Friday, October 14, 2011

My Big Year

I love the excitement that flows through the brain after the inception of a great subject to share with the nature blogosphere.  Sometimes I find myself staring blankly into the computer screen with a bit of drool losing its battle with gravity down the side of my mouth.  I dislike those moments.  I prefer times when your fingers move almost faster than the electrodes in your brain; times like these.  I have just returned from my viewing of the movie The Big Year, which tells the tale of three very different men at very different points in their respective lives, all vying for the same prize of being the world record holder for most species seen in a year.  While I don't want to get too into the plot and what transpires I will say it's an excellent movie that deserves two hours of your day.  It doesn't matter if you are as obsessed a birder as the movie's characters, a casual birder like myself or someone who doesn't know a mourning dove from an egret, there's plenty to take away from the film.

As I sat there watching Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin crack me up and at times nearly choke me up, I got to thinking about just how in-depth and personal the story seemed to myself; someone who can really relate to the bliss, stress and sacrifice experienced by the characters in varying degrees of intensity.  While the movie is about the all-consuming task of becoming a world record breaker in the birding world, I can really relate to their struggle and drive with my passion of photographing and observing as many vascular plants as possible from year to year.  I love making lists, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and goal-setting.  Seeing what I've done and what I'd still like to do just keeps me in-line and on the tenacious path of success.  As of this date my plant list for 2011 stands at 1,319 species; including 52 species of North American orchid.  I cannot say that number is concrete as some duplicates, omissions or mis-I.D.'s could exist but nonetheless I'm pretty happy with the results.  From the dandelions in my front yard to the federally endangered Michigan Monkeyflower (Mimulus michiganensis) with just a handful of populations left on earth, if it's flowering or in fruit I count it.  Trees, ferns, grasses, sedges, orchids, rushes; the list goes on and on.  I've been lucky to have botanized all four corners of Ohio, much of southern Indiana, Kentucky, northern Michigan and Ontario, Canada this year.  That's where the movie really drove the nail home with me.  The drive, obsession and unquenchable passion for what I do really cannot be explained.  It's just something that speaks from my heart and soul and takes me to a level of happiness and purity that nothing else has yet to achieve.

Another aspect that really rang true was the network of support and crowd of doubt in each character's lives.  While I connected with Brad (Jack Black's character) the most I can say our fathers differ greatly.  I've been very fortunate to have been born and raised by a set of parents who's only dream and wish for me is my personal happiness and success.  They have a son who loves nothing better than driving thousands and thousands of miles all around the Midwest constantly in search of the next species of plant on my radar but they love me for it and most importantly have respect for what I do.  That really helps when you have that cradle of love and support.  I feel that many of my friends don't have the first clue of understanding or comprehension why I have the lifestyle and passion I do.  While I rarely get much negative flack for my interests I did connect with Stu (Steve Martin) when his employee's just couldn't believe the decision to forgo business and money for something as silly and pointless as 'birding'.  Truthfully, deep down I think many people are jealous, even if they don't quite understand why.  I have consciously chosen my path in life.  I've shied away from the predictable life of getting a job for the sake of one, disliking what I do and dreaming of the day I can quit.  I think it's important for us to really weigh what's important in our lives and then taking that dominant aspect and really striving towards happiness.  I truly believe that while money does make life easier and run more smoothly it does not and never will bring genuine happiness and love.  No amount of money can make you love yourself.

My dad has always been quick to share this Henry David Thoreau quote with me throughout my life, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them".  Not I.  I'm singing my song loudly, belting it out for all the world to hear.  When the time comes to return my bones back to the Earth my voice will be quiet with satisfaction.  For I will have sung my song in life and have left nothing else to say.  We only get this one chance to live our lives so why not live them by your standards and not someone else's?  If you want to bird, then bird!  If you want to travel the country seeking out all the incredible flora, I know I do, then do it!  You want to know what the meaning of life is?  It's what you make of it.  That's the answer in my mind.  I was put here to enjoy the natural wonders of our world created by time and chance and do what I can to leave it in better shape than I found it.

It does all come with a price, as all things both good and bad in life.  I sometimes wonder what I could be missing out on that so many other people seem to be doing and enjoying.  I really do tend to spend almost all my free time out wandering the woods or prairies in search of that perfect intrinsic moment; which I seem to find on more occasions than not.  I'm young and still have plenty of time to decide on my future in the not so well planned out areas but I could still feel Kenny's (Owen Wilson) inner battle between doing what he was meant to and sacrificing that precious time to be a dedicated husband and potential father.  It's hard to balance those things out and I wonder where my life will lead in that area.  It's pretty evident it's a one-horse race in that category right now but anything can happen from now until later.

