by Lyn Baldwin
Two coastlines, two maritime landscapes. Neither is where I live, but one is home and one is not. In less than a week, the juxtaposition of work and holiday has me flying from the tortuous bays and inlets of Nova Scotia to the isolated fields of Washington’s San Juan Islands.
On one Tuesday, I am on my hands and knees, amidst a tour of botanists, exclaiming over the chartreuse, red-veined, vase-like leaves of carnivorous pitcher plants in the coastal barrens adjacent to Peggy’s Cove. I am in good company. The father of taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus, once described botanists as “those much given to exclamations of wonder.” In the odd misty light of the coastal barrens, excitement bounces off stunted vegetation.
“Here’s the huckleberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon.”
“Look, one of the pitcher plants is in flower. Oh, here’s a whole patch of them in flower.”
Nobody’s shoes remain dry.
The next Tuesday, my husband Marc and I, amidst a crowd of spandex-clad bicyclists, wheel our bikes off the ferryboat, the M.V. Elwha, onto the rocky shore of Lopez Island, one of islands crowded into the northwest corner of Washington. A young ferry worker, her orange safety vest individualized, island-style, with bead and lace trimming, legs planted firmly in the center of the narrow asphalt road, repeats over and over again, “Bicyclists—please wait in the parking lot for the cars to unload. Thank you. Bicyclists please wait. Thank you.”
Marc and I have neither spandex nor the sleek outlines of high-tech touring bikes, and we are happy to wait for not just the cars but for the other cyclists to speed ahead of us. This is our first holiday alone together since our daughter was born nine years ago. As we climb the first hill out of the ferry landing, we cycle side by side and fall into the rhythm of the language that first brought us together.
“Is that Lathyrus there in the ditch?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s nevadensis or japonicus.”
“The Holodiscus is in full bloom—I haven’t seen it like this in years.”
Without child, without jobs, we are just us, again.
Two maritime landscapes, two coastlines. One home, one not. One is of my country, one is not. Surprisingly, home and country do not correspond.
The word flora describes both the collection of plants found in a region and the technical manual that lists and describes these plants. Many technical floras contain maps of individual species’ distributions. Flip through these pages and it is clear that the ranges of many species overlap. Others are less congruent. There are no hard and fast rules about the borders of a flora. Some manuals describe all plants found within the limits of a state or a province. Others describe a group of plants that the authors believe to be a cohesive regional flora, regardless of political boundaries. Botanically, I grew up with the one-volume version of the Flora of the Pacific Northwest. My battered copy of this flora describes the plants in an irregular geographic region centered over the state of Washington, extending north, the authors say, to include “an indefinite fringe of British Columbia”, east to the mountains of Montana and south to the northern half of Oregon. Published in 1973 when I was just seven years old by two grand old men of North American botany, this book by Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist has long been my authority for the names, common or scientific, of plants in this area.
Say the names. Names elicit knowing. Names breathe a landscape into being. Names define home.
I have lived all my life in the borderlands of the 49th Parallel, flipping from one side to the other with time and necessity. My mother’s third marriage displaced my family from the pastoral fields of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to the rocky terrain of Lincoln County in northwest Montana. Throughout my childhood, my mother’s marriages were associated with name changes not just for her, but also for my siblings and me—obscuring any trajectory that my biological father might have sought. My faded school report cards track the changes in nomenclature: Baldwin in kindergarten, Reynolds in grades 1-5 and McInturf in grades 6-11. Only in my final year of high school did the necessity of completing university application forms allow me to reclaim my first and only legal surname.
As soon as I was able, I left Montana. I rode on a train across the stable craton of the continent to the deciduous hills of Vermont. Growing up in rural BC and Montana, the natural world was something that stood between you and the pick-up truck. Trees were wood you cut down to heat your house. Far from native ground, I learned the grammar of scientific naming, first codified by Carolus Linnaeus in 1753. All species, microscopic or macroscopic, plant or animal, are given a two-part name, termed a Latin binomial. Today, all botanists, regardless of their native language, know Douglas-fir trees as Pseduotsuga menziesii. There is a set of rules, deliberated every six years by an international gathering of botanists, which govern the naming of plants. While some names simply describe, others commemorate. Luzula spicata depicts the spike-like arrangement of the flowers of one grass-like plant, while Luzula hitchcockii remembers Leo Hitchcock. Each species has one correct Latin name, but sometimes correct changes with new knowledge or new arguments. I’m not good with name changes. In Nova Scotia, I discovered that one group of eastern huckleberries that I had long known as Vaccinnium are now called Gaylussacia. I was happy to retreat west where Gaylussacia is absent from my flora.
