It was toward the end of a five-hour botany field trip. We were bouncing down a dirt road off the Cuesta Grade, a long, steep hill north of San Luis Obispo.
Botany professor Matt Ritter was driving his Subaru SUV. I sat shotgun, and associate biology professor Jenn Yost, who teaches with Ritter at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was in the back seat. A caravan of students and teaching assistants trailed us.
On walkie-talkies, Ritter and Yost were pointing out plants along the road, when suddenly Yost said, “Oh, fairy lanterns!”
There, on the road’s uphill slope, were the most ethereal white flowers, tiny globes nodding on delicate green stalks. I was mesmerized.
Each semester, Yost said, she and Ritter require their students to read the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” a rhapsodic description of the terrain and plants of the Salinas Valley that shares many of the characteristics of the landscape we were exploring, including calochortus albus, this exquisite little lily, which goes by many common names.
“Then there were harebells,” wrote Steinbeck about these beauties, “tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.”
A couple of months ago, Ritter, a star of California’s native plant scene, sent me a copy of his new book, “California Plants: A Guide to Our Iconic Flora.”
It’s a wonderful text, rich with colorful photos, about the plants you see all the time but probably don’t know much about.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that everyone’s favorite environmentalist, Gov. Jerry Brown, had written a foreword about the importance of preserving California’s extraordinary plant diversity. “We have more than 5,000 native species,” notes Brown, “more than one-third of which occur nowhere else in the world.”
I was so entranced by the book, and so embarrassed about the breadth of my ignorance, that I asked Ritter to invite me along on one of his weekly field trips for the class he and Yost have co-taught for four years, “Field Botany: California Plant Diversity.”
So Friday, at 8 a.m., I met up with Ritter and Yost at Ascendo, a San Luis Obispo coffee shop whose tables and counters Ritter helped build. We drove to a spot halfway up the Cuesta Grade, north of town. As traffic went whizzing by, we parked practically on Highway 101 in order to consolidate the number of cars we’d be driving up the mountain, creating a sense that we were doing something slightly dangerous and exciting. (If you include all the poison oak we encountered, we certainly were.)
Now instead of 20 cars, we were a wagon train of 10. Two and a half miles up a dirt road on the east side of the Cuesta Ridge in the Santa Lucia Mountains, we spilled out to get a closer look at the plants.
Undergrads — many of whom were three weeks away from graduation — carried notebooks and Scotch tape to affix plant samples to their notebooks, and a small 20-page pamphlet listing all the flora of the Cuesta Grade — or, as Ritter described it, “your hymnal.”
The class was searching for “new” species, that is, plants they had not yet observed. Everything was new to me: the orange blossoms of the sticky monkey flower, the dusty leaves of the yerba santa, the knots — or galls — on the trunks of certain pines that are essentially benign tumors. With magnifying glasses, we examined the jim bush, a common native lilac that has tiny beads dotting the edge of its leaves, which may be a defense mechanism against predators.
“There is no ‘y’ in biology,” said Yost, upon which I accused her of not being able to spell. “I mean, we know the ‘how’ of things,” she said later, “but we don’t know the ‘why.’”
Kathy Masaryk, a senior, said she loved the class, especially the teachers. “They are such powerhouses,” she said. “Endless amounts of witty banter.”
There’s an extracurricular bonus, too, when you take botany. “You sound really smart when you talk in Latin,” she said. “It’s like being at Hogwarts. We say the plant names like we are casting spells.” Salvia sonomensis! Hirschfeldia incana! Quercus agrifolia! (For you Muggles, that’s creeping sage, perennial mustard and coast live oak.)
Graduate students carried knives and shears to collect plants, many pulled up by the roots, to identify later for a test. “The final for this class is gnarly,” Ritter said. “We take them to an undisclosed location and make them take field notes. They have to accurately describe a landscape like you would a crime scene.” Except in Latin, of course.
Botanists have certain picking privileges that are not accorded other mortals; here they have permits to pluck the plants they are studying. But they do not touch endangered plants such as the San Luis Obispo mariposa lily. (The fairy lantern, on the other hand, is one of California’s most common mariposa lilies.)
Students who go on to lives as professional botanists will put their knowledge to use in various ways. Some might become rangers, or teachers. Some may work for environmental consulting firms and will be called upon as expert witnesses in conflicts over development.
“What are we about to lose? What are we trying to save?” Yost said. “You can’t answer if you don’t know exactly what you are looking at.”
During our foray, the atmosphere was convivial; Ritter said at least four weddings have resulted from relationships developed over the years in this class, which includes camping trips to places such as Joshua Tree.
There were, of course, the inevitable bad botany jokes. People get punchy before lunch.
Ritter disappeared for a few minutes into the bushes while Yost held up a stalk with pink flowers, the chapparal pea.
When he returned, she deadpanned, “You just took a chaparral pee.”
You always worry a little bit, as Charles Darwin famously did, that scientists, in their quest for knowledge, will tune out the poetry of the physical world.
“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” Darwin wrote. “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week.”
Here, on the Cuesta Ridge, these scientists and budding scientists spoke in impenetrable Latinate sentences. They chattered about “specific epithets,” and said things like, “The spikelets are sessile on the influorescence axis.”
But they haven’t lost their sense of wonder about the natural world and, thanks to their teachers, probably never will.
Examining a pale flower in the forget-me-not family — the windowed phacelia, whose petals resemble nothing so much as tiny stained-glass windows — Yost said with emotion, “You can just imagine insects coming to worship inside this little chapel.”
Earlier, I had plucked a single fairy lantern and stuck its stem in my water bottle. I felt a little thrill as I drove south along the coast, past Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Malibu, sneaking glances at it the whole way home.