Thursday, February 4, 2010

Coming Into My Own

Last week I received a phone call from one of my professors, asking if I would be interested in helping out with the plants studio. I was surprised by the request, but delighted to be asked. I just wasn't sure what 'helping out' entailed.

I would conduct a plants walk on Tuesday, February 2nd, then help proctor a plants exam scheduled for the 16th. I could do that, but I knew I would have to brush up on the nitty-gritty of which ever plants we would be walking to. I could do that, also. But then there was remembering everything the students needed to hear, while walking AND talking (how did the Greeks do this so well?). I also needed to nail down those Latin names and pronunciations, linking those with the common names for these plants.

I was relieved when Prof said we were hitting the evergreens. We were doing a walk of 'compare and contrast'. This was probably the hardest thing for me two years ago when I took this studio. The evergreens stumped all of us. They all looked the same! But they are not...

I felt confident that this plant walk would be perfect for my inaugural flight as Teacher. I had had 3 weeks of plants class with these students early last semester when I needed to finish up some coursework from the previous year. They were bright and eager and very accepting of a student who did not fit their demographic profile. I was older than their mom, a mother to a child their age...and a 50+ year old student whose mind was anything but a steel trap! And I carry a passion for these pines, spruces, and firs, the likes of which they have not yet experienced! I was ready to go.

I reviewed the list Prof gave me. We talked about the subtleties of each evergreen family, then I went home and studied. This would be so much fun. Prof encouraged me to talk a little about the research I had been doing on the plantings of Central Campus and the layout and design of The State Agricultural College and Experimental Station, established in the late 1850's.

I handed out a small quiz, prepared by Prof, as we stood in the lobby of Beardshear Hall. It was cold outside (low 20's), but the sun arrived over the lunch hour and it was a beautiful, crisp, winter day in Ames, IA. They had their boots, hats, mittens, and an attitude that made for a fun day.

I walked them out to the steps of this prestigious administration building for ISU and asked them to take in the view of central campus. We saw a beautiful circular lawn, carpeted with snow. It was enclosed with that curvilinear edge of trees and shrubs, some planted by our first president of the college, Dr. A.S. Welch.

He threw potatoes into the air, and where they fell he would plant a tree. Today we call this naturalizing; it made sense then, as it does now. President Welch also sent students out into the surrounding forests where they collected 500 native trees and shrubs for planting around the original campus.

He believed in beauty, 'the crowning perfection of that which is useful'. He embraced the curved line for there was 'never a straight line with Mother Nature'. Trees were planted in groups, each species by itself. He planted evergreens by the buildings and deciduous trees at a distance. His groves of trees blended color, his vistas excited, and his open spaces, carpeted with green lawn, invited both students and faculty to come out into the sunshine. He planted native vegetation so these plants would survive the harsh Midwestern winters and offer incredible displays of beauty throughout the years.

Off to the northeast as we looked out over the campus, we spotted 'a fine group' of Austrian Pines, Pinus nigra, planted by Dr. Welch. These trees are magnificent specimens growing into their splendid heights over the last hundred years. Their reptilian plates of bark pull the eye upward along massive trunks, allowing one to take in their antiquarian beauty. When I turned to remark further, I was struck by the faces of these students. They were seeing the landscape before them...maybe for the first time. Their faces reflected the possibilities open to them as budding landscape architects.

I reminded my charges that today was a day for the evergreens. Our goal was to compare and contrast from a distance, then approach the trees and shrubs using all our senses to experience these different species. With the mission to 'touch it, smell it, see it, hear it!' we would use form, foliage, fruit, and flower to 'ID it'. One of the stops, suggested by a fellow graduate student in the studio, was a grove of hemlocks tucked in behind Curtis Hall. These trees were a delight to see and touch, but it was their silent beauty, tucked in out of the wind, that was deafening.

I had 30 stops on my list, many repeats for reinforcement, and lots of tromping through the snow to get up close and personal. Baby, it was cold outside. Earlier that morning after I finished my class, I started to walk the route I would take the students on that afternoon...a rehearsal, if you will. I ended up jumping on the bus and heading home to don another layer, my hiking boots, a warmer coat, hat, and mittens. I figured if I kept the group together and kept them walking, we would stay warmer than if we dawdled and straggled along. I was also warned by the Prof and the other studio instructor that there would be student leakage. "Plan on returning with fewer students than you set off with. Some just grow bored or cold and wander off to join friends, to seek warmth."

Once the Prof caught up after finishing with other commitments on campus, I left the group to catch a bus home. I counted heads as they trudged off. Eighteen stocking caps bobbing up the walk. Same as I started with!

Yesterday I was reading my horoscope for this new year and smiled when I came across a prediction that this would be the year when I would become a teacher. I like that. When my kids were little, especially with Evan, we would set off daily to explore our world. We were always jabbering about plants or animals, weather, rocks, dinosaurs...whatever caught our fancy. Ev would tell me at night when I was tucking him in, that we had had the best day yet.

Last night in the shower I had a tiny ah-ha moment. I am happy. I have finally made some decisions and followed some opportunities that have come my way. They have helped me figure out who I am and the general direction I am heading. I am not along for anyone else's ride. I am do the driving. For the first time in my life I feel confident when my emotions tell me to pay attention, to listen to that little voice inside saying this is it, this is you...

Tuesday was the best day yet.