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Beginning My Studies, Admitting Amazed Ignorance

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
                       ~ from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

In a recent post on her blog Looking for Detachment, geologist “Silver Fox” wrote about geological “weirdness.”  Her blog offers posts that wonderfully blend interesting text on topics geological with breath-taking photographs of same, and this weirdness post is no exception.  She focused on the megabreccia (a coarse sedimentary rock with large angular rock fragments or clasts) she came upon while she was driving into Death Valley.  But, actually, it’s a comment on the post made by someone with the tag “Lockwood” about that specific breccia that struck a chord with me.
[A]lmost everything I've read that's actually coming from geologists includes that coded geospeak phrase, ‘not well understood.’ Which in regular English means ‘no one knows with any confidence.’Indeed, I wondered, how do scientists say, “I don’t know”?  Clearly, “I don’t know” wouldn’t be the phrasing typically used, particularly not in published articles.  I turned to what I was currently reading of a scientific bent – a peer-reviewed article by a paleontologist and book by an evolutionary biologist and here’s a quick sampling of how they dealt with “I don’t know.”
“No explanation has been found.”
“ . . . is unknown.”
“. . . unable to resolve at present.”
“. . . much we don’t understand.”Does not seem so hard for scientists to admit the limits of collective knowledge.  Personal ignorance?  That may be something different as it is for anyone, I suppose.  I’m currently in an observational stage of my amateur engagement with natural history where the question I pose to myself most often is, What is that?  My response so often is I don't know.  I seem to have no trouble saying it.  So much is so new and so startling, and I clearly have less at stake.

Case in point.  Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about species-area curves and an inventory of the wild flowers that had populated a small piece of my front yard I’ve let go wild.  Among the flowers that voluntarily populated this plot was the lanced-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).  This year, coreopsis flowers, also known as tickweed or tickseed, have returned in great profusion of bouncing yellow disks.  Coreopsis are composite flowers (the flowers are actually many individual flowers) and each yellow “petal” of the flower heads is a ray (part of an individual flower).

I had been reveling in their yellow grandeur and delicate scent (sniff one sometime) when I pointed my spouse toward the blossoms.  She commented offhandedly, “Oh, there are actually two types of flowers.”  “No, there aren’t,” I asserted, sure I was right, but then I took a closer look.

The first photo, taken a year ago, below shows a flower head from that initial coreopsis.

Here are the flowers now blooming (I offer a close-up of the composite flower head for each type).  These beautiful springy flowers differ markedly from each other.

In A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (1968), Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny note that “most coreopsis have 8 showy rays which in most (but not all) species are tipped with 3 to 4 teeth.”  Hmmm, this year’s flowers seem to slip through the opening fashioned by the word “most.”

Peterson and McKenny describe six different coreopsis species for this region.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service lists 33 different species on its website, of which 8 are native to Maryland where I live.

Unfortunately after considering each of the local coreopsis species and ultimately all of those in the USDA listing, I am at an impasse.  Which species are growing on my plot?  Has some cultivar escaped from a nearby garden?  Are these even coreopsis?

I don’t know.

In fact, things are weirder that I thought.  Two key attributes argue against these flowers being last year’s lance-leaved coreopsis:  I see too many rays in either kind of flower, and crow’s-foot-shaped leaves abound instead of lance-shaped leaves.  In my notebook, I labeled these unknown kinds as “many rayed coreopsis” (the first of this year's shown above) and “lesser rayed coreopsis.”

But, the variability in the number of rays and the arrangement of rays on individual plants startles me.  The “many rayed” have at least some 24 or 25 rays in multiple layers; the “lesser rayed” display at least 11 rays in what seem to be single, compact layers.  Counts of flower heads on the same plant vary.  Indeed, among the blossoms on the “lesser rayed” coreopsis, I shake my head when I spot flowers sporting the classic eight-rayed heads of many coreopsis flowers.  I tag them to see if over time they open more rays – no, if they emerge with eight, they seem to live, wilt, and die with eight.  What is going on here?

I don’t know.

I have been nagging at this for over a week.  Amid my forays into books and the net in search of clues, I came across Walt Whitman on coreopsis.

I certainly count Walt Whitman among my favorite amateur naturalists, if only because of his enjoyment of that quintessential impulse to compile lists of things found in nature.  I have read bits and pieces of his Specimen Days in America (1887), a volume of extended diary entries from the Civil War and later.    (The Internet Archive makes the book available in various electronic formats.)  At this point, I enjoy much more the non-Civil War entries which are often really more essays than diary  excerpts.  These, appearing after his descriptions of the pain and horror of the Civil War, make an sharp break in the volume.  As Whitman wrote,
Without apology for the abrupt change of field and atmosphere – after what I put in the preceding pages – temporary episodes, thank heaven! – I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.Who knows (I have it in my fancy, my ambition,) but the pages now ensuing may carry ray of sun, or smell of grass or corn, or call of bird, or gleam of stars by night, or snow-flakes falling fresh and mystic, to denizen of heated city house, or tired workman or workwoman? – or may-be in sick-room or prison – to serve as cooling breeze, of Nature’s aroma, to some fever’d mouth or latent pulse.Indeed, not surprisingly, these later entries offer a less intense experience; they ramble around the natural world, they are a walkabout punctuated at times by lists.  Lists of trees (those “I am familiar with here”), of the birds he’s seen, of the “perennial blossoms and friendly weeds” encountered on his walks (including coreopsis), of stars and constellations.

Between September and December, 1879, Whitman took a trip out west.  He titled one part of an entry – “A Silent Little Follower – The Coreopsis.”  The yellow flower followed him from the east coast out west.
I had seen it on the Hudson and over Long Island, and along the banks of the Delaware and through New Jersey, (as years ago up the Connecticut, and one fall by Lake Champlain.)  [punctuation in original]  This trip it follow’d me regularly, with its slender stem and eyes of gold, from Cape May to the Kaw valley, and so through the cañons and to these plains.  In Missouri I saw immense fields all bright with it.  Toward western Illinois I woke up one morning in the sleeper and the first thing when I drew the curtain of my berth and look’d out was its pretty countenance and bending neck.Once again, upon a closer look, my ignorance grows.  Whitman described his “silent little follower” as “a hardy little yellow five-petal’d September and October wild-flower . . . .”

Five petals, fall blossoming . . . .  What was he seeing?  What am I seeing?

I’m a bit tired of I don’t know.  So, I think I’ll use, for awhile, There is much I don’t understand (but I will sing it in ecstatic songs). | Impressum