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Fiction Creative Nonfiction Contemporary

I hope you are ready to hear the story of an endangered species. I hope so, because it's my story and I really want to tell it. People need to know about me.

Furbish’s lousewort - in Latin, Pedicularis furbishiae, here to tell my story. I may not be beautiful, but I am Maine’s only endangered plant. Other plants may be threatened, but I am the one who is teetering on the edge.

Please don’t tell me you don’t care or that I’m just a weed and not a very pretty one. Do not tell me I don’t matter, because I do. To prove it, please allow me to explain where I live. I hope you will be patient with me.

My life, classified as endangered, was deemed important enough to scrap the hydroelectric project with the Dickey-Lincoln Dam that was to cost around seven hundred million dollars. I know Time magazine laughed at me in September 1977, because it said five clumps of me had been discovered in an area safe from the flooding the dam would cause. In other words, the environmentalists could back off, because there were a whole five clumps of me. It had only taken $17,000 to show that the coast was clear to flood thousands of acres.

Do you really believe the engineers who were paid to search the river valley had discovered more lousewort plants? Or that the plants would be safe from the vast flooding? I certainly didn't, and was grateful for the 1973 Endangered Species Act. That project was doomed. That darn dam would have flooded a really large area and totally drowned my habitat. However, somebody remembered me and knew how I had come. to exist by being given a scientific name.

I like to think that, since my salvation had not come about because of my good looks - I am no orchid, that's for sure - it was in fact the result of my unique, remote location as well as the result of who had discovered me. How many of you have heard of the upper St. John River, know where it is, and have been there? Maine's a big state - seven hours by car, going in a north-south direction. It borders on Canada up there. 

People don't just go there for a day trip.

I was discovered in 1880 by Kate Furbish, who was an incredibly skilled artist or botanical illustrator, to be more specific. She lived to be 97, residing in Brunswick, Maine, on what is called the Midcoast. She moved there from New Hampshire at age one and spent most of her adult life trying to identify every plant in the state. She collected them drew them and painted them, classified them and shared her knowledge with people in Boston. I don't think she took a lot of day trips just for the fun of it.

Kate Furbish was a phenomenal woman, along the lines of the work by Angelou. Truly devoted to her science and art, she never got paid for her work. It seems the little woman, like other little women, didn't need a paycheck. Maybe it never occurred to Kate to ask for one. Who would have hired her? 

I for one am glad Ms. Furbish did not let gender discrimination hold her back.

Part of my story must be to tell you that after my discoverer had traveled all the way up to the Canadian border to discover me - which in itself has to be miraculous, because I'm remote and don't stand out, as you know - I was deemed extinct by 1975. Whoever declared me dead and gone was fortunately wrong, and somebody rediscovered me in 1976. Around that time the hydroelectric project reared its (ugly) head, but it hadn't counted on my resurfacing, backed by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

I was in the middle of it, just trying to stay alive, frightened, my plaine little yellow tubelike flowers cringing. (You would have noticed that happening if you'd seen me.) It was a very uncomfortable position, because a lot of people were mad, tempers were not calming down, and I was being blamed for it all. Personally, I felt I had the right to exist. I'm Maine's only endangered plant, as far as I know. My fight to survive is an important one.

(Voices materialize in the background. They seem to be trying to chime in to tell the story that Furbish's lousewort is already trying to tell. Are they being rude?)

Botanists:

The Pedicularis furbishiae are interesting plants. "The genus name, Pedicularis, is derived from the Latin pediculus, meaning 'louse.' 'Wort' is from the Old English, wyrt, meaning 'plant.' Old beliefs either had louseworts giving lice to people and cattle, or curing people and cattle of lice." This is according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but they probably looked it up somewhere else.

Pedicularis furbishiae are clearly particular about their habitat. They don't grow just anywhere. Yet while needing stability of soil and climate, they also need the soil to receive some disturbance, but humans are not the ones who should be altering the plant's surroundings. 

Pedicularis furbishiae are sometimes (improperly) compared to wood betony, but their cousins are really the snap dragon.

We need to study this plant to understand its nature and uses, and how to encourage its growth.

Environmentalists and Climate Change Experts:

"The St. John River valley, along with the rest of northeastern North America, was covered with ice during the last glacial age. After the glaciers receded about 12,000 years ago, Furbish lousewort colonized the river valley." This is also according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. How could the whole river valley population be reduced to a handful of Furbish's lousewort plants along a hundred-mile strip starting near Quebec and going northeast?

The Earth is becoming more and more threatened. All the species that become extinct are doing great harm to environmental balance. This is not just about a small population of Furbish's lousewort; it is about how we protect the planet. It is about community interests, not corporate gain.

We can organize protests. We can contact our legislators. We need to do something.

