Wabash and the Wild:
Two Naturalists in the Groves of Academe
A Wabash Chapel Talk
April 3, 2003

By Marc Hudson

I am honored to be invited to speak here, and I am so glad that the Sphinx Club has reinstated this grand old tradition. The older I get the more I appreciate the loveliness of ritual and tradition. I must say, though, that on the few occasions that I have spoken from this height during Awards Night, I have felt rather like a captain of the prow of his ship or maybe it’s more like Father Mapple in Moby Dick mounting the pulpit of the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford. There’s a rush of power that comes from standing here. I’ll try not to let that power go to my head. But don’t be surprised if I start sermonizing issuing salty oaths.

Before I get underway, I would like to thank several people who have helped me research this talk; first Beth Swift of the Wabash Archives, then Dr. Vern Easterling, Dr. David Polley, Dr. Marion Jackson, an emeritus professor of ecology at Indiana State University, and one other I will name shortly.

Once upon a time a young man traveled from Indiana to the West, to Utah and the Yellowstone. He’d recently taken a degree in Classics and Geology from a small liberal arts college in southern Indiana and he’d been invited on a scientific expedition to help reconnoiter the geology of the region. But something happened as he cooled his heels in the Wasatch Mountains; instead of cataloguing the geological features, he became entranced by the local flora, so unlike that of his native Ohio River Valley. That was the beginning. Over the next several months as the expedition wended its way north into the Snake River Country, through the Teton Basin, into the Madison River Valley and into Yellowstone, he collected and catalogued hundreds of plants. The next summer, after a winter and spring spent systematizing his collections at the National Herbarium in Washington, he came back again in the second phrase of the expedition to range about the high country of Colorado, collecting. Fair to say, he was taken by the wilderness, especially the alpine meadows and those hardy species that manage such beauty in difficult conditions. They brought out the poet in him. On the very summit of Mount Lincoln, he found, “A beautiful Polemonium or Greek Valerian with its rich bunches of blue bells.” Conspicuous were also “Claytonias, or Spring Beauties:” the exquisite deep blue of the forget-me-not; and “phloxes of every shade of white and purple and blue…”

He came back from the expeditions—the Hayden Expeditions of 1872 and ’73—a botanist. But he returned to Hanover College as a professor of Latin, his first love. This young man, John Merle Coulter, took a little while to find that his life work lay not in declining ancient verbs but in classifying and cataloguing the flora of the Midwest and the West and in teaching the quickly evolving field of botany to undergraduates. In 1876, he was transferred to the Chair of the Natural Sciences, and a few years later, in 1879, he accepted a Chair in the Natural Sciences at Wabash College. (In fact, Coulter had lived in Crawfordsville before, as a teenager, where his mother ran a day school in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church and he helped out as a sexton and his brother, Stanley, as a part-time janitor). Those were good years for Coulter and the College. While Wabash lacked the natural beauty of Hanover College in the hill country just north of the Ohio, its campus, according to Coulter, boasted an unsurpassed array of native plants. And being more financially secure, it was a more progressive college.

Here Coulter came into his own as a teacher and a botanist. During the next ten years, he started the Indiana Botanical Gazette, made a compilation of the flora of Indiana, curated the Hovey Museum and its herbarium of 50,000 botanical specimens, and developed an advanced curriculum in science. Religiously conservative, a believer in the harmonious design of nature, he was a best tentative in embracing the new evolutionary biology of Darwin. He saw evolutionary theory, as we wrote in an 1877 address, reared upon “a foundation whose cornerstone is an if.” His early work, then, was very much a part of the great Linnaean project, which began, in the mid-eighteenth century of collecting and classifying the flora of the New World. The premise of this project was that nature, though infinitely diverse, was stable and the taxonomist need only observe, describe, and, using his reason to see the great design, classify the particular manifestations of God’s magisterial art. It was a beautiful idea, which he himself, as an older man, would help dismantle.

Coulter also embodied another transition in his life and work. As a member of the Hayden expeditions, he was one of the last “adventurer-naturalists.” Thomas Nuttall, perhaps the greatest of such naturalists, wrote in exasperation to his younger stay-at-home botanist friend, Asa Gray, proclaiming that he [Nuttall] had done his work “not in the closet but in the field.” He no doubt saw in Gray the end of his era. As Joseph Kastner, writes, “The adventure naturalist was now being eclipsed by the academic specialist.”

