“Dad, what’s this?” My son asks as he holds up a decomposing stem of a leaf.
“Ummm, not sure.”
“Daddy, do you know what that is?” My youngest daughter asks as she points to something green.
“That’s a … I don’t know.”
The fun part is when I’m asked to identify something that looks very plain and common. First I’ll smell it, then maybe, a little nibble with some swishing around in my mouth. I will extend my arm out while holding the specimen and say with certain confidence, “that’s a Blubagondium Spirit Moss … Minor … Aeceus.” The best part is to pause and then say, “the Rufus genus.”
Do you think they buy it? Not even close.
“Dad, don’t you make a living teaching kids about things in the forest?”
This scenario could be, and is, any given weekend of my life. Yes, I am the director at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in Freeport. Yes, I am in the woods every day. Yes, I don’t know anything.
That’s not completely true. I have a reason for my lack of knowledge. It’s good. Hear me out.
Many, many years ago the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem covered our land in the Southeast United States. From Virginia all the way over to Texas, a unique mixture of sandhill, flatwoods and savannahs created a vast amount of biodiversity. The longleaf pine ecosystem is almost non-existent today. However, the effects and remnants of this great ecosystem have given us the basis for a multitude of plants.
This isn’t to say that the soil in the Southeast was, and is, consistently rich and healthy for growth. Studies have found that the vast biodiversity in the longleaf pine ecosystem actually comes from the lack of healthy soils. Add in the constant, sweeping, natural fires caused by lightning strikes, and you have the perfect recipe for large numbers of varying plant life.
I won’t bore you with the particulars of how this works. The important thing to know is that plants in poor soils compete for sunlight. If a fire comes through an area every year or two, these plants all start over with their growth process. This eliminates the faster growing plants to dominate the sky for the sunlight.
If one or two species isn’t hogging all of the light, then many, many species can coexist together. Obviously there are other factors that can come into play, but you get the general idea.
So, let me get to the point. There are studies that have estimated that more than 1,600 plant species exist in the Southeast. One thousand six hundred! How many do you know?
It’s pretty amazing to think that you can spend a lifetime out in the woods and still come upon something, pick it up, and not know what it is. I love the fact that you can constantly and continuously learn when outside in the forest.
I am learning something new every day. I do have some favorites that you will enjoy: Toothache grass, rabbit tobacco, yucca, resurrection fern, turkey oak, sweet gum and Ilex vomitoria. Yes, vomit is in the scientific name.
So, this Saturday when you are out in the woods with your friends and family and they ask you to identify something, clear your throat, hold your head up high and say with ignorant bliss, “I haven’t the foggiest idea.”
Paul Arthur is director of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. The center is an environmental education facility serving students, teachers and visitors with engaging exhibits, instructors and animal encounters. Learn more at www.eowilsoncenter.org/