Maine Studies scholars:

We can track the path of northern Maine history through the study of Furbish's lousewort. We can learn about the land and its vegetation, who the inhabitants were, how they interacted with their surrpundings to survive. We can see where this plant and others - some, perhaps, extinct - were playing a role in human customs. Was Furbish's lousewort a source of medicine? Was it used in rituals or burials, in creating tools, for nourishment? Did it really have no name until Kate Furbish discovered it?

There must be more ways we can study this plant. Perhaps it was used in quilts or art?

Feminists:

We are not unaware of Furbish's accomplishments, but we have not really gone to great lengths to promote her legacy. We know she was a single woman who dedicated her life to botany and to the art she needed to preserve images of her discoveries. We know she worked tirelessly, not looking for fame.

We also know that the house Kate Furbish occupied on Lincoln Street in Brunswick should be purchased and turned into a museum to honor her. We haven't done anything to remedy that, but we should.

We know Furbish's extraordinary botanical illustrations are in the Bowdoin College holdings, but we have paid no attention whatsoever to her diaries, including the ones of her European travels. We have been too lax in that respect. Those journals are very important material for understanding her intellectual development. We always take thee material in journals quite seriously. Except not for Kate Furbish, for some reason.

It's important to study what women travelers experienced and what evidence - visual or written - they used to document their travels. Those journals, those journals.

We really should do this for Furbish.

Artists, botanical illustrators and female botanical illustrators:

We really admire the work of Kate Furbish. There is a centuries-long tradition of women who did botanical illustration as a career, and she can hold her own with any of them. It is so important that Bowdoin College and a publisher have produced the huge volume of her illustrations. However, the book is so huge that it's hard to carry and it's easy to rip the pages. Most people can't afford the book, either...

I am rather perturbed, to be honest.

All these voices are causing me to lose control of my story. Now I'm not even certaiin I want to tell it any more. You see, my idea was to describe how Kate Furbish showed up along the border, along the St. John River, and began looking, watching. She must have been around 46 or so. I was going to tell you how she traveled all the way up north and whether or not she was hoping to find me or whether finding me was a fluke of nature.

I was perhaps going to tell you how she was dressed for such work, back then in 1880, what the weather was like, what tools she used. You might have been interested in knowing whether she sat and sketched, or looked for a long time, then took a sample. In other words, what did she do with me when she found me? Did she know who or what I was? Not wood betony, nameless?

I was hoping to tell you about how Kate looked at me and respected me, did not try to label me with her own name (somebody else did that and she allowed it because women in science were rare). How she took all the necessary steps to get me properly registered so people could keep track of me. Which they did.

I had planned to provide you with that intimate portrait of a woman on a mission and who was successful, despite her sex. I wanted to talk about her and maybe a little about what it was like to grow up in Maine during her 97 years. What it was like to travel from one end of the state to the other, what it was like to give talks, with or without the full respect of the audience.

You might have liked hearing the part of the story where just under a century after my discovery, I was declared non-existent. Then not non-existent. Then seriously threatened by that dam. Those were truly rough years for me, and I almost didn't make it. I still can't believe the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was there to provide for me. And that little me, a weed by any name, won out over Goliath.

By becoming endangered, I can speak from a place of personal knowledge, with the profound sensation of here-today-gone-tomorrow-ness. I want you to feel that sensation, share that knowledge, know that I matter. I matter because who and what I am, my diminished existence, is related to you.

I am the voice of place, of climate change, industrial development, education and professions for women, Maine lore, border studies, art, and at least half a dozen other things. So much more than a weed with pale yellow flowers hidden clumsily among some leaves and pointed downward. So much more than the winner of a confrontations between big bucks and the treehuggers. 

I may live along the upper Saint John River and I may or may not be decreasing in numbers, but there is hope. Allow me to cite the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service again on this matter of hope:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joins several citizen groups, non-government organizations, and natural resource agencies of Canada, the province and the state to develop a recovery strategy for Furbish lousewort. Landowners and users of the St. John River valley can help support current future populations of the plant by maintaining the natural quality of the shoreline habitat. Volunteer task forces and landowner education programs contribute to Furbish lousewort conservation. People working together can help this Ice Age survivor safely through another epoch.

Perhaps the artists and feminist scholars can have a part in this, too. I may have spoken too quickly. The other voices clearly mean well and none of us disagrees with the others. In fact, the stories they are trying to tell are mine as well.

As a matter of pride, I might propose to the state legislature that Furbish's lousewort - that's me - be created as a license plate option for cars. If we can have a chickadee or a pinetree or a lobster on our bumpers, why not a lousewort?

Aftfer all, we are true survivors. 

Feel free to share this story. I was mine, but it's yours now. 

April 24, 2021 01:04

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