White:Pinhead Letters From the Field | Guest Commentary
by Dawson White
Jul 02, 2007 | 418 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This day and age, Planet Earth seems to be getting smaller and smaller. I am sitting here at a desk in Fort Worth, Tex., eating an apple that has come to my mouth from the Pacific Northwest, wearing shoes and a shirt from China, typing on a computer assembled in Malaysia, and using a wallet made from Argentine cattle. It seems no land is out of reach.

Through satellites and the Internet we are able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the entire world.  One cannot help but be awed by our application of technology in everyday life. I frequently talk to my dad through his satellite phone, over thousand miles away on the tip of Baja. In our last visit, he was alone on the beach watching a school of porpoises while I was on a five-lane super highway surrounded by metal, concrete, and hundreds of thousands of humans; but we could talk as if he was right in the back seat of the car.  As our population has grown, so has our knowledge of what the earth has to offer.  The days when the world was unmapped and unknown, epitomized by such books as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Lost World, have been replaced by national parks and “ecotourism” adventures in the form of guided treks, luxury cruises, and documentaries. It seems that little is left to be discovered in the natural world.

I believe one large exception to this statement is the world of plants. The Incans were an amazing people. Surprisingly sophisticated as well as equally mysterious, this society reached its height at about the turn of the 16th century only to disappear forever.  They made use of over two thousand different plant species for spiritual and medicinal purposes; foraging habitats ranging from the Andean Pampas to the lush Amazonian Lowlands. Today, pharmaceutical companies only utilize between 70 and 80 plant species for the many drugs that we use in our everyday life. Contemplating the medical potential of plants in a place like the Amazon is very optimistic, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru alone are estimated to harbor over 45,000 plant species. The Neotropics (new-world tropics) are thought to contain about twice this amount.

Thanks to the Pinhead Institute I am spending this summer under the guidance of tropical botanist, Dr. John Janovec. I had never envisioned myself as a botanist, but I am undoubtedly intrigued by the taxonomic, geographic, and morphological characteristics of the bryophytes and vascular plants that make up the unparalleled Amazon River Basin. I have been at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) for five days and the work I have done here has been very interesting. The process of creating a herbarium like they have here at BRIT is no walk in the park.  BRIT occupies a moderately sized two-story building. Both stories are mainly open floors and rows of cabinets dominate the entire length of the building. These cabinets are bursting at the seams with specimens from around the world. The plant specimens are arranged by family and genus. Inside the cabinets, one will find a wide array of plant species that have been nicely mounted on a sheet of poster board with a label and barcode that can tell you many things about where the specimen was found and in what conditions it was growing. It was surprising to see the thousands of different of just a few hundred plant families. My time here at BRIT has been spent organizing over a thousand new specimens that recently arrived from Peru and were awaiting organization. By the time I left BRIT I had barely completed the first steps of organizing these plants.

The plants enter the herbarium in large stacks of newspaper, between which are the pressed specimens. On the paper are the plant’s assigned genus number and the collector’s initials. Organizing these new additions to the herbarium takes quite a bit of time and effort, the perfect job for a new intern. The specimens must first be organized by name and number. Once this initial organization, an inventory must be taken of the initials, number, and number of duplicates. Then I printed labels for all the specimens and returned to the stacks to fasten the labels to each individual specimen and its duplicate. This was a slow and tedious process, but to open the newspapers and see just a tiny glimpse of the amazing diversity that exits in the Amazon, was extraordinarily remarkable and made the time pass easily for me. My work ended at that step, however, the plants had to be furthered processed before they could be filed away for future reference. These specimens will all be entered into the digital herbarium database and mounted nicely; duplicates will be separated and sent to different specialists for specie diagnosis or invention. This is a process that will not be complete for months and before it is all over, a new shipment will arrive. The BRIT staff is lucky to be moving into a bigger building.

The first week of my internship is over. On June 24, I will be heading south to the land of the Incas to get a crash course in tropical botany. I am very, very excited to return to Peru and increase my knowledge of science and Spanish while exploring the Amazon. In my opinion it seems there is no one better to do this with than John Janovec, a hyper red-bearded botanist that is going to open my eyes to the plants of the majestic Amazon. I would like to thank Ramona and the entire Pinhead board of directors for making this learning experience possible. It is going to be a wild time.

Dawson White is a member of Telluride High School Class of 2006.
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