a unique population of oaks, I had no idea what was in store for me or the company I would be in. As I met the team of botanists I was introduced to Todd Crabtree, Tennessee State Botanist with the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program; Dr. John Semple, Professor of Biology at Waterloo University and the expert on North American goldenrods; Dr. Ed Schilling, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee and an expert on sunflowers (genus Helianthus); Dr. Julian Campbell with the Bluegrass Woodland Restoration Center; and Mason Brock, a graduate student at Austin Peay State University. The whole time I felt underqualified to be in such accomplished company, but it was a great experience to learn from the best of the best.

This Limestone glade is a unique habitat and was the focus of our outing

Together we explored a large limestone outcrop and a limestone glade, admiring populations of Shumard’s oak (Quercus shumardii), smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) an unusual population of of purple cliffbrake fern (Pellaea atropurpurea), and the grasses, asters, and other flowers of the limestone glade.

In addition to having a whole team of resources to answer any questions I had about a species name or how to tell one aster from another, I got to listen to and absorb–or at least try to absorb–some of the highest level of debate and discussion about botany and plant taxonomy I have been privy to. I heard debates over cladistics and the basis for the recognition of species, deliberations over what to call a sunflower based on characteristics I would have never thought to have picked up on, and what distinguishes the oaks we saw from the typical Shumard’s oak.

This oak was a major reason for our visitation of the Belvidere site

At the end of the trip I found myself torn between two poles; on the one hand I wanted to continue on, to spend more time in that company, to soak up more and more botanical knowledge, but on the other I felt that even in just our few hours together I was exposed to so much information that I needed time to digest it all. The trip definitely gave me new insight into how much there is to know about our flora, and how much learning I still need to do. I hope that I will some day again find myself in company of that caliber.

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