Coulter would never again roam so far a field botanizing. While his students at Wabash would often get him out of his scientific closet and into the woods, he spent much of his time analyzing and poring over the specimens in the ever-growing herbarium. I can’t help but imagine that Coulter looked back on those summers in the Yellowstone Valley and in the high country of Colorado as paradisial.

Indeed we get glimpses of a very young Coulter from some of the diary entries he made that spring and summer of ’72. On May 24th, he describes an impromptu journey he and several other members of the expedition made to climb a peak that rose behind Ogden, Utah. The peak was higher than they thought and two companions turned back before Coulter and another reached the summit-some five thousand feet above the valley—at six o’clock in the evening. Rather than get caught on the mountain at nightfall, they sought a short cut and found one in a snow-covered col between two peaks. Coulter’s friend surveyed it for a moment, then sat down, and shoved off, checking his “break-neck speed with his geological hammer. Coulter hesitated but rather than be thought a piker, sat down on his pockets and shoved off himself. He writes, “If I had only possessed a board I might have coasted with considerable ease, but this thing of sitting down flat on the snow with nothing but buckskin between me and any sharp-pointed crag that might be lurking just beneath the surface was anything but a pleasant prospect. But down I sat and started and traveled towards my destination with as much ease and rapidity as I had before in the [railway] cars.” (I think young Coulter unintentionally speaks volumes here about the “ease” of travel by rail in the 1870s.) In any event, Coulter and his companion made it back to their hotel late that night, “sore and almost in rags but [they] were proud.”

So the adventurer-naturalist married and settled down in Crawfordsville, with occasional outings to botanize around Indiana with his students or stay in Kingfisher Cabin in the Pine Hills with the likes of General Lou Wallace and his son Henry or relax at home with his young family. He did much of his botany in the lab—his closet. For all his gifts, you would have to say he became, like his mentor the great Asa Gray, an academic specialist.

Founder and editor of the Indiana Botanical Gazette, President for many of those years of the Indiana Academy of Science, he was part of a nexus of many gifted naturalists who were his collaborators, rivals, and friendly enemies that together fashioned the new botany. From being a strictly descriptive taxonomist, he evolved a more complex vision that incorporated the study of a plant’s physiology, embryology and genetics. He stressed the importance of knowing a plant’s life history. In an 1891 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he defines just how large an idea his notion of a plant’s life history was:

By “life history” I do not mean simply that gross observation that watches a plant from germination to maturity…but even more that minute tracing, cell by cell, from the primitive cell to the mature plant, a work that is now conceded to reveal more of the deep secrets of affinity than any other.

He’d come a far piece from the young scientist who was doubtful of Darwin’s theory and confident in the static, enduring design of Nature. His botany, and his concept of the universe, was now dynamic, restless, and modern. God had not withdrawn Himself from Coulter, but His cosmos and His kingdom of plants had grown more mysterious in the meantime.

I leave off speaking of Coulter now, because, brilliant though he was, he had the misfortune and the questionable judgment of resigning the Rose Professorship of Geology and Natural History at Wabash to assume, in 1891, the Presidency of Indiana University.

Now I would speak of another Wabash naturalist, one of whom it was said that he had Native American—Wyandotte blood—and that, in Bert Stern’s memorable phrase, “he moved through the forest like a shadow.” This man, a sort of gentle wolf, prowled the margins of the humanities and the sciences, and saw them as one. A modern ecologist, trained at Purdue in the fifties and sixties, he was in some ways, pre-Socratic. He despised the dichotomizing mind, Aristotle’s obsession to divide and subdivide living nature. He could not be called, by any stretch, an academic specialist. Though frail health, he was hardly in mind and spirit; more like Nuttall than Asa Gray, more like Parmenides than Aristotle. He was a naturalist adventurer, an ecologist poet, who possessed a unitary consciousness: who “saw life steadily and saw it whole.”

