Entrances and side doors

Oscar Furbacken’s ‘Urban Lichen’

After a wintry season spent learning and dreaming of the circus and freak shows, Spring has delivered me into new digs and an old obsession; New York City and I have reunited and I have resumed my study of lichens! I can hardly believe my good fortune in the opportunities and events which have presented themselves; persistent dreams are now unfolding, yielding effortlessly in ways I never even dreamed possible. My heart swells in ebullient blooms of joy every time I recall my present reality. (Sighhh).

I am now a “volunteer-intern” at the New York Botanical Garden, where I stand at the intersection of at least three of my dreams. What seems like a lifetime ago, I tried to move to this fine and ferocious city. I was here for two months trying to get on my feet with a job and home and it simply didn’t work out. My first choice for work had been as a gardener’s assistant at this very institution but I couldn’t even get an interview. Now, I  enter its gates via academia (with an official badge!) and work in a field I love (minus manual labor!), plus I get to learn from and connect with fancy scientists at one of the most prestigious botanical research facilities in our country. I pinch myself almost every day just to be sure.

Christopher Ong

I feel such honor and privilege every time I enter the heavy doors of this majestic library building, which is where I now work. My current project is to help preserve collections of ancient lichens in one of the world’s best herbaria–an herbarium is a collection of preserved plants that may also include fungi and lichens. The New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium is second only to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. You can check out NYBG’s virtual Steere Herbarium here.

The collection I’m currently working with is from Europe–so far, most of the specimens have been from Finland. Each crumbling paper packet holds the promise of surprise–their stories I can only imagine. I am finding species that I recognize from my own collections and field work in the Pacific Northwest, though most I’ve never heard of–a seemingly endless parade of variation in form is revealed to me about thirteen times an hour. Through the objectives of my antiquated microscope, I observe the minute features of what appear to be bizarre alien landscapes. I even found the corpse of a tiny ant that’s likely been dead for nearly one hundred years; it was perfectly intact, as if it had just fallen asleep while exploring, frozen in time but never to awake. I wanted to take a picture of it but I realized that I didn’t bring my digital camera to NYC with me. I need to borrow one!

I love the thought of my trajectory meeting that of the scientists who came before me–of my hands touching the work of their hands…splicing my own story with their legacies. What would they think of me in this modern world, fussing over their specimens as if I were swaddling babies, shaking life back into the fruits of their passion while swooning over their elegant penmanship? I hope my enthusiasm pleases their long-deceased spirits.

One of the best things about this experience is that I am working with a highly regarded lichenologist by the name of James Lendemer–a prolific, brilliant man who is now my field supervisor. I adore him! He is so thoughtful and generous in addition to being fun, welcoming and patient with me. Check out this sweet and informative video starring Mr. Lendemer himself!

http://www.sciencefriday.com/embed/video/10336.swf

I am very much looking forward to getting to know the lichens and flora / fauna of the Northeast, as I’ve never actually been anywhere on the east coast other than New York City. Adventures! If you’re in this corner of the country and want to adventure with me, please let me know!

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