Friday, October 23, 2015

How I Got a "D" in Botany!

[Nyerges has been leading ethno-botany field trips since 1974, and is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance. He is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging Oregon,” “Nuts and Berries of California,” “Enter the Forest,” and other books. He can be reached at]

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school…. Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the life-long attempt to acquire it." -- Albert Einstein

By the time I was enrolled in college, I had already spent many years learning about wild plants and mushrooms, and had already spent a week in the local mountains eating only the plants that I found in the wild. How then could I have received a “D” in my first botany class?

I was already obsessed with the study of botany and mycology before I entered high school.  Specifically,  I wanted to know about the many wild plants that were used by our ancestors for food and medicine. Mycology – the study of mushrooms – seemed to be an even more mysterious and esoteric study. After all, mushrooms came up one day and would be gone the next.  Just like mushrooms, mushroom experts were few and far between.

So I studied with whatever books I could find, and whatever local lectures I could get to. I made the acquaintance of every local botanist I knew about.

I joined the Los Angeles Mycological Association, and began taking up every spare bit of time to go to their monthly meetings and occasional field trips. Also, every spare bit of money went to paying for my trips and for film for my camera – remember back when we paid for film, and paid to develop it?

In my junior and senior year of high school, I became acquainted with naturalist Euell Gibbons, and carefully read all his books, and attempted to find the wild plants in my neighborhood. I also read all of Bradford Angier’s wild food books, and whatever else I could find.

After high school, I moved to my grandfather’s farm for the next 6 months and studied the botany of the eastern part of the U.S., which is almost like another world, botanically-speaking.  After work, my brother and I would drive through the Ohio countryside in search of new foraging fields, and in search of wild  mushrooms, which we often brought home and ate.  We became acquainted with local Amish people, who all seemed to know all the local wild edibles and wild medicines.

By January of 1974, I was back in California and enrolled in Pasadena City College, taking nothing but journalism and science classes.  It was a full load, but not the balanced load that allows you to actually graduate.

Obviously, I took botany classes. This proved to be a less than desirable learning experience, because my true interest was ethno-botany, not botany per se. Botany was a lot about the cellular structure of trees and leaves, how photosynthesis worked, and different ecologic zones in Southern California.  Our classroom had not a single living plant in it.

There were two sessions each week, lecture and a field trip or lab work.

The field work was great and I loved it. The lecture… ah, much to be desired. To make a bad situation better, I not only read the text book, but I also read about botany research in the weekly Science magazine, and Scientific American.  And I got to know some of the local Indians and attempted to learn some traditional stories about the plants’ uses.  Somehow, I thought I would be better able to engage in discussions in my botany class at the college.

A few times I raised my hands and attempted to share things about botany that I was studying, like how plants have photo-optics, and new ideas about how photosynthesis actually works, how plants communicate, and how they have feelings. I even shared some of the esoteric mathematics of plants. I wanted to hear what my teacher thought about these ideas I was studying.  My teacher told me that the subjects I’d brought up were not going to be on the test, and therefore there was no point in taking the time to discuss it.

I was one of the few students who ever spoke up at all in the class. If you were ever in college, you might recall that so many classes are lecture and your job was to sit there and take notes and then take a test.   One fellow student even said to me, after I’d been told to be quiet once again by my botany teacher, that I was ruining my academic future.

“Really?” I said.  “I’m here to learn.”

“Not really,” my friend told me. “This is junior college. You’re just here to graduate and then go on to some better college.”

“Well, I really am trying to learn, now,” I said. My friend just shook his head, figuring that I just didn’t get it.

Not long after, I was told by my teacher that I had used up my quota of questions, and that she preferred that I remain silent for the remainder of the semester.

“Look,” she said. “Each time we meet, I need to turn this handle 10 times.”  She was describing a roll of acetate with the entire semester’s notes written on it.  The acetate roll would move over the overhead projector and project the already-written notes onto the classroom screen. “If I do not get through about 10 turns each time we meet, I will not be able to share with you everything that will be on the test. If I do not cover what will be on the test, I cannot expect you to be able to answer the test material, can I?” she challenged. “So that is why I don’t want you to share anything that is not part of our class material.”

Once more in the semester I did raise my hand. This time she was showing some slides describing various plants. There were two mushroom slides, one for an edible mushroom, and one for a poisonous mushroom.  The captions for these two had been reversed, and so our teacher described the edible mushroom as poisonous, and the poisonous mushroom as edible. She obviously didn’t know mushrooms very well, because the two slides showed a  very common edible mushroom, the Agaricus campestris, and a very showy obvious poisonous mushroom, the Amanita muscaria.  These two mushrooms are actually so common that any beginning mycologist knows them well.

When I described the error to my teacher, I almost expected that I’d receive extra credit for knowing my mushrooms, or at least a thank  you.

“No, you’re wrong,” she scolded me in a loud voice. “These slides come from a well-respected educational agency, and they don’t make mistakes.” She went on and on for a bit longer and then once again told me to remain quiet.

I tolerated the class, and managed to earn a “D” for the one subject that became the most dominant focus of my life.

Fortunately along the way, I was to meet other teachers who were more skilled in answering my questions, and who had no particular agenda except to pass along their knowledge.

I made the acquaintance of all the local botanists and naturalists within a reasonable distance from my home, such as Dorothy Poole (the Gabrielino “Chaparral Granny”), Dr. Louis Wheeler, Isabelle Fetterman, William Breen, and Robert Tally.

I also had the very good fortune to listen to a suggestion from a mentor, and to follow that suggestion, to enroll in a course in “Edible, Medicinal, and Poisonous Plants” at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, taught by Dr. Leonid Enari.

Dr. Enari was a humble man who grew up in Estonia, and experienced the Nazi regime during WWII.  He earned higher degrees in both chemistry and botany, and moved to Portland area where he taught college for a few years and wrote 2 books.

He became my mentor for years after I attended several of  his classes.  He worked with me on the fine details of my first book, and opened my mind to the vastness of the ethno-botanical world as a tool to helping people.

Despite the "D" in my junior college botany class, Dr. Enari kept my lifelong interest in botany and ethnobotany alive and well. I didn’t realize how rare of an individual he was when I met him, but I know it now.  In the next year or so, I intend to compile a book on Dr. Enari and his teachings in order to pass along what he imparted to me.

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