An Introduction: Plants and Names

An Introduction: Plants and Names

I’ve been told that the name Rosemary Bush is a hard name to Google. I’ve been told, mostly by career advisers, that it’s a good thing to be difficult to Google. Supposedly it keeps me unique, which among other things is good for job candidates trying to manage their online personas. Since I lack the ability to photosynthesize, I don’t have to do much to set myself apart from all the other rosemary bushes on the internet. So if you search for images using my name, your computer screen will show only a bunch of greenery. Scroll down for a little while, and you’ll find me. I’m the one in the cowboy hat who isn’t a plant.

My parents did not know that I would love plants when they gave me my name, but I don’t think it came as much of a surprise, given that I come from a long line of green-thumbed women. I spent my young summers following my mother and her mother through their gardens as they weeded. They would hand me the pulled weeds for closer inspection, pronounce for me the Latin names of heirloom lilies and orchids handed down through generations of gardeners, and catch for me skinks and little tame grass snakes before they slipped into deeper cover. I would sit and watch a snake the size of a pencil gently weave between my fingers, its tongue flickering in and out, as my mother continued to stab at the purple-flowered lariope. I always imagined keeping one of the snakes—setting it in a box punched with air holes and stowed next to my bed so that I could marvel at it whenever I pleased, feeding it the crickets and slugs I planned to catch for the purpose, and showing it off to anyone not too squeamish to look. In turn, I was always reminded that it was my duty to return the snake to its home (now temporarily tidy and free of weeds), where it belonged. I was not to disrespect our rendezvous and the honor of holding a wild snake by forcing the snake to stay with me too long and taking its wildness from it. So instead, I would set it on the ground and watch it slip noiselessly away behind the lilies and gingers.

When my parents bestowed my name, they weren’t thinking about plants. They were thinking about family. I am named for my father’s mother, whose name was also Rosemary Bush. I am their eldest child, and as first daughter it was given to me to carry the name of the ancestor who died when my father was a toddler. Rosemary was a kind and beautiful woman by all accounts. (Family photographs confirm her beauty, which my sister fully inherited.) At the age of thirty, with a loving husband and two little children, she went to sleep with a headache and never awoke. And thirty years after that day, my father laid my tiny body in the arms of Rosemary’s mother, my great-grandmother, to receive her blessings and to confirm for all of us the power and the circularity of life.

Somewhere around the same time I was playing with snakes, I discovered that it was possible to make a living out of studying life, with all its wonders and curiosities, and that this possibility was called “being a biologist.” I have no childhood memory of a singular moment when this realization crystallized. Rather, it seems to have always been my calling to prod at and query the outdoor world, to turn over stones and record what I find. It seemed only natural that I should make a career out of it. No matter where I have been in my life or what else it has contained, I have been blessed with the unshakeable certainty of knowing what I love: the combination of science and the natural world. As a young adult I took the academic path, and immediately followed a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology with a master’s degree in plant biology, which in turn spilled into a PhD in earth science, studying a tiny fragment of the vast history of Earth’s plants and ecosystems. I am now one of many postdoctorates struggling to find a career path after graduate school, one that satisfies my intellectual hunger but does not require that I uproot my family for the sake of a temporary post, and so I am finding a balance between the twin pulls of my intellectual obligations and my fealty to family. Life was much easier when they pulled in the same direction. (I trust that they will again in time.)

In the meantime, the wonderful thing about a career spent studying the environment is that it is, by definition, always around you. I am constantly surrounded by intriguing questions and fascinations, so long as I choose to remain curious. And the wonderful thing about curiosity is that it does not require a PhD or a degree of any kind in order to operate. It does not ask for prior knowledge at all; in fact, it thrives at the edges of knowing. Curiosity is the hunger that nibbles at the edges of not-knowing and transforms it into knowing, and thus it expands the bounds of knowledge one question at a time. It is ultimately the essence of both science and writing, and one of most beautiful gifts of the human mind. In science, researchers work to push back the absolute limits of human knowledge, acquiring ever more data and sharing them with the world. But at the same time, we all have our own personal knowledge limits to push against, and there is always something new to see. Curiosity has been the lamp to light a path that led me from those young garden summers to summers spent digging fossils in Wyoming and studying plants from Greenland to south Florida. It is the same lamp that lights a path down a Chicago avenue on a fall afternoon when I find myself wondering, how far does an urban pigeon range in a day? When will the mergansers and diving ducks return to winter on the Chicago River? Why do the leaves fall off the honey locusts before the maples? What is it, exactly, about those fallen leaves that makes that wonderful autumn smell? Some of these questions are answered by Wikipedia, and some have no answer. Yet. All of them are entirely free to me as I stroll. But for all that curiosity is instinctual to every human mind from birth, it is also a precious and delicate thing that is readily bruised. At what age do children stop asking “why”? At what age do children stop gazing in wonderment at the world? It is entirely too easy for a child, especially a girl-child, to learn to stop asking questions and to acquire apathy, which is a wholly learned trait. How can we combat the development of apathy? These are not just idle questions for the curious, but vital to the stewardship of our environment. Again, I find myself grateful to my parents, who loved and encouraged me and never gave me reason to quiet my curiosity, who instilled in me the fortitude to weather the storms I encountered on my path. Again, family and career are interlinked, and the personal and public bleed into one another to such a degree that they are hardly distinguishable.

My parents had no idea how perfectly apt my name would be for my calling, or how strongly it would tie their two lineages together into one identity. How could they have known the girl they had named Rosemary Bush would end up studying plants? And yet, here we are. If I had to choose the two most important things in my life, I would say “being outdoors” and “my family”, which may be clichéd but feels entirely appropriate for a woman who always seems to find herself in the middle of a bunch of greenery. Whether indoors or out, I am always in good company.


Sun rise over the Rio Grande, in Big Bend National Park.

Mexico is on the right and the US on the left, and the water and the mist lie between.  For my first post I want to begin simply, with a photograph taken by my mother that reminds me of one of my very favorite places in the world and also of her, one of my very favorite people.