Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Daring Botany

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Daring Botany

Article excerpt

I have just turned 60 and have decided to begin an exploration of the plant world. This is really an embarrassing thing to admit: that I've been a biologist for 40 years and I've finally turned my attention to the organisms responsible for life on earth as we know it. I have definitely suffered from "plant blindness" (Allen, 2003), though it hasn't been quite absolute. I loved to garden with my mother, I keep coming back to investigations of the life and work of the plant morphologist Agnes Arber (Flannery, 2005), and for the past two years I've been taking courses in botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). But this spring, two things happened that really took the scales off my eyes. First, I was invited by Ethel Stanley of Beloit College (a "real" botanist) to do a joint presentation on Seeing Plants: Visualization in Plant Biology at a BioQUEST educational symposium (http://bioquest.org/BSA2007). This was to be held in July before the Botany and Plant Biology Joint Congress in Chicago. It was definitely hubris on my part to accept this invitation, but Ethel assured me that I could concentrate on the visualization part and she would do the "real" plant biology.

Plant Morphology

Also this spring, I took a course called Plant Morphology for Botanical Illustrators at the NYBG. It was taught by Dr. Dick Rauh, who has a Ph.D. in botany and is a noted botanical artist. Dick is also my role model. He started work on his doctorate when he retired from the field of film special effects. Since I am a typical student, I had listened to the student gossip on Dick and knew that he was good, but tough, and he proved to live up to his reputation. However, I also found him one of the most subtly passionate teachers I've ever had. He is definitely a traditionalist in how he presents material: lecture followed by lab is his style. But his lectures are punctuated with questions--going both ways--and with asides on some of the more fascinating characteristics of flowering plants. In 8 weeks, we managed to cover the basics of plant morphology, from the different types of pericarpal tissue to the intricacies of leaf shape, and we examined specimens from 24 angiosperm families. The purpose of the course was to give botanical illustrators some sense of how plants are put together and how they vary. This was definitely a watered-down version of a "real" plant morphology course, but because it was taught by Dr. Rauh, all the students developed a hunger for more of the same. If these 24 families have such variety and such fascinating adaptations, imagine what is in store for us if we explore further, and with the resources of the NYBG available to us, there's enough to keep a botanical artist--even one a lot younger than 60--busy for a lifetime.

In all the courses I've taken at the Garden, I've felt overwhelmed by my level of ignorance. Since I have no art background, getting into botanical illustration meant not only learning to draw plants, but learning to draw, and more than that, even learning to hold a pencil correctly. It has been a humbling experience and one that has made me much more attuned to my students' problems. I now have a better appreciation for the multiple layers involved in learning a discipline. At the same time I had to learn how to hold a pencil, think about shading a two-dimensional space to make it appear three-dimensional, and accurately reproduce a plant form. These were just too many things to think about at once. While we did learn them one at a time, we eventually had to attempt to put these skills together, and that was a stretch for me, much as it is for my students to learn vocabulary, concepts, and scientific ways of thinking all at once.

It is this idea of layers that I've become much more aware of since venturing into the plant world. In plant morphology, there is vocabulary galore, but this is only a minor aspect of the challenge. There is also thinking in three dimensions, learning about developmental processes, and dealing with a range of variations that is staggering. …

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