Science Advice from Beyond the Veil

The event was straight out of a novel.  There I was, moving my late father’s desk into my home.  The desk that had been, in my youth, piled with scientific articles, statistical readouts, and last month’s bills, would now house my own collection of papers along with the memories of my dad.  I had emptied the desk of all my father’s possessions before moving it to my house, but somehow I had missed something.  As my husband and I struggled to get the desk up the steps, a lone paper fluttered to the ground.  I picked it up and trembled as I read the quote written in my father’s handwriting.  Despite my attempts at rational thought, I felt like somehow this note had been tucked away for me to find at this moment. I share it with you now, for it contains advice, not only for the making of good science, but for life.

As in any study of nature, so with plant diseases, it is of utmost importance to employ the right methods of investigation, to focus on the matter itself instead of facing it with preconceived notions, and to observe and examine the phenomenon carefully and from all angles. Only an exact and careful study of the earliest and subsequent stages of development can save us from the confusion of opinions and suppositions so prevalent in the field, and lead to valid useful results.

Julias Kuhn, 1858

Thanks, Dad.


Dad’s Garden: A Garden of Memories

This blog is intended to be a place of lighthearted, nerdy gardening ideas and fun science information.  However, on the anniversary of my father’s death, I’d like to start it off with a more serious dedication:

My Dad was many wonderful things, a research scientist, a dedicated parent, an avid naturalist, but he was a lousy gardener.  While my mom filled the yard with overflowing beds of stunning ornamentals, my Dad lay claim to the dry, root-choked bed under an enormous weeping-willow tree in the back corner of the yard and attempted to grow the flowers he truly loved, woodland wildflowers.  The garden wasn’t quite a total failure. I remember him proudly naming to me the few scraggly plants that survived in the outskirts away from the willow’s densest roots, mayapples, violets, and for a time, bleeding hearts.  Those poor bleeding hearts; they weren’t happy under that tree, and after it was cut down to make way for a sugar maple, they were equally unhappy in the baking sun.   My Dad’s attempt to replant the bleeding hearts in the shade closer to the house only resulted in their untimely demise under the careless feet of my sister and I.  However, for the brief years they were alive, I remember being utterly enchanted by the complex shape of their delicate flowers.

Dad garden
Here’s the one shot of Dad’s wildflower garden that I have. It was taken after the willow was gone, and the sugar maple was just planted.

Despite his failure as a gardener of wildflowers, my father was wildly successful at sharing his love of botany with me on the hikes we had together in my early childhood.  He would constantly point out any, and every, wildflower we came across, he would wax poetic over the blooms of flowering dogwoods and redbuds in the spring, and he would even exclaim with delight at obscure liverworts we saw while climbing over mossy rocks along streambanks.  I’m sure that these formative experiences were a large part of what drove me to become a biologist later in life.

My dad and three-year old me exploring a stream. He was in his element in the woods.

My father’s will stated that, upon his death, he wanted his ashes scattered where “green thing grow and waters flow”.  Most of his ashes have been dispersed in the waters he loved, but I brought a few home with me because I felt that he needed a second chance at the wildflower garden he always wanted, but never had the time, or later in life, the energy, to care for.  I scattered a few ashes in shady garden bed, and planted a redbud seedling I that had volunteered in my vegetable bed in the center of the new bed.  I am slowly filling in the remaining area with wild flowers: mayapples, wild iris, columbines, solomon’s seal, spiderwort, foamflower, and of course, bleeding hearts.  One of the bleeding hearts I planted did not survive the winter, and another got smothered by my overly-zealous mulching. Even in death, the man has bad luck with bleeding hearts.  Fortunately, the rest of the plants seem happy.  Although the garden currently has the rather awkward looking “new garden” syndrome, my hope is that as it grows into its own, I will have a nearby place of natural beauty for reminiscence and solace.

Despite being barren of plants, my garden is already full of memories.

I close this post with a poem I wrote for my Dad’s memorial service.  If he were alive, he would have embarrassed me by sharing it with all of our family and friends.  Since he is gone, I guess it is up to me, in many ways, to carry on his work.

A Poem upon the Death of My Father

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Longfellow can quite express the luster of his greying hair,

His faltering step,

The twinkle in his eye.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Frost can capture his love of the dogwoods in full bloom,

His rambling tales,

His smile now gone.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

No Dickenson portrays the emptiness of his flannels shirts,

No Whitman tells of days of constant measuring,

No Keats depicts his gentle laugh.

There is no poem to read upon the death of my father;

The best they do is fail to say the inexpressible.

Introduction to the Biologist’s Garden

There are a ton of biology blogs and a multitude of gardening blogs, but few that seem to link the two together in a way that is satisfying to me as both a biologist and gardener.  Garden Rant and the Biology Professors are on the right track, but deal mostly with horticultural science.  Your Wild Life is a great place to learn about the ecology of humans and their houses, but what about garden ecology?  The Artful Aomeba is a treasure trove of the wonders of natural history worldwide, but I want to focus more on the natural history of the little guys in our own backyards that go unnoticed.  Most of all, I want everyone to feel like biological science is for everyone, accessible to anyone with a yen to grow, observe, think critically, and discover things.   I currently envision the blog to have four main areas of focus:

  1. Occupy Biology: 1% of the species in your yard get all of the glory.  Discover the amazing hidden lives of the other 99% of living things that surround you.
  2. Sustain-A-What: Make the link between nutrient cycling and fertilizer use.  Learn more about who’s eating whom in your garden’s food chains.  Enjoy applied ecology for gardeners.
  3. Geek Out: Are you obsessed with science, history, video games, or books?  There’s a way to geek out about that in the garden. Check back to this page for inspiration for theme gardens to match (almost) any obsession.
  4. We Can Do It: Biology is for everyone! Learn how to set up experiments and participate in citizen science projects (or start your own!). Have fun doing biology in your yard.

As a full-time research associate in an agricultural entomology lab, I may be a bit slow to post during the peak of my summer research season, but I hope you will follow me on Twitter to get updates when I do.  This blog will be a fun place for biology nerds to learn more about gardening, gardening nerds to learn more about biology, and everyone to become a little of both.