Monday, June 26, 2017

Spiderwort: Blue Tears

At days end, spiderwort bloom dissolves into a liquid blue pearl

When serious-minded naturalists hear comments like, “Hey look, those spiderworts are crying blue tears!” their Terramar® underpants (“for the discerning outdoorsman, with soft spun polyester that stretches with every move and wicks moisture like there’s no tomorrow”) immediately bunch. So, on a recent paddle trip on Steinhatchee River, when our dozen-boat fleet of kayaks drifted past a cluster of deep purple blooms, I considered my words carefully before responding to the young girl's comment.  

Anthropomorphizing—attributing human characteristics and emotions to plants, animals and other non-human things—is usually reserved for poets and the writers of children’s books. But, for nature guides whose job is to facilitate healthy relationships between people and nature, sprinkling a little anthropomorphism into discussions about wildlife can be useful. People like detecting a hint of humanity in the other species in their midst. It’s comforting, but more importantly, it makes those species more familiar and strengthens the sense of connectedness.

I was reminded of this on a recent hike at Cape Canaveral. Our group had just emerged from behind the dunes when we saw a leatherback sea turtle laying eggs in a sand pit. As we stood back watching this miracle, we talked about the challenges this species faces. A turtle expert in our group explained that this species is teetering on extinction, and that the current number of nesting females—estimated to be between 26,000 and 46,000—is about a third of the number in 1980.  But it wasn’t until we noticed a single tear, glistening in the moonlight as it rolled down the mother turtle’s cheek, that the group was visibly moved. In that instant they developed a heart-felt empathy for the mother turtle that dwarfed any emotions stirred by our talk of extinction. Even after the herpetologist explained that the tears were a natural bodily function, designed to wash sand from the turtles eyes in the same way our own eyes gush when sand gets in them, some of our crew couldn’t shake by the notion that the turtle mother was crying.

Another way to help people identify with plants and animals is to show how other cultures and even our own predecessors used them. Pause alongside a sand myrtle bush and start droning about the plant’s anatomy and you’ll soon be talking to yourself. But mention that early oil men believed groves of these bushes indicated large deposits of oil underground, and you’ll find your audience more receptive. Even though the oil "dowsers" have abandoned the use of sand myrtle in favor of more reliable sensing technologies of the nuclear age, for the purposes of nature interpretation, knowing this plant was once the famous “oil bush,” makes it still relevant.

Over the years of studying wild lore, I’ve come to realize that Florida’s wild places are pulsing with such stories. The river banks are lined with species that are currently being used in products with such varied uses as detecting lead and arsenic in the air, removing pollutants and metals from water, detecting landmines (in other countries) and improving windshields. Some are used for everyday products like clothing, shelters and hundreds of medicinal compounds, while others are used for more nefarious purposes like explosives and rifle sights. My challenge these days is resisting the temptation to rattle off the lore of every plant we pass. Instead, I try to direct my "interpreting"  towards only those people who look like they want to hear it. Of course, there are some stories everyone seems to appreciate.

 Back on the Steinhatchee River, I realize my crew is starting to drift away; better talk quickly.

“The “tears” we’re seeing are the remains of the spiderwort’s flower. When the bloom reaches the end of its half-day life span, enzymes begin dissolving it. By dusk, nothing remains but a gob of purple liquid. This was the inspiration for the plant’s nick-name, “widows tears.”

Stamen hairs of a spiderwort bloom tell a story
The group is continues to drift away. But, there’s one more thing I think they’d be interested in hearing.

“These days, spiderworts are sometimes planted near nuclear reactors because they can detect radiation.”

Heads turn and paddles stop moving. A few people start to lightly back-paddle toward the plant.

“In the 1970’s, Professor Sadeo Ichikawa at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered that the blue stamen hairs in spiderwort flowers turned pink in the presence of radiation. Through his research, he refined his technique to the point that he can now detect the amount of radiation exposure like a biological Geiger counter.  By taking daily counts of the number of cells that have changed from blue to pink along the single-cell strands of the stamen hairs, researchers can monitor the levels and changes in radiation.”

A young girl pulls her kayak toward the plant and squints for a better view, “I wonder if it’s crying pink tears?”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Quiet Man

During World War II, my father was a member of the Danish resistance. He never spoke much about the experience; not even when I tried to delicately steer the conversation in that direction. He wouldn’t go there. Perhaps he couldn’t. Eventually I let it go, hoping some day he would overcome whatever fears or painful memories held him back, and tell me this story. That day never came.

