Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Planned & Unplanned

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Planned & Unplanned

Article excerpt

I am not a good traveler in the sense of planning ahead and being well prepared. This has its disadvantages. There can be great attractions right under my nose that I fail to see because I didn't investigate what's available. On my trip to Ireland last summer, I was lax about my planning as usual, but because I had been to Dublin years ago, I knew of at least a few things I wanted to see: the Botanic Garden, Phoenix Park, Trinity College, the National Gallery, and the National Museum. I had been to all these as a kid and wished to see them again. I arrived in Dublin after a long drive and was relieved when I got to the hotel. Driving in an unknown city is bad enough, but driving through traffic on the "wrong" side of the road is a real challenge. I spent the evening exploring the environs and found a bookstore, always an oasis. This was a particularly good one and among the treasures I discovered was Darwin, Praeger and the Clare Island Surveys (Jones & Steer, 2009). This book accompanies an exhibit at the Royal Irish Academy centered on the work of an Irish biologist in the early years of the 20th century that was about to open when I arrived.

One of the advantages of not planning too much is that I could fit in the unexpected. So the next day I visited the Academy. However, I was disappointed to discover that the exhibit was at that point not open to the public because the opening was being celebrated with a two-day conference. I wouldn't be permitted to see it until the following Monday. When I told the guard that by then I would already have left Dublin, he had a typical Irish reaction, a reaction that isn't necessarily typical of guards in other parts of the world. He said "Well, why don't you go back into the library reading room and speak with the librarian, there may be something she can do." And indeed there was. She was equally accommodating and suggested I return the following morning at 11; there would be a tea break for the conference, and I could see the exhibit then. I did as I was told and was rewarded by having the exhibit to myself. It chronicles a 1909 survey of the flora and fauna of Clare Island off the west coast of Ireland. The survey was organized by Robert Lloyd Praeger: "An engineer by qualification, a librarian by profession and a botanist by inclination, it was as a geologist and later as a naturalist that he made his mark in Ireland" (p. 6). Influenced by Darwin's ideas on species change, Praeger had as one of his aims in the survey to find support for the idea that Irish species were distinctively different from those of England. Selecting an island for intensive study meant that there was a rather small and defined area to be investigated. Yet Clare Island was big enough to be inhabited and to have a long history. While doing a biological survey, Praeger also arranged for a study of the island's medieval abbey, which was in a remarkable state of preservation.

At the risk of sounding like my mother, I will note that one of the horrors of Irish history is that so many of its magnificent ancient buildings, abbeys, churches, castles, and fortifications were destroyed by the British. If you are looking for ruins, Ireland is definitely the place to go. The fact that Clare Island is so isolated probably accounts for the abbey's excellent state of preservation. Its interior walls are painted murals that were documented in the 1909 survey and restored in the 1990s; they include hunting scenes as well as religious images. It is typical of Ireland that a survey of plants and animals should also include such historical work. In that sense, this was a very 19th-century approach, and the study reminds me that fields of learning were once less separate than they are today, and that they remain interconnected. In fact, the update of the survey that the Royal Irish Academy is in the process of publishing includes a volume on the Abbey. It also provides data on species changes over the past 100 years. …

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