Sociology of Ferns
Today I visited the Tettaguche State Park with my friend Adam. It was my first time visiting the park and part of a larger goal of visiting four new state parks this year. So, I woke up at 6:30 am and drove us up the north shore of Lake Superior to head to the park. The goal was to attend a 9 am hike on the topic of ferns. As it turns out, the hike was guided by a local lichen expert, Joe Walewski. He has written a book on lichens and is currently finishing up a guide to ferns. The hike was also joined by Kurt Mead, who wrote a book on dragonflies. It was fantastic that we were able to share our morning and the hike with these two experts. As no one else showed up for the hike, we had their full attention for over three hours.
Before the hike began, Joe asked us what we knew about plants or ferns and why we were interested in the hike. I honestly just love to learn. Prior to the hike, Adam did not know that there were different kinds of ferns. There is no shame in this, it is simply that ferns don’t call attention to themselves in the way that trees or flowers do. To look at this socially, flowers and trees play a larger role in society. Flowers are given as gifts or planted in gardens. Trees are used for a variety of useful things (fruit, timber, maple syrup, landscaping, etc.) In this way, most people can probably identify and name dozens of flowers and trees. After all, people can be named after flowers (rose, violet, heather, lily, petunia, etc.) and streets are named after trees (elm, oak, birch, maple, elm). There is a nightmare on Elm Street, but nothing significant ever happened on Ostrich Fern street. How many ferns can you name? Prior to the hike, I could name two ferns. It should be noted that the social importance of ferns is variable. In Victorian times, there was a fern craze wherein people wanted potted and garden ferns and made use of fern motifs in designs. However, today most people don’t yearn for ferns.
Because we aren’t naturalists or trained in botany, we entered the hike as blank slates when it comes to ferns. I have a bit more history in studying plants, so I know that ferns are ancient and reproduce with spores, but I don’t have much knowledge about ferns. In a way, this made the hike very exciting. As we hiked, Joe asked us to identify the ferns and make observations about them. This was difficult because we lacked the cognitive schema to make such observations. For instance, when looking at a fern, what do you look for? For most things in life, we have some cognitive schema. For instance, when looking at a human we classify them according to race, gender, class, ability, etc. This is because (for better and for worse…and mostly worse) we are socialized to put people into categories. These categories have power and impact how we relate to these other humans. When looking at a fern, we have no such cognitive schema. So, Joe had to prompt us to look at such things as the shape and size of the leaves, which direction they pointed, the color of the spores under the leaves, where the fern was growing, the size of the fern, the shape of the fern, the coil of a fiddlehead, and other details that would otherwise go unnoticed. We used magnifiers to look at the coloration of teeth along a stalk of horsetails to determine which species we were looking at. I had to look at several specimens, as it was hard to determine if the teeth were black or if they had a white outline. There is enough variation within a species that these subtle details may make it hard to identify the plant. So, in botany, a population is looked at and generalizations are made (ignoring the diversity between specimens). In this same way, we are trained to “see” race or gender. We categorize broadly. The difference is that there is little social power in classifying horsetails.
It was fascinating to be socialized into naturalism. During the hike, our world view had to change. We couldn’t simply walk and passively enjoy nature. We had to actively look at nature. We were trained how to look at nature in a particular way. We were given new language and new cognitive schema. I have never really paid attention to ferns. They are sort of the background plants of a forest. During the hike, I saw tiny ferns that depended upon a certain fungus to grow (botrychium). There were ferns that grew on rocky surfaces (fragile ferns). There was a fern that looked like a gnome’s beach chair (beech fern). We were told that we were looking at the fern equivalent of an old growth forest. Never before had I appreciated the beauty and diversity of ferns. Of course, like any socialization process, there are also rules, language, and behaviors to learn. For instance, we learned about lichens and how to classify them based upon their physical characteristics (crustose-crusty flat lichen, foliose-like a leaf, fruticose-like a little tree). We were taught how to identify major characteristics of plants and use these with a plant field guide. We were taught only to eat the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns.
I was struck by all of the things that go unnoticed. We saw a tiny orchid (Rattlesnake Plantain) which was so small and shy it would have easily been overlooked. A patchwork of lichen-each an entire ecosystem- is tread across without notice. Reindeer lichen flourished like a foamy green forest. There are no caribou to eat it. We searched for some arctic remnants (Hudson Bay Eyebright and butterwort) but didn’t find any. These plants survived the retreat of last ice age and have been too far south for 10,000 years! They survive because of the Lake Superior microclimate that is just cool enough to keep them alive. This is so fragile and precious! Climate change could so easily destroy this little botanical time capsule from glaciation.
As adults, it is hard to find that sense of wonder in nature or in general. I have found that aging tends to lead me towards more disenchantment with the world and more broken narratives. I am unable to believe the things I once believed. But today I felt like a child playing in nature. I felt wonderfully privileged to learn about nature with the guidance of the naturalists. This knowledge is invaluable. It is also humbling. Ferns have been on earth for 360 million years. They have silently survived the extinction of dinosaurs, giant amphibians, trilobites, and ammonites. Maybe they will survive our extinction and the death we spread across the planet.