Friday, May 09, 2008

Summer's challenge

Every Labor Day, when the cooler air secretly slips in under the cover of night, I start thinking of all of the things I haven't accomplished in my life. My birthday, you see, is in mid-September, and I try to run away from it every year. I launch myself elsewhere, far away from any reminders of failure, usually spending the week with my baby sister, a staunch supporter of most of my choices. I figure if I can't be reached on a cell phone, then my birthday can't find me and the wrinkles won't follow. It's a stupid logic, I know, but it keeps me motivated.

So, every September 18, I set a goal for the year that, when accomplished, will make me feel less like a failure with each subsequent birthday. One year, I read the complete works of two vastly divergent authors, Anthony Trollope and Earnest Hemingway. Another year I translated Ovid's beautiful Heroides (passionate, even in translation) and Virgil's Georgics without the aid of an advisor. Another year I visited every town in Louisiana and Mississippi with a French name, trying to understand settlement patterns. Last year, ringing in the ripe old age of 36, I decided to learn my Missouri ferns. Girded with the beautifully illustrated Field Guide to Missouri Ferns (out of print now, but available at most Missouri state parks), I made flashcards of all of the ferns I could find on Crowley's Ridge. Based on this childish, SAT-based study method, between September and December, 2007 I identified and pressed each species found within the 35 miles of Missouri's Crowley's Ridge.

Primitive, primordial in origin, ferns captivate me. I own fossils, books, and 19th century illustrations of ferns. I adore their delicate fronds and varied habits which send me searching diverse landscapes for them. One can find ferns in mesic woods, along streambanks, on dolomite glades, and even in muddy banks of ponds (the very rare pillwort [Pilularia americana], known from only two Missouri counties).

So, I've altered my goal for the growing season. Not only will I learn my ferns, a goal that could be accomplished through books and flashcards, but I will locate and identify each fern illustrated in the Field Guide to Missouri Ferns before September 18. This proves to be a fun challenge that will take me into landscapes heretofore untrammeled by my hiking boots. Rumor has it that I could chalk up a whole mess of species on a single visit to my beloved sandstone-based Hawn State Park. Nevertheless, I have a slight advantage in this quest. You see, Paul Nelson only used live material for his Field Guide to Missouri Ferns illustrations. And, you see, he would probably be happy to give me directions to sites so I can fulfill my somewhat manic goal.

Before pestering him, I'll follow the instructions in the field guide: attached to each fern is a description of where the plants can be found. In the case of maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), for example, I will look in "moist shaded crevices of sandstone, chert or granitic ledges and bluffs, occasionally on limestone; Springfield and Salem Plateaus, St. Francois Mountains." For rare plants like ebony spleenwort Asplenium x ebenoides, known from only a handful of locations, I'll probably have to call Paul.

Last night, I flipped through the field guide to count how many I have seen since my birthday. 26. I won't mention how many more I have to find, but will admit that I have a long way to go. As it was so delicately stated once: "ferns bless nearly every natural place on earth," and the Ozarks are full of them.

Pictured: Woodsia obtusa (common woodsia), found on a dolomite boulder in the Mark Twain National Forest; Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern), found on a limestone outcropping on the Jack's Fork; Polypodium polypodioides (resurrection fern), found on a big swamp chestnut oak in southeast Missouri.

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