Advanced ignorance

One of the ambitions of a good naturalist, it seems to me, should be to build up enough knowledge that, when asked about this or that plant or animal, they can say with great confidence, “I don’t know”. In my experience the best ones say it a lot. New citizen scientists — budding botanists, fledgling birders, baby batrachologists — they’re not nearly so ignorant and are more likely to say, “Yes, that’s an Animus nocendi” when looking at a snake; and, “Over there, behind the calla lilies — Locus delicti! One of the nicest we’ve seen here.”

I’ve made my share of mistakes, nervous at appearing out of my depth, but more than anything, feeling as though I should at least offer up a guess, for the best of reasons — to be helpful — when it would have been far more correct just to say, “Got me! No idea.” Time spent on plant and bird ID sites, on Facebook groups, will quickly disabuse you of the idea that half-guesses have any benefit at all. Best to keep quiet. Let the folks who have a degree in wildlife biology, whose bedrooms are walk-in herbaria, who smell like possum repellent, and who wrote dissertations on artificial incubation of Cayuga duck eggs — let them answer the questions. When they know, it has a bracing, surgical quality. And when they don’t they’ll leave a vacuum to be filled by the ready knowledge of others. (Horror vacui. Nature abhors a vacuum. Which is why the American Museum of Natural History in New York is filthy: not a single vacuum among the entire custodial staff.)

foothills_death_camus_050717_01_1000
Foothills Death Camas (Toxicoscordion paniculatum) on the north slope

There are potential pitfalls in pretend-knowledge. How many of us know on sight the difference between Osha (Ligusticum porteri) and poison hemlock? Or even between water hemlock and cow parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), or common yarrow (Achillea millefolium)? It helps to grow the plants, at least the safe ones, and then the superficial similarities fade into sharper appreciation of the differences. Seeing yarrow on the windowsill each morning, the feathered leaves uncurling from wrapped, pen-like ribs, I’d be hard-pressed not to recognize it in the wild. No amount of book description substitutes for hands-on familiarity — and besides, I have “Yarrow” penciled onto little popsicle sticks just in case (the fact that there are no popsicle stick labels on toxic plants in the backcountry strikes me as wholesale negligence — huge potential liability issues).

We each have our blind spots. It’s taken me ages to properly identify poison ivy, for instance — probably because, by sheer chance, I’ve never contracted a rash by brushing against it, not even as a boy scout. And because, in the desultory way of true amateurs, I have no more interest in it than I have in the common strawberry or Virginia creeper, until for one reason or another, it should capture my attention. At that rate, of course, it’ll take decades to be as bluntly ignorant as the very best naturalists. When will I reach that pinnacle? Honestly, I don’t know.

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