Experiencing history

One great thing about reading is that it can offer me a new (or old) perspective on a subject I think I know well. While reading Field Days: Journal of an Itinerant Biologist by Roger B. Swain, I stumbled across a chapter featuring the New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS), where my CLM internship has brought me. Field Days is a 1983 publication anthologizing Swain’s essays about his observations of plants and animals in nature as well as his observations of people’s interactions with nature. In “Crowbars, Glaciers and Zen Temples,” Swain explains the earth phenomena and the human tinkering behind the landscape of New England. In “Bee Bites,” Swain revels in his companion’s reaction to learning the mechanisms involved in a bee’s sting. In “White Bloomers,” I was surprised to learn that NEWFS has a collection of albino wild flowers—and that these flowers are so prized that a few have been stolen from the grounds in years past. I shared the chapter with my boss one day while cleaning seeds. Even he was surprised by some of the information, commenting that the staff members named in the chapter might only be remembered by today’s most senior staff members.

I didn’t know I would be working at NEWFS, even a year ago, and yet, there was a whole history here before I arrived. It seems obvious to say, but that history is usually locked away in the memories of lifelong patrons, locals and past employees. Encountering this chapter was a glimpse into that elusive past.

In fact, Boston also has a rich history and historical record, and so do many places I have experienced through other internships and travels. Just outside Boston stand the homes in which Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born. They are next door to each other in what is today Quincy, on the same block as a Dunkin Donuts and along the public bus line. Our intern team recently discovered that one of our field sites in northern Massachusetts, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, was featured in a conservation brochure written by environmentalist Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring. She mentions the dune forb Hudsonia tomentosa, one of our first seed collections at this site. This population’s place in history, as elevated by Carson, gives me more pride in having collected it. I hope we have ensured its future propagation for both the sake of the Parker River ecosystem and for the sake of those who will read Carson’s brochure decades from now. Whether it is a place I have heard of and now am able to visit, or a place that I know well and now may learn of its past, learning the history of the familiar humbles me.

In particular, Field Days mentions that the Garden in the Woods run by NEWFS is famous for a white Trillium plant. Last time I drove to the garden, I passed their welcome banner. I had driven past it several times before, but I had never recognized its significance. There, plastered larger than life in ink next to the block letters naming the garden, was a brilliant white Trillium flower.

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