Dr. Bill Bryant could find anything he wanted on his desk, even though it was piled high with papers, books, and scientific journals. For me, he was the quintessential professional botanist. He could talk about plants, forests, and ecology any time. He loved his homeland of western Kentucky, and he loved the forests even more. I took most of my electives in Biology from him because he was teaching the classes that attracted me most. I wanted to be outside, not in a laboratory, so I picked Botany, Field Biology, and Aquatic Biology for my electives. He taught Genetics, too, which didn’t include any field work at all.
It was Dr. Bryant who taught me to look at plants as my “old friends.” I can still hear him describing this in his southern accent. “When you go out in the field, it’s like seeing all your old friends again. The more you see them, the more you get to know them, where to find them, and when you might see them each year. And their names become familiar too, just like old friends.” I never forgot that, and I still enjoy seeing wildflowers blooming in their turn and take a certain delight in learning their scientific names, like a special trait I know about my “old friends.”
In our Botany class, our semester project was to collect, identify, and press fifty herbaceous plants. It was Fall in northern Kentucky, and I had fun riding my bike around on the back roads within a mile or two of the campus searching for specimens to collect. Many were familiar from my childhood walks with my parents, but I had never collected them for a scientific herbarium before, so I was learning something new. I actually enjoyed keying them out and pressing them carefully between sheets of newspaper. Adding their scientific names, tantalizing mouthfuls of letters like Polygonatum, Helianthus, or Solidago, really did seem like getting more intimate with old friends, and getting to know some new ones too!
My favorite classes with Dr. Bryant, however, were Field Biology and Aquatic Biology. As their names imply, both of these were rich with forays outside. Both were offered in the month-long session called May Term. With Dr. Bryant’s guidance, we explored streams, marshes, and the shores of the Ohio River. We got to live for two weeks at the Biology Field Station on the banks of the Ohio River. I concluded that being a Field Biologist was the best career for me and studying Nature could delight me for a very long time!
Dr. Bryant’s influence provided a couple of lasting brushes with philosophy. During a test, I had no answer to one of his essay questions. I simply had not studied what he was asking. In a moment of bravado, I wrote, “I don’t know much about this, but I do know something about Leaf Abcision.” I proceed to describe the process of a deciduous tree leaf falling off and the formation of the leaf scar. Well, Dr. Bryant was not impressed and did not give me credit for that answer. I pondered that situation, and formed the opinion that in the “Real” world, there would probably be all sorts of instances when one could legitimately be an expert in one thing and not another.
Another time was during a semester project in Genetics. The gist of the assignment was to look at a handful of genetic characteristics in my family and determine the phenotype and genotype of everyone relative to those traits. It seemed like a rather pedantic endeavor to me, since the only references available to us, in those archaic pre-internet days, were two or three books that were being passed around among the 30 students in the class. While perusing the library shelves in hopes of finding more reference material, I discovered a book about genetic engineering and started reading it.
I was fascinated, and incredulous about the moral implications of this practice! I devoured that book and wrote an essay relating what I had found out. I included it in my presentation, along with my family genetics charts that just basically fulfilled the assignment. Again, Dr. Bryant did not share my wide-eyed epiphany about genetic engineering and gave me a “B” on the assignment. I shrugged it off, however, believing that the direction I had gone with it was much more rewarding than what he was grading me on.
Even though I haven’t created a career as a scientist, my years under Dr. Bryant’s tutelage gave me a scientific foundation that girds the more artistic and sensory approach that I have used as a teacher, hiker, and Nature guide. Thanks to Dr. Bryant, I can always rely on my “old friends”, the plants, to evoke a sustainable sense of Wonder and fulfillment in the outdoors.