Knowing America

Wolf Road Prairie Prairie Dock Blazing Star Rattlesnake Master

The following is a quote by botanist Gerould Wilhelm, in the book A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg. He is recounting an early experience from his time with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assessing whether different areas were suitable (low-quality enough) to dump dredge materials.

We visited thirteen sites that day. At each, Floyd [Swink] would rattle off the Latin names of 50 or 60 species, all Eurasian or native weeds. I saw sticks and rabbit poop. Floyd couldn’t make it the next day so I went with Ray Schulenberg, who would do the same thing: listing off in Latin all these weedy plants. (Although I didn’t know what they looked like, by now the names were becoming familiar.) But when we were finished with each location, he would say: “You can spoil here. You can’t hurt it, it will grow back.”

On the afternoon of the third day, we reached spoil site C-2. We stepped across this black mustard berm when Ray stopped dead in his tracks and just looked. In a more hushed voice, he said, “Here is Sporobolus heterolepis, Petalostemum purpureum, Petalostemum candidum, Parthenium integrifolium, Potentilla arguta, and Silphium laciniatum.”

I got weak in the knees. Oh lord, I looked at the place and saw America. I knew that this guy was able to identify America by its plants. I collapsed emotionally and decided right then and there that I didn’t want to live another day without knowing whether I was in America; whether I could spoil or whether I couldn’t.

Photo my own, from Wolf Road Prairie, July 2012. Prairie dock, blazing star, grey-headed coneflower, rattlesnake master, and more.

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