It's up for debate

Why Do You Go Into the Woods?

with one comment

I’ve been to a number of botanical gardens and tracts of land fenced into to be called “parks” and “refuges”, and, bumbling through the carefully laid-out paths and among the strategically placed and cultivated botanical showoffs, I often wonder why people go into the (fabricated) woods in the first place.

Meanwhile, a recent article reported that “fewer than 400 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral botany degrees were awarded in 2012. Educators say that’s because students are being pushed into more modern, technology-related majors.”

And while I may be named after one, this bird -- the Gray Catbird -- is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

And while I may be named after one, this particular birdy — the Gray Catbird — is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

This article isn’t the first of its kind, and it’s apparent on kids’ faces what sort of wildlife excites them. At the ridiculously named John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, it’s the birds, turtles, and fish that receive the most attention from toddlers and adults alike; the plants serve as a ubiquitous green backdrop to the mammalian drama playing out in front of it.

At the Tyler Aboretum, younger visitors are awed by the unique treehouses and the grotto of tiny gnome villages, rightly so. But are they inspired by the Sleepy Hollow—like canopy above, without which such a forest gnome village would just seem like some suburban kook’s lawn ornaments?

Although I’ve enjoyed Longwood, Shinjuku, and Tyler, I feel as though something is lacking in botanical gardens, and, though it may not be the driving reason for fewer botany degrees, I still feel there is a noticeable lack of creative and tech-friendly education in such gardens and parks. An unfortunate dearth of knowledgeable tour guides, federal funding aside, may also be to blame.

Take, for instance, the Refuge, teeming with delectable edibles (my beloved gas-inducing garlic mustard being one of the invasive kinds); the Tyler Arboretum, a flagging but otherwise medicinally interesting herb garden; and Shinjuku Botanical Garden, harboring such economically and historically fascinating flora as Canna indica and others, the names for which I’m unwilling to troll through the hundreds of photos I took during my four-hour excursion there.

Informative signs present or not, readily phone-accessible Wikipedia aside, and gnomes or none, green spaces are simply lackluster. What would it take to enliven these spaces? Surround techno music synched with flashing neon lights among ferns in a darkened atrium with a dance floor? Enlarged mechanical plants alongside their counterparts – say, a Jurassic Park—inspired Venus flytrap lunging out at unexpected guests as they turn corners in a labyrinthine tropical maze? David Bowie? Actual triffids?

I admit the last one, and only the last one, is mad. But why else do people wander into the woods? To know what a plant’s name is in Latin? No. To see pretty flowers? Somewhat. To pee? Yes. But, I myself went into the woods for adventure, or misadventure. Some venture at the least. In any case, there is an expectation for something wild, beyond control, and other-worldly to occur, something that’s certainly in need today and to give the field of botany some much-needed appeal.


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  1. Interesting comment and I have come to being interested in identifying later in life. But still used to like Observer I Spy guides but plants were more difficult than dogs! Kew Gardens in London tries hard with education about plants but agree with you and think we will lose biodiversity because we have failed to really recognise how amazing it is.


    June 21, 2015 at 10:53 am

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