Under thickening, slate gray
skies, a dozen college students negotiate their way through decomposing
muck, scramble up a steep rise, and converge in an uneasy clump around
their final destination: Quercus ellipsoidalis, the Northern pin
oak. It is raining steadily by the time teaching assistant John Kasmer
has described the oak's bark, fruit, buds, leaves, tortuous branches, and
adaptations to dry conditions. Most students try to take notes as
he talks, and they shiver, worrying their pencils inside the wet Zip-loc
bags that encase their clipboards.
These students come prepared for weekly five-hour labs in any weather. During the morning lecture, Professor Burton Barnes almost gleefully reminded them, "People, we go out rain or shine, Shine or rain!" So there they stand, in the rain, in the woods outside of Milford, soggily shifting their weight, scribbling curious, almost regal botanical adjectives onto their notecards. Coriaceous. Deliquescent. Xerophytic.
Kasmer shoves a few dusty brown acorns into his Panamanian string bag, already bulging at odd angles with twigs, nuts, and hard-to-identify terristrial flotsam. Then he smiles broadly and announces, "We're out of here!"
Every year for the past twenty-six, forest ecologist Burton Barnes and botanist Herb Wagner have offered U-M students in Woody Plants a botanical liberal arts education in introductory plant biology, ecology, and evolution. Woody Plants turns out students every fall who can identify more than 150 trees and shrubs, not by such easy but transitory features as deciduous leaves, but by persistent winter characteristics - trusty "clustered buds" and "warty lenticels."
The class is an all-weather, all-terrain affair. Students spend long afternoons outside, their boots caked with mud, their pant cuffs stuffed with snow. In the process, they visit fourteen forest communities in and around Ann Arbor, from Bird Hills Park to Waterloo Recreation Area. They tour pre-settlement beech-maple forests, oak-hickory forests, silver maple floodplains, and a bog - into which at least one student, according to Barnes and Wagner, always falls.
Some years, more unexpected mishaps occur. Disoriented teaching assistants spend hours wandering lost in the woods. Students on crutches travel slung over people's shoulders when when the terrain is too rough for them to walk. Crabby landownders run students off their property, while good samaritans, seeing students staring at the forest floor, try to help, asking, "Did someone lose a contact?"
When Woody Plants groups are not outside in the field, they can spend unlimited hours inside the School of Natural resources' plant lab. Hunched over long, gray tables, they examine tangled piles of leafless twigs, trays of submerged, spinach-like leaves, and jars of wizened fruits: achenes, pomes, drupes, and the endearing "winged nutlets." They mumble as they memorize plant names: Leucothoe editorum. Dog-hobble. Pieris floribunda. Mountain fetterbush.
In return for their physical and intellectual efforts, Woody Plants students receive what most consider a rigorous introduction to plant bioloby and ecology. They also learn that grapes are actually berries. That all the white poplars in Southeast Michigan are clones of a singe female plant. That witch hazel is the native species most highly recommended by the U.S. Army for camouflage.
And they experience the lectures of Barnes and Wagner, which might be more accurately described as performances or celebrations. Barnes, an expert on woody plant genetics and ecology, and Wagner, an expert on the evolutionary relationships of ferns, stress the importance of committed science and research in their lectures. But they also teach, by example, that serious science can be a source of exuberant joy.
"Remeber, people, biology is the study of plants and their parasites!", Wagner exclaims. His reminder that plants perform nature's most basic work, producing nutrients that support every other living creature, provokes students in animal sciences and wildlife biology to blink, and then laugh.
Wagner jumps on a desk, his wispy white hair in disarray, and throws handfuls of twirling maple helicopters into the air in his lecture on fruit types. Then he smashes a tomato with a hammer to demonstrate how "fleshy" a "fleshy fruit" can be.
Barnes, a lean man with thick brows, sings original Woody Plants songs for students' edification, and leads the teaching assistants in "The Twelve Woody Plants of Christmas" before the final exam. Upon request, he will belt out 'Aspen Uber Alles," an ode to his favorite tree.
Sometimes, students respond in kind to their professors' class spirit. The class of 1973 was inspired to compile a scrapbook of woody plants war stories, "dedicated to the Men and Women of Woody Plants." The scrapbook, which Barnes keeps in his office, affectionately portrays the class as a cross between army boot camp and an extended family car trip.
One of the scrapbook's poets surely spoke for many Woody Plants alumni when he wrote:
I hope that I shall never see
Another beech or chestnut tree . . .
I'm sick of weary nights alone
Remembering berries, drupe, and pomes . . .
Yet in spite of its challenges,
or perhaps because of them, Woody Plants has been one of the School of
Natural Resources' most popular classes since its inception. Enrollments
have ballooned from the original class of forty-five students to at least
100 each semester for the past two decades.
Wagner attributes the course's success in part to the inherent appeal, and importance, of the subject matter. "Trees are so majestic. So beautiful. You can sit and look at them for hours - at the statue of a tree, or how the canopy opens," he says. Then he adds, "People can go into their own backyards and discover lands as far away as Venus. Why so much money goes into NASA I'll never understand."
To Wagner, the study of plants is more than an aesthetic exercise, or even an academic one; it is a critical part of the conservation of nature. Future scientists and decision-makers will protect only what they know and understand.
"Woody plants form the scaffolding of natural communities. They define the habitat, and yet people don't know what is going on out there." Looking down at his hiking boots, he adds, in almost a pleading whisper, "The study of woody plants may be the only time people get to actually see what they're trying to save."