In the 1980’s, as a project for a writing class, I wrote a story based on one of the few stories I knew of my father’s exploits. It told of a dark, misty night when he helped smuggle an old Jewish man and his granddaughter onto a small fishing boat on the northeast coast of Denmark and sent them across to safety in Sweden. He had never met the old man and his daughter before that evening, and throughout the story, says very little to them. When I submitted this story to my writing teacher for evaluation, he remarked sternly, "Why so quiet?" The words stung. Not so much because of the criticism, but because I didn't have an answer. Having my father’s character remain so quiet in the story wasn’t a conscious choice, and yet it seemed right. I didn’t change it.

Several years ago, I visited relatives in Denmark. My father had recently died, so I was eager to hear any stories my relatives could recall about his exploits. Without knowing it, I had stumbled into one of the most important endeavors of my life. Every conversation unveiled things I never knew about my father, and each shed more light on this previously unknown (to me) chapter in his life. I became increasingly aware that I had grown up in the presence of a true hero, a young man who (with his brothers) turned the family home into a secret "fortress" where guns were made and/or hidden for resistance fighters (when discovered, the house was blown up). He eventually led groups of escaping Jews to fishing boats which would then take them to Sweden and freedom. In one instance, he hid a group of escapees in a church attic as German soldiers searched the small coastal village for them. I learned on a later visit that that town now holds an annual commemoration of the event, to this day. In the end, he was caught and sent to prison camp.

My amazement grew, as did a sense of loss at learning there was so much about my father I didn't know when he was alive. So many questions I’d have liked to ask. So much pride I would have liked to express.

My visit was quickly transforming from a relaxing vacation to a personal quest—healthy, healing and somewhat exciting, but also very heavy. And, just as my heart started feeling like it could take no more, a cousin casually mentioned that the prison camp still existed as sort of a museum. I was speechless.

The next day I drove to the little village of Froslev. At mid-day, after a couple of hours searching the beautiful countryside near the German border, I found the camp. My heart was in my throat as I passed though the old, wooden gate and gazed out at scene that was strikingly familiar. I had seen it many times in old photos of Nazi prison camps--dozens of long low buildings, arranged in tidy rows oriented toward a central parade ground. Unlike the old photos, however, this scene wasn’t in black and white. The freshly painted burgundy buildings, with crisp white trim were set off by a neatly cropped lawn of a succulence and greenness that is only possible in cooler northern climates.

As I strolled through the complex, I found that two of the bunkers had been preserved just as they were during the war. They contained a full collection of photos and artifacts of the Froslev prison camp. The curator, a short, white-haired gentleman, whose ruddy complexion made me think he was probably a retired sailor, explained that they had records of some prisoners but, since hundreds of them had come through during the war, chances were slim that he’d find anything about my father. But he'd try.

Ten minutes later he returned, beaming with childlike amazement as he held out an old, tattered slip of paper. I glanced at the name and birth date and knew immediately I was holding my father's admission records into the prison. Speaking over the growing lump in my throat, I asked the curator if I could have a copy. He eagerly obliged.

For the next few hours, I explored the compound and imagined how it would have looked over six decades earlier. I walked along the barbed wire fence, strolled through the bunk houses and climbed the watchtowers; all still amazingly intact. I sat beside the fire pit outside my father's bunk house—saddened at the thought of the lonely moments he must have spent on this exact spot.

Walking quietly through the rooms of the museum, I read the information displays, imagining my father in every event described. Behind the glass display cases were dozens of items fashioned by the prisoners to make their life more tolerable. I was especially interested in the tiny little signatures that the prisoners wrote on any item that could be smuggled out of camp – tiny shreds of paper, cloth, cap linings. I laughed at myself for daring to foolishly hope to see my father's tiny signature on some item. As I made my way down the wall, nose close to the glass to see the tiny signatures and search for his face in the crowds of faces, I moved from one frame to the next when suddenly, l found myself face to face with a photo of my father.
There, in the same long wool coat and dark Fedora hat I had seen in other photos, was my father. He was standing in the barb-wired prison yard with an unknown man at his side. Behind them, the Danish flag flying on a makeshift mast left no doubt that this was the morning of liberation. He was a free man. Yet, he wasn't whooping and hollering like one might expect. His calm, gentle smile gave no clue to the suffering he had endured.

Staring in disbelief – as though looking at a ghost – I labored to breathe as I moved close to study the picture. Blinking rapidly to clear my blurry eyes, I studied the photo for any details that would shed some light about the camp; about the day the photo was taken; about the conditions in which he lived. But mostly, I looked at his face. I looked for clues – anything. And, the only words I could utter, as I stood staring into the kind, smiling face of the 21 year old boy who was my father, was "Why, dad? Why so quiet?"

Thorkild Andersen (R) and unknown friend on day of liberation from Froslev Prison Camp