To wander about among a vegetation which is new to one is pleasant and instructive. It is the same with familiar objects: in the end we cease to think about them at all. What is seeing without thinking?Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We live in an age of ecosystems and genomes, where the scale of biology is usually presented at one of two extremes, global or genomic. There are good reasons for humanity’s focus on the global scale of biology here and now in the Anthropocene. With human-induced climate change in the process of permanently altering the natural trajectories of nearly four billion years of evolution and ecological interactions between species, there is an intense focus on documenting and predicting what our single species has unleashed on the many millions of species of life with whom we have inherited and currently share the planet.
At the same time, the miracles of DNA sequencing technologies have allowed us to understand, in ways previously unimaginable, our own extraordinary evolutionary journey of becoming human, connecting us back in time to the first single celled forms of life. Reading the DNA has also provided amazing insights into everything from the genes responsible for making a flower to the genetic coding that maps out neural networks in fruit flies.
If one views the living natural world predominantly through the lenses of ecosystems and genomes, however, then something has been lost. I am an organismic biologist, a plant morphologist to be more precise. Simply put, this means that when I think of a “unit” of biology, I am thinking about single organisms, just as you and I, as members of the human species, are single organisms. We are conceived as a zygote, develop into an embryo, are born, grow, learn to walk and speak, have interactions with other human organisms, and eventually complete an arc of life that returns our carbon to the earth. Of course, there is no such thing as a single organism—all organisms depend on a web of myriad other species—but I identify as an organism, knowing full well that there are roughly as many bacterial cells in my body as there are human cells. And the tree outside of my window, even though I know it has complex associations with mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria, is still a unit of biology that can powerfully be seen as an organism.
I yearn to see organisms—individual trees—to meet them, witness them, learn from them, and indeed, to age with them. And this is the beautiful thing about the Arnold Arboretum and its roughly 16,000 accessioned woody plants. Each has provenance—an organismic history with an origin story, and all that goes with siting, planting, and caring for an individual plant over decades and even centuries. I can reflect on the magnificent twisted European beech (14599*A) that was collected in the wild in France, transported to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and then sent on a journey to the Arnold Arboretum in 1888. I can imagine a mere sapling being planted in the ground on the south flank of Bussey Hill in the beech collection. My mind reels in the magnitudes of time as I reflect on the generations of horticulturists who have cared for this one individual. And here, more than a century later, I can rejoice in its magnificent fall colors, its snow-covered spiraling branches, the light-green and delicate newly-flushed leaves in the spring, and the deep greens of summer. At the Arnold Arboretum, everything is truly about paying it forward.
Not long after settling into the Arboretum, I resolved that I would never let a week go by without getting out onto the grounds to look at and photograph the woody plants that had beckoned me here. On every walk, I bring my small pocket camera and take pictures. Each night, I select the better ones, and spend additional time reflecting on what was revealed to me. By simply taking the time to observe, I feel as though I have gotten to know these non-sentient organisms on their terms: not as extensions of me, but rather as fellow living beings that can reveal their lives, history, complexity, beauty, architecture, and basic natural history.
Over the years, from these meandering walks, I appear to have developed several of what I now refer to as (healthy) obsessions with phenomena which, once I observed them in the Arboretum, I became acutely interested in seeing in all of their manifestations. These obsessions include my ongoing annual spring quest to witness the brilliant hues of ovulate (seed-bearing) conifer cones; the exuberance of budbreak among the horsechestnuts and buckeyes; a fixation on the magical dispersal of pollen from rhododendron flowers; magnolias in fruit (and always, the bigleaf magnolia in flower); smooth bark (especially among snakebark maples in the winter); the startlingly bizarre naked resting buds of India quassiawood and the Arboretum’s single specimen of Caucasian wingnut; looking straight up the trunks of large trees in all seasons; acorns in August (and the mad dash to finish filling up the fruit in the early fall); and the act of shattering birch infructescences to gaze upon their minute, delicately winged seeds, which immediately lift from my palm and are carried off by the wind.
Discovering plants as individuals, organisms to be reckoned with and reflected upon, is a journey worth taking, and one that never ends. It is a journey that enriches my life every day, in ways that I could not have imagined as I made my first focused perambulation on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum years ago. It is also a journey that will be unique (and uniquely rewarding) to each person who sets out to discover the essence of plants by meeting these magnificent organisms on their terms, simply by looking and reflecting.
If we are ever to save the planet from our destructive tendencies, of warring with nature and each other, I would like to suggest that it can start by regularly walking in a garden, a park, the woods, or one’s backyard, and learning to rejoice in the extraordinary beauty of organisms that can’t talk to us, and indeed are wholly indifferent to our very existence (although certainly not unaffected)—but whose presence is a constant reminder of the nearly miraculous complexity and interconnectedeness of life.
From “free” to “friend”…
Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.
It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.