Saturday, January 12, 2013


The plant hunter on an early expedition.
This week’s “monsoon” that flooded city streets throughout Acadiana reminded me of Hurricane Elena and an article I wrote back in 1988 about a plant collecting trip in which I accompanied my friend Dr. Sullivan and a Japanese botanist, Dr. Yahara, to St. Augustine, Florida. On that memorable trip, Hurricane Elena followed us 700 miles to Florida, then turned and followed us all the way back to the Gulf Coast after we had collected the plants. We were searching for Eupatorium, weeds with dirty white flowers that most people would scarcely glance at a first time, much less a second time, identifiable in ditches, pastures, and at forest edges by the botanists from a van speeding 65 mph along interstate highways. The botanists were collecting samples of these plants to analyze the isozymes and chromosome karyotypes for comparison of species with those in East Asia. So much for scientific explanations.

The memorable part of the trip was the behavior of these botanists. During the three-day trip, rain fell in buckets, as the hurricane began to shadow us. To ward off the rain, Dr. Yahara tied a light chartreuse towel around his shaggy, home-barbered style hair, but Dr. Sullivan ran bareheaded through the drops, and I foolishly followed them on this plant hunt. We waded through palmetto, swamp magnolia, large colonies of mosquitoes breeding in the hardwood forests, and stretches of posted property (I’ve never hunted plants with a botanist on anything but posted land – botanists are drawn to growth on illegal property as irresistibly as insects to pitcher plants).

Somewhere along the way, Dr. Sullivan allowed Dr. Yahara to drive because he wanted to practice his driving, he said. Now, in Japan, drivers motor along, British style, on the left-hand side of the road, and the steering wheel is located on the right-hand side of the vehicles. Add to this disadvantage of everything being backward Dr. Yahara’s unfamiliarity with power steering and brakes and you get the picture – that of a gleaming white van moving in fits and starts in the fast lane of a major U.S. artery. The sudden bucking halts caused a stream of piggybacking vehicles behind us, and curses were hurled at our pilot in a maelstrom of ethnic prejudice.

While the botanists ran through the rain, much of the time I stayed in the backseat of the van where I sat, recording the botanist’s antics and where space requirements had been violated by large white plastic bags of specimens. The van also developed an odor, an odor which grew stronger by the moment – the botanists had packed the sulphurous smell of a nearby paper mill within the bags! Flies had also found a landing strip in the back of the van where I had been placed in this inferior unscientific position.

Rain fell in heavy gray sheets while we stopped and started, the scientists experiencing botanical seizures when they came upon such places as an airstrip surrounded by a high wire fence with a sharp pointed strand of barbed wire along the top. Eupatorium recurvans species lay just beyond, beckoning the duet. Dr. Sullivan halted the van, and the couple got out to stand before the fence, peering at the species longingly before deciding not to muster the climb. They seemed very compatible, standing there in the rain, wistfully contemplating a population of weeds in a field inaccessible to poor botanists. Dr. Yahara would have scaled the barrier if Dr. Sullivan hadn’t restrained him because of possible plane landings, she said, which, of course wasn't a rational explanation in the face of Elena’s threat and no planes landing.

Meanwhile, the leading edge of Hurricane Elena had swamped coastal areas with high tides, thunderous surf, and torrential rain. The storm, its winds roaring at 100 miles per hour, veered toward northeast Florida where we were headed. Rain had fallen so heavily in Apalachicola at midday that visibility had been only 20 feet, but we traveled on. I was beginning to have problems breathing in the space trespassed by all the severed plants in the bags. At dusk, the botanists decided to stop at a motel in St. Augustine to wash the root stocks so that Dr. Yahara could send them back to Japan. They discovered a garden hose lying outside the motel office door, quickly filching it and attaching it to a spigot outside the motel room before they began their Saturday night washing. By midnight, the pair had laundered one fourth of their harvest … and Elena had stalled in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere west of Cedar Key.

We tried to outrun the hurricane on the 14-hour trip home and got off route, moving toward Ocala on a direct southwesterly line to Cedar Key. I hissed at the botanists that we were heading into the path of Elena and a swarm of tornadoes. Trees bowed and curtsied to us in the gusts that had begun to rock the van. Rain slashed heavily against the windshield, chasing us back on route. A wind shear stalled the hurricane’s strengthening, and we crossed over to Highway 441, passing within five miles of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' home where The Yearling had been written.

“Let’s stop here. We’re already off-course,” I said tentatively, hoping they would understand that book writing was as serious a matter to me as Eupatorium was to them. Silence. “It would only take fifteen minutes.” Silence. Science vs the Arts, the classic struggle, occurred in a van moving through a hurricane. Part of the evidence which the trip had yielded was that there was a distinction between artists/writers and scientists. While artists/writers at least sense the presence of other humans, make observations about their behavior, and raise their observations to an art, botanists are oblivious to anything breathing beside them; they’re so intent on the blade or twig, flower or pollinator under scrutiny. We did not stop for Marjorie K. Rawlings. But I had enough information to support the thesis that botanists are maniacs. I became anxious to type up a study I'd entitle “On Plant Ardor.”

Fortunately, Elena grew tired of following us and slammed into port at Gulfport, Mississippi the morning after our return home, having trailed us through Florida and all the way back to the Gulf coast. The sun shone on the end of our botanical expedition and when the van stopped, I jumped down, saying: “To quote the saying my houseboy Jabar taught me when I lived in Iran before the deposing of the Shah, ‘Is Finish.’”

Such are the memories inspired by two days of forced isolation during a heavy rainstorm in south Louisiana! I hasten to add that this past year Dr. Sullivan was honored for her work with Eupatorium by having Eupatorium sullivaniae named for her.
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