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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.2.09




Wild Relatives

Botanists are driven by curiosity 

by Mary O’Brien

Summer conspires with our vacations to reconnect us with Earth’s life. Her long days, warm weather, active animal life, and rapid plant life cycles make this season the easiest time to visit any number of our relatives, both those genetically close and those farther away.

During the past month, two remarkable people have reminded me how such visits can morph into lifetime affections.

I had last seen Oscar Clarke and Marsia, his artist wife, on the August 1981 day when I moved from southern California to Eugene. That morning I loaded my family’s gear from Oscar’s barn into a U-Haul and headed north on I-5. I had met the gregarious, self-taught botanist in 1975 when he was curator (manager) of the herbarium at University of California Riverside, and I was mounting pressed plants for a botany class. Later I, my husband, and two small boys would join him on too few of his notorious, shoestring field trips in his VW bus. They were crazy-quilt adventures at which every plant, pollinator, snake, grub, or bird that crossed our vision or soundscape became a wonder and had a story. 

Two weeks ago, 400 people like me celebrated Oscar’s 90th birthday outdoors, telling stories differing only in the details of how Oscar had changed our lives with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for every wild being. Oscar listened to each story, interrupting only to correct this or that technical detail. This birthday party followed by two years a party upon the publication of his remarkable guide to every plant species inhabiting his huge, largely-urbanized Santa Ana River watershed in southern California. Each of his three coauthors were perhaps half his 88 years and thrilled to have worked with him.

On the other hand, I met Dennis Bramble for only the first time last month. In 1992, while a biology professor at University of Utah, Dennis bought an old homestead of 160 acres near Escalante, Utah. The land, adjacent to Dixie National Forest, had been heavily grazed by cattle for more than a century. 

Throughout the past 17 years, Dennis has documented changes since he began grazing the property with far fewer cows, only in the fall, and not at all during drought years. Via repeat photos at 25 points, electronic data from two weather stations, and countless hours walking the land noting which animal and plant species are decreasing and which increasing, he is compiling a rare and immensely useful story of recovery on depleted land. For instance, 12 species of grass were present when Dennis bought the property. More than 50 now grow there, all arriving naturally. Porcupines disappeared at some time since the 1950s from his watershed. Dennis will find out when they were last active on the land by aging the scars on tree limbs where bark was stripped by this once-common species that is now disappearing throughout the West.

We tend to label as “childlike” the boundless delight and curiosity emanating from people like Oscar and Dennis. However, the decision to notice, wonder about, and care for all beings partakes far more of an adult character than is evinced by our species as a whole.  

It’s summer, and a lot of your relatives await your visit.

Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.