Learning from Scratch: American Wildlife

Shagbark Hickory
Can you ID this tree in leafless winter? Yes, by its shag bark.

When I first came to America, not only did I not know a single human soul here, I also didn’t know the trees and the shrubs, the herbs and the bushes. I did not know anything about the vast, wonderful wildlife Mother Nature rewarded this vast, wonderful country with.

The first few months, as I have said many times over, was a feeling Neil Armstrong had when he first landed on the moon. Only difference was that he did not see a soul — human or not — across the entire planet. In my case, I saw countless men, women and children; I saw countless plants and insects and mushrooms. But I did not know a single one. It was surreal.

It took me a very long time to get used to this new reality. Or, as some people say, I’m never going to get used to this reality, ever. I just keep trying.

Anyway, I’ve told that adjustment-lack-of-adjustment story many times over too.

But I’ve never told the story how I slowly came to learn the plants of this country — one plant at a time. Back in Bengal, because I was a botanist, I had to learn a small fraction of the incredibly rich flora Mother Nature carefully set aside for that vast, wonderful land. Not only we as botany students had to memorize the Latin names of hundreds of herbs and trees, some of us the overenthusiastic type often went out on our own to explore the vegetation of various villages. It was major fun. I tried to bring some of that fun on to my own students when I was the only botany professor at a remote, rural college of Bengal.

We knew Cassia tora in Calcutta.
We knew Cassia tora in Calcutta.

In my own college days, naive urban kids from Kolkata who only pretended to be know-all, we came to know the differences between the various varieties of Ficus, or the subtle features of the yellow flowers of two species of Cesalpinia. We knew where to find a rare Putranjiva. We learned which months were the best to find the blooming Lantana, Cassia or Euphorbia, and that too, on which side of which suburban train station. We knew where to find the lactating Michelia champaca. We knew where to find a lush produce of Ixora — the bush of long, red flowers that bore the resemblance of a delicate paint brush.

I discovered Ixora, in delight.
I discovered Ixora, in delight.

Now, here in the U.S., I learned new varieties of Ixora. I saw them for the first time, enchanted, during a conference trip to Miami, Floria. Then, much later, I discovered Cesalpinia on Key West! In America, because I was a plant biology student for the first few years at two Illinois universities, my craving to learn the American flora only grew stronger. But for my Ph.D. research, I concentrated not on plants, but on fungi. Even though fungi are not plants, but traditionally, just like in India, botany departments normally find teachers to teach fungi — both the micro and macro types. So, I ended up in a plant biology department.

I was lucky to have been in such a department at Southern Illinois University, because I came to know very well-known botanists such as Prof. Robert Mohlenbrock, paleobotanist Prof.

Dr. Bob Mohlenbrock with his privileged students.
Dr. Bob Mohlenbrock with his privileged students.

Lawrence Matten, and moss expert couple Profs. Raymond Stotler and Barbara Crandall-Stotler. Between these dedicated teachers who were also great, student-loving human beings, my education of botany — which was only scant at best in India — became somewhat complete. At my first U.S. school Illnois State University, I had the privilege to know Prof. Roger Anderson who as an ecologist also taught us various plants. In fact, I remember he showed us the difference between the various species of maple and oak.

Then, of course, my own research advisor Prof. Walter Sundberg and the many well-known mycologists and plant pathologists I came to know through my intense years as a Ph.D. student found me treasured opportunities to learn more about the American wildlife and vegetation. Again, for over five years, I wandered across small and big forests primarily in the American Midwest — Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee — on personal or group excursions to collect countless species of mushrooms, and got to know their required host vegetation. (On some of these excursions, I encountered poison ivy, deer ticks and rattlesnakes). Then, I reported my research findings at scientific conferences where both graduate student colleagues and young and senior professors befriended me and encouraged me on my work. It was a very special, rewarding time of my life.

Rytas Vilgalys at Duke. Brilliant guy!
Rytas Vilgalys at Duke. Brilliant guy. Great friend.

I owe deep gratitude to some of these mycologists who not only taught me fungi, but also took me in as one of their own in this otherwise very strange, unknown land. I take this privilege to express my gratitude to some of these people: Greg Mueller of Chicago, Rytas Vilgalys of Duke, Roy Halling of New York, Ron Petersen of Tennessee, Joseph Ammirati of Seattle, and John Haines of Albany. There are many more whom I did not have time to mention in this brief space of a blog.

In America, through American teachers, I came to understand the real purpose of learning the plants and animals and fungi and insects and even viruses. I learned about biodiversity, evolution, ecology and adaptation. Through a course I took from Prof. Mohlenbrock, I first learned about IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Through two young professors Rytas Vilgalys and Greg Mueller who became like friends, I learned about how to use molecular biology to understand the evolution of fungi. With another young professor Caro-Beth Stewart at the University of Albany where I did post-doctoral research in molecular evolution, I learned some of the underlying concepts of biology research in today’s modern-day science. These are subjects I did not have much opportunity to know before.

Now I know them all!
Now I know them all!

Not only now I know the difference between the maple and oak, and also the differences between red oak, white oak, pin oak and burr oak, I now know what makes it so important to know those differences. The so-called creationists would cringe, but through my teachers here in America, I now know creationism is crack and crazy. Science conclusively proves evolution. Science conclusively proves global warming. Science shows us the importance of conserving nature.

In my own little way, through knowing my plants and fungi and insects and wildlife here in America, I eventually understood the relevance of my reading.

Gratefully Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Ordinary Americans are extraordinary. They care about Mother Nature a lot. I was privileged to know them.
Ordinary Americans are extraordinary. They care about Mother Nature a lot. I was privileged to know them.

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