Friday, June 26, 2009

Evil empires in wood

I am ssssssllllllloooooooowwwwwwwllllllllyyyyyyy working my way through the card catalog that is the only current record of all the wood specimens at the herbarium. This is how it goes:

-I take a card.

-I figure out which of two-five numbers on it refers to the herbariums own number.

-I look through the drawers, boxes, etc. (some in the room I usually work in, others in "the old wood room").

-I find the probable specimen & then I use something else to confirm I am indeed looking at the specimen referenced (a collectors number, a genus or common name, etc.).

-I mark the back of the card with the correct herbarium number so that when I get run over by a truck & all the computers simultaneously erase their databases, my worthy successor will know what has & has not been checked.

-I sit down at the computer & start recording the information from the card. Would you believe this is where it gets time consuming?

Not all of the cards are organized along the same lines. It is safe to say there are five major systems & I could not even guess how many minor ones. They mostly record the name of the specimen; collector's number &/or name or not; the date the specimen was collected or not; the location from which the specimen was collected or not or maybe the name &/or location of the organization that provided the specimen. All of this would be as nothing if each card had this information in the same order. They do not.

Still some systems have distinct hallmarks, frequent places from which specimens are collected, frequent co-collectors. Certain record keepers always put particular information in particular places & I have started to recognize their handwriting. & typewriters. But still I would be lost without GOOGLE, GOOGLE translate & WIKI-Species. There are a slew of more specific archives on-line but often my question can only be handled by a cross-reference between all three. For example when Sandwich appeared on one card for a particular variety of palm only this trinity could help me figure out what Sandwich was the person who collected the plant? the collection in England from which it was donated? Nope. Sandwich was the island on which it was native, the only island on which it was native. & in the very valuable index this would have been almost impossible to find out because not only has the palm changed names but so has the island.

It would be easy to get bogged down in the stories of the specimens. It has happened to me before. I spent a sad month in 2006 mounting plant pressings gathered by a father & son team in October & November of 1941. Then there was a gap until the father alone started to submit specimens again in 1944. He collected on off until the early 1960's, but always alone. There is a lot of information in what is missing on those old typed labels.

For the past couple of weeks it has been beautiful wood specimens from some of the most frightening places on earth. These are the places nightmares are made of. The first was a row of wooden blocks labeled "Queensland". It would be easy to assume Australia but it would be wrong. This Queensland is long gone from western thought, except perhaps in Orwellian Literature classes. The second were specimens all collected in South Africa in the 1950s. The third was the single specimen from Rwanda.

I am sure none of what happened was anacardiacaea's fault. It is just a plant, a good-sized family of plants in fact. A family that includes poison ivy. & pistachios.

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