Whew, maybe a bit personal of a post but one I really wanted to share.  I think it's important for all of us, regardless of age, passion or lifestyle to sit back and take a look at our lives through the eyes of someone else.  I didn't expect this movie to play that role but it really got me thinking and I couldn't help but walk out of the theater with a big smile on my face and look forward to my future.  It definitely lit a fire under me to get more serious about birding and improve my paltry life-list of 200 some birds.  Definitely no Big Year ahead anytime soon for me but eclipsing 300 in 2012 would be spectacular!  I'm even more excited about next year's botanical promises and dreams.  I still have plenty of species high on my list and I plan on doing some more traveling to mark a number of those off.  I'm thinking of getting out West to get me a couple more Cypripedium, moving ever closer to my ultimate bucket list goal of seeing every North American species.  The older we get the more you need to have something to drive towards and reach for.  It keeps your heart light and soul glowing.  It just so happened that somewhere in my mitochondrial DNA I have the genetic sequence for the love of botany and everything else natural and I couldn't be happier with that.  This year truly was one, big's to an even bigger 2012!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Saving the Best for Last

Is it really October already?  It seems like just last month I was looking out my frosted windows with dreams of hepaticas and snow trillium in my botanically deprived head.  It's been an incredible year I won't soon forget but it's not over just yet.  Autumn is hands down my favorite time of the year, no matter how fleeting it seems.  This season is a refreshing change from last year's fall where a rainless summer produced little color and enthusiasm.  My forested drives to and from campus explode with the fire orange of sugar maples, deep crimsons of sourwood and the tie-dye patchwork of sweetgum to name a few.  The weather this past week has been nearly perfect for producing an extra sharp pigment performance this time around.  Bright, sunny days accompanied with clear and cool nights really bring out the most intense reds, oranges and yellows.  It's days like these that make me extremely thankful to live in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  While most people focus on the trees this time of year it would be a shame to ignore the last wildflowers of the season, proudly displaying their beauty for the careful observer.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

One of the last to unveil its delicate artistry is the Lesser Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata).  Mother nature really does save the best for last!  I was disappointed in my searches last fall for this stunning member of the Gentian family (Gentianaceae) and was forced to wait until this past Saturday to make its acquaintance and it was worth every second.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

It was mid-morning when I arrived at the secretive fen complex somewhere in central Ohio.  Dew still clung to the shadows as the sun carved through the remaining fog.  My footsteps fell silently on the moist, fallen leaves as I slowly made my way through the perimeter forest.  Suddenly I was greeted by a large, open expanse of wet prairie colored gold with Indian Grass and spotted with blue, yellow and purple flowers.  Willow-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum praealtum), Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense) and Nodding Ladies-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) were scattered amongst the grass but I was most interested in the splashes of brilliant blue just peaking above the vegetation.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

The clear, sapphire skies were only bested by the even more intense hues of the fringed gentians.  The plants pictured above were just starting to unfurl their four fringed petals as the sun spilled over the fen.  Under cloudy and nighttime conditions these flowers curl their petals tightly together in a vertical fashion, which honestly makes for just as pretty a capture as fully open.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

There are two Gentianopsis species native to Ohio; the lesser fringed (G. virgata), which is featured in this post, and greater fringed gentian (G. crinita).  Both are nearly identical at first glance but can be separated with relative ease.  The amount of fringing around the petals a means for distinguishing which species you have but can be very variable.  The lesser gentian's fringing tapers to nearly none at all at the rounded end of the petal (seen above), while the greater gentian's fringing runs continuously and evenly all the way around the petal.  The leaves are your best bet with the greater fringed having shorter, more wide lanceolate leaves; while the lesser fringed has long, much narrower and almost linear leaves.  Both species are listed as potentially threatened with G. virgata predominately in the southern half of the state and G. crinita found in the northern half; most frequently in the northeast near Lake Erie.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

Gentianopsis virgata is a calciphile, growing in calcareous situations such as fens, seeps, shorelines and marly sand.  These gorgeous annuals were once much more common throughout our state and the Great Lakes region until draining and habitat destruction ruined their unique and diverse wetland homes.  I would love to travel back to pre-settlement Ohio and look out across the large fens and wet meadows come October and see this remarkable plant bloom by the thousands.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

Each flower seems to have been carefully stitched and made of the finest silk and then allowed to tatter and fray in the chilled Autumn winds.  I could have spent all day in the presence of these remarkable wildflowers.  I just wanted to sit down on a patch of grass and feel the sun warm my body and soul as the migrating birds whistled their goodbyes for the year and hope that moment would last forever.  I love finding places where the stain and evidence of mankind disappears and I'm left feeling alone in the world.  A good alone, the kind only a true outdoors loving person understands.  No sounds, smells or sights other than what exists naturally and belongs.  I don't know how other naturalists and pro-nature folks feel but my best moments in nature are when I'm alone, I've never felt so at peace as in those perfectly timed moments.  They really are one of life's ineffable experiences.

Lesser Fringed Gentian - Gentianopsis virgata

I hope this amazing fen complex exists for years to come; its seclusion and secret is safe with me.  Places like this don't increase in number but are ever losing ground to natural succession, man-made destruction and climate change.  I look forward to seeing my new found friend again next year as the leaves begin to change and winter beckons once again.  That's the beauty about botany; each of these species of plant that I find so mesmerizing is 'someone' I know who comes and goes at a specific time and place.  It's that 51 weeks of patience in-between that keeps me going.  Always something to look forward to and picture in your mind.  I apologize for the extended absence but rest-assured I'll be back soon to continue bringing you the natural treasures of Ohio.  I have plenty more to come over the winter months including finishing up my Bruce peninsula trip and Ohio prairies series!  Thanks for reading!