Who could pass up a chance to go exploring with a really cool botanist who was once described in a newspaper headline as the Gonzo Biologist?
Not Pamelia and I.
Arthur Haines earned the gonzo label from the Portland Press Herald for the gusto with which he pursues his passions. Those range from primitive skills to jujitsu to—most of all—plants. According to the Press Herald, Arthur, a research botanist for the New England Wild Flower Society and the director of the Delta Institute of Natural History in Bowdoin, Maine, is a sort of nature-inspired Indiana Jones who'll fearlessly scale a cliff to just find a plant specimen he can study...or perhaps eat.
Now, Arthur did nothing that daring when we joined him for a plant walk on Mount Desert Island the other day. He did pull out an impressively large knife, but only to peel a piece of burdock root, which tastes like a bland carrot and can be cooked like a potato. (Interesting side note: The design of the burrs from one variety of burdock inspired Swiss engineer George de Mestral to invent Velcro half a century ago.) Arthur demonstrated how to start a fire with a bow drill, guided us through the nibbling of leaves of hawthorn bushes, oxeye daisies, even horribly sour-tasting burdock ("The guidebooks tell you that you can eat [burdock leaves], but nobody on the planet is eating these,” he said) and regaled us with a tale of how native Americans saved French explorer Jacques Cartier's scurvy-afflicted crew with a tea made from an evergreen—a generous act that did not deter Cartier from seizing six of the natives as specimens to bring back to Europe, where they were put on display and died.
Throw in Arthur's friendliness and his scientific expertise on the medicinal and nutritional value of flora and you see why the 20 or so of us who walked with him along a dirt road and through a meadow for two hours came away considerably enlightened, thoroughly entertained and highly impressed with the expert in our midst. We had gained a new appreciation of the uncommon properties of common plants, from staghorn sumac to Northern white cedar to invasive nuisances like the Japanese knotweed.
After pondering how eagerly homo sapiens slash, burn, hack, poison, mow down, plow under and pave over whole fields of diverse flora species that we lump together as "weeds," I could come to only one conclusion: The rest of the world is gonzo and plant defender Arthur Haines is the sane one.
Haines will be leading other walks on MDI over the summer, sponsored by a splendid new environmental organization called Anaskimin. That name is a native American word for acorn, which is apt: Haines has been known to whip up pizza with a crust he makes from acorn flour and tomato juice. He may be giving a seminar at the Delta Institute later this year on how to make flour from acorns.
Three Sightings of the Week
1) The yellow warbler. Almost every morning when I wake up and look out the bedroom window, he's sitting in the brush with the bay behind him, singing. If you want to hear his call, go to http://www.birdjam.com/birdsong.php?id=17
2) The two gigantic bullfrog tadpoles sunbathing together on a lily pad in Little Long Pong. According to the two naturalists I was out with, Billy Helprin and Tom Vining, the largest of the tadpoles probably wintered over at the pond. Which reminds me: I read a wonderful book a few months ago called Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, by Bernd Heinrich. If you ever wondered how animals stay alive in cold winter climates, give this book a read.
3) The Babson Creek bluebird. Sure, Eastern bluebirds are common. I've seen many. But this particular male was an especially gorgeous blue (males are bluer than females) and was perfectly framed by the forked dead branch on which he sat at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust's Babson Creek Preserve. He flitted off for a moment and came back with a super-sized caterpillar, which he eventually downed for breakfast. I walked away reminding myself: Appreciate the ordinary. And remember that nothing is ordinary.