Nestronia umbellula, photo credit: Alan Cressler

Flickering, Physic-Nuts, and the Nonfiction Narrative: Examining the Historic Presence of Plants

Plants have been starting to bud out in Athens over the past couple of weeks, and we’re waiting until just the right time to visit Driftmier Woods to ID something Eric thinks he might have seen there last year. If we’re lucky, he’s located a rare occurrence of Nestronia umbellula, also known as Indian Olive, an upland species that often makes its home on mixed hardwood-pine slopes. We noticed that this nondescript forest friend was observed by Bartram in his 1773 visit to the headwaters of Georgia’s Broad River, where the Native Americans he encountered believed that carrying the plant’s fruit had the power of “charming or drawing” sought-after quarry. “From whence,” the naturalist wrote, “with the traders, it has obtained the name of the physic-nut, which means, with them, charming, conjuring, or fascinating.”

Well, we think it’s fascinating. The possibility of finding a physic-nut nearby may reveal more about the ecosystems that used to exist in our area. By studying the requirements that native species have of their environments, such as the soils they prefer, their potential dependence on disturbance, and the other organisms that they have relationships with, we can begin to construct a picture of their surroundings in the year 1785. Of course, this means we have to prove that they were here in 1785.

We can’t really do that, though. I say this because there isn’t a lot of documentation on plants in this region from that period. What we can do is establish how likely it is that a species was here based on a classification system that was originally inspired by the folks over at the Mannahatta Project, which we’ve gratefully borrowed and made our own. Ours features a numerical coding system that we developed to assess the different qualities that influence species likelihood:

  • Validity (0000–2000, high validity-low validity) — Describes the quality of our source information
  • Habitat (0000–0100, yes-no) — Describes whether or not the species had habitat relationships within the area of study. If a value of 1 is determined from a valid source, the species was highly unlikely to be in our area of study in 1785
  • Date (0000–0040) — Describes the length of time away from our reference of 1785. Break points can be visualized in concentric rings with 0 at the center, as follows:

(0) 1755–1815

(1) 1705–1865

(2) 1655–1915

(3) 1605–1965

(4) 1555–2015

  • Distance (0000–0004) — Describes the distance between Athens-Clarke County and the occurrence of historic observation. Break points as follows:

(0) Within ACC

(1) Within 25 miles of ACC

(2) Within 50 miles of ACC

(3) Within 75 miles of ACC

(4) Within 100 miles of ACC

A code for each species is devised by adding together their categorical assessment numbers. The sum of the code’s digits then determine the final likelihood ranking. The lower the ranking number, the more likely the species was to have existed in our area of study in 1785. This system probably still needs a little tweaking, but we’ll figure it out as we go along.

At any rate, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on HEMP’s first attempts at establishing a species likelihood classification for Nestronia umbellula, as well as for a different rare native, Eriocaulon koernickianum. The latter, also known as Dwarf Hatpins, is a tiny plant that makes its home in the seepage areas of granite outcrops, and it depends on fire to exterminate its competitors. After I made my first pass at researching this little guy, I emailed conservation botanist Linda Chafin about where to find existing populations of Dwarf Hatpins in Athens. Her reply reminded me of one of the project’s most compelling challenges: “E. koernickianum is very rare in Georgia,” she wrote, “And the populations we do have seem to fluctuate and wink out.”

Abstractly, the map we’re creating delineates a region between reality and the indefinite. While it functions as a historical reference of an actual place, it’s also a collection of educated inferences depicting multiple systems of moving parts. Before starting this project I had never thought about how similar determining the course of history is to predicting the future, but both rely on relating observable patterns to a framework of cultural, and ultimately personal, narratives.

I’ve been looking to a quote by Martin Puryear, a favorite sculptor of mine, to help process some of the representational issues that HEMP faces. He speaks of similar matters in his art, saying,

The ideas that give rise to a work can be quite diffuse, so I would describe my usual working process as a kind of distillation — trying to make coherence out of things that can seem contradictory. But coherence is not the same as resolution. The most interesting art for me retains a flickering quality, where opposed ideas can be held in tense coexistence.

For me, the statement “opposed ideas… held in tense coexistence,” opens a passage into the heart of our research. The idea that we’re creating pure narrative is indisputable, yet HEMP’s output isn’t fictional. In some ways, our story is like a physic-nut. It’s something we carry with us; a conjurer of information; funny, mystical, and poetic sometimes; and at other times mundane. But I’ll take my cues from Puryear: the aim isn’t simply to ball the map and narrative up into a neat little package, it’s to bring others into an area between the evidenced and unknowable. That’s where it gets really fascinating.

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