How botany kept me from freezing to death | Bleader

How botany kept me from freezing to death

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My old college pal, Pelargonium Tetragonum
  • Michael Wolf
  • My old college pal Pelargonium Tetragonum
I spent grade 13 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I tried to finesse my freshman science requirement by taking a class in horticulture. Not that I had any reason to think I'd do well at it. I grew up in an apartment, the child of people whose idea of communing with nature was pulling the cellophane off a head of lettuce. My dad would occasionally take us for rides in the country—that is, west of Morton Grove—and point out the cows as we whizzed by them. "Look, kids, cows," he'd say, and then we'd go home. My mom once took me aside to show me some tiny gnatlike things buzzing around a potted plant she kept on a windowsill at home. Since we were 19 stories up and the windows didn't open, she'd been wondering how they got there. Her solution was that they'd sort of effervesced out of the soil—life from dead matter—and this discovery was what she wanted to share with me. Mom wasn't a stupid person. She held down a demanding job and was absolutely great at negotiating life. She just didn't know that the theory of spontaneous generation was no longer considered cutting-edge science.

Anyway, horticulture didn’t seem to require much math, and since that consideration far outweighed my complete ignorance of the subject, I signed up.

I'm still fairly ignorant of the subject. The class met at a horrific 7:20 AM, the professor was a genial bore, the textbook was all tables and graphs, and I can't say I retained much information (though I bet I know more about scions and sphagnum than you do). Still, that class was one of the happiest experiences I had in Madison. Certainly happier than getting clubbed during a demonstration or dodging the football players on my dorm floor when they'd get drunk and go berserk. Happier than some of the truly happy stuff, too, like getting ag-school ice cream at Babcock Hall, picking up 25-cent books at Paul's Bookstore, following the weird off-campus poetry community, or giving myself tours of the graduate-level art studios to see what people were doing. For one thing, horticulture class was where I met the best friend I made during my single year at UW. But perhaps more important from a practical point of view, it was where I got what I needed to survive the Wisconsin cold.

The university's botany department maintains an 8,000-square-foot greenhouse complex that shelters hundreds of plants. It's balmy and green, even tropical, all the time—never mind the blizzards howling outside. I don't know why all 50,000 students didn't just huddle together in there from December to April, but they didn't. The place was pretty much mine any time I wanted it. And I certainly did. I'd wander among the rows and rows of plants whether I had a class assignment or not, learning absolutely nothing useful about the squirrel-foot fern or the square-stalk cranesbill but feeling the great sweetness of their presence all the same. Shape. Color. Scent. Light. Humid being effervescing from the soil. It's weirdly appropriate for someone like me, I suppose—developing an appreciation for nature by spending time in a controlled environment.

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