Say the names. Names have history and order. Names identify and also obscure. Names link past with present.
My legal surname, Baldwin, is of English origin, from the Old English Bealdwin or the Old German, Baldavin, and means “bold friend.” I wish the small, fatherless girl I once was had known that. Even though I don’t know my father, I have become fond of the Baldwin name, cleaving to its two distinct syllables.
It took me more than 20 years to return permanently to Canada. When I did, I brought my American husband with me. Marc and I met working as itinerant botanists in western Montana. I first felt the heat of his hands when we were using fingers and palms to physically describe the difference between compressed and obcompressed mustard pods. That first summer, we were sent to survey different valleys, different plants, and wrote to one another from the shelter of isolated tents. On our break days in town, attraction flourished over the smell of pressed plants. Marc came with me when I started graduate school in BC and I returned with him to Montana when he landed a full-time ecologist job—crossing and recrossing that arbitrary line of country and mind. Our daughter, Maggie, was born just ten miles east of the Continental Divide in the historic gold-rush capital of Montana. Maggie’s legal name carries the full weight of our affiliations. Rowan Margaret Baldwin Jones pays homage to strong trees, strong mothers, and fathers known and not.
Marc asked me to marry him not with a ring but with a bracelet woven of flowers from my favorite plant family—the Ericaceae or heath family. This group of plants includes a collection of delicate urn-shaped wildflowers, most of which develop into fruits like sweet huckleberries or crisp cranberries.
I’ve told this story at dinner parties. Marc will remain mostly silent, adding only, “I was a starving botanist. What else did I have to offer?”
A man who knew the language of plants. A man who didn’t need me to change my name. The offering was immense, my decision immediate.
Some people bring pets or children to a relationship. Marc and I brought floras. Today, our bookshelves strain under the weight of the technical manuals. We each have our own copy of Hitchcock and Cronquist—bought before sharing was imagined. Together we invested in the eight-volume Illustrated Flora of British Columbia. While the weight of our shared flora has coalesced upon a common region, our individual floras still differ. I ask Marc to help identify wetland sedges and he leaves all the mosses to me.
For botanists, knowing floras can translate into paid work. Time spent in Vermont and BC increased my prospects in both places. When I was offered a permanent faculty position in the sagebrush steppe of southern BC, Marc supported the move, relieved that he wouldn’t be asked to locate east of the Missouri. A change of country was preferable to a change of flora.
Say the names. The names of plants—the scientific or common name, the western or First Nations’ name—are a poetry that links together a history of people looking at plants. Plants become known when there is reason to know them.
During our first day in the San Juan Islands, the melody of a known botany—lupine, reedcanarygrass, scotch broom, salal, sword fern, bracken, Douglas-fir, Grand fir, Spiraea, Holodiscus, self-heal—played through me as we cycled. Not all was native—some was even noxious—but all was easily recognized. If I didn’t know it, Marc did. When I walked last Tuesday through the coastal barrens and deciduous forests of Nova Scotia, there were only faint echoes of familiarity. I knew the huckleberries and the pitcher-plants from similar wetlands in Vermont. But the grand chorus of the dominants was missing. I stumbled on the difference between ironwood and beech, between black and red crowberry.
The distribution of plants is oblivious to the arbitrary lines of political borders. I imagine my home addresses charted as individual dots on the map of North America—a personal equivalent to a species distribution map. My history has the greatest density and pull in the west. With a few vagrant dots to the east, these locations become increasing tangled, weighted with green things and with Marc and then with Maggie, in a region that has no name, yet largely corresponds to the geographic area encompassed by the Flora of the Pacific Northwest. After a week on the eastern margin of our continent, arriving in the San Juans—even though it meant crossing that infernal 49th Parallel—was returning to a land of the identifiable and the shared. This western archipelago is not where I live, but it contains enough of the same dominant flora to have the smell of home. My home range overlaps that of no individual species precisely, but there is an assemblage of species that marks my terrain, a known flora that turns country into home.
|Home : Archives : Blog
Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments : terrain.org
Terrain.org is a publication of Terrain Publishing.