I dropped quite a few clues, the elders among you know of whom I speak, a man who is already turning to myth in our remembrances of him, Robert Owen Petty. Regretfully, I didn’t know him. When I came to Wabash in 1987, he was retired because of illness—a lifelong struggle with Crohn’s Disease—and though Bert Stern spoke of our getting together, it never happened. I knew him glancingly through Bert’s admiring words and through his gracious brilliant wife, Anne. Thus, I know Robert Petty principally through his prose, his beautiful prose. Here he is writing with an insight Coulter would admire of the “life-histories” of flowers:

“Each flower is a story of adaptation, of meticulous fashioning for the barter of pollen—old freight of insects or wind—carried among the kindred of a species. Whatever the flower’s shape, we see it poised in a given moment of life’s happening. We are there in our own moment of knowing that life is a cycle of such happenings, a passing of days.”A few days ago, I talked with Marion Jackson, a professor emeritus at ISU, who is presently teaching at St. Mary of the Woods College. Though they are the same age, Dr. Petty was Jackson’s first professor of botany. Later, they would do research together at Allee Woods. They became fast friends.

I’d read that Dr. Petty used radioactive isotopes in his work and I was curious to learn more about that. Dr. Jackson told me that Petty used the isotopes to study the energy pathways within the forest ecosystems of Alle Woods. You must remember these were the late 50s, during the height of the Cold War, and the Atomic Energy Commission was interested in how radioactivity moved through living systems, so for purposes different tan his own, it funded his research and gave him access to these isotopes. But Petty for a while was at a loss about how to deliver these isotopes to the trees.

Then a solution presented itself almost out of the blue. Petty had suffered a serious bout with his disease and found himself waking up, groggy, on an IV drip. Still half-asleep, he whispered, “Aha!,” to himself and dozed off again. When he was better, he went out to the woods with an IV bottle and plastic tubing. He bored a hole through the bark and into the vascular tissue of a tree, slapped some aquarium cement at the juncture of the tree and tubing, filled the bottle with a solution of his isotope, and hung it from a nearby branch, putting the tree on an IV drip.

As I think about it, the story is a parable of Petty’s mind. He saw himself as a tree, he thought like a tree. Indeed, he had the poet’s metaphorical cast of mind. But, you know, I don’t think he would have approved of that last sentence. Scientists coin metaphors too. Our species is simply the semblance-seeing creature; with our minds, we place disparate things side by side and watch what happens. Sometimes nothing, sometimes a fizz, sometimes an explosion. Good scientists and good poets both know this.

But while most of us visit the “tension zone” where metaphor happens from time to time, Petty built his cabin there and loitered and watched and “invited his soul.” And he invited others—that was one of his gifts as a teacher. His courses were the ecotones between our Aristotelian Divisions—between Divisions I and III, he constructed “Biopolitics” and “Environmental Economics”; between I and II, “Bio-Religion.”

For Petty, such courses were a natural application of his pre-Socratic method. Such courses might sound to some a little light, but I doubt they were if a more conventional Petty course—Plant Taxonomy—is any indication. An alumnus, Dr. Gerald Hoeltke, noted that by mid-term he had to be able to identify over 120 trees, family, genus, and species. The final exam was a walk through Turkey Run State Park: each tree was to be identified.

Petty thought like a tree, and he felt for the trees. He knew how important they were for human thought, and how important they were for the continuance of life on this planet. Professor Jackson also told me how, on arriving on campus one day, Petty saw that the grounds folk were preparing to cut down an old tree that was starting to die at the top. That tree was the Ohio Buckeye State Tree: the largest such tree in the entire state. Bob Petty rushed over to the tree and hugged it, telling the men that they would cut that tree down over his dead body. The President of the College was called and the decision made to preserve the tree.

Petty was instrumental in establishing the Fuller Arboretum and in planting the islands of beech-maple and oak-hickory associations that characterize the native forests of Indiana. Vern Easterling tells me that Petty must have planted hundreds of beech trees in the northeastern part of the arboretum. Petty would later write that “the forest nature of our campus is an especially significant legacy, which is part of the college’s wilderness heritage.”

Perhaps you have heard, as I have, of a chill winter night an owl hooting in treetops of our arboretum and shivered at that wild sound. Whatever’s on my mind, it never fails to bring me back to my own earthliness, my being as a creature among other wild things that inhabit this planet. That forest fringe, that was another ecotone that Petty sought to keep for our College, part of his legacy.

Petty also worked assiduously to preserve the Pine Hills and Big Walnut Creek area near Greencastle from the depredations of development. A story connected with Pine Hills: One fine afternoon in the early 1960s, shortly after Pine Hills had been made a state natural area preserve, Bob Petty and a student were strolling about botanizing when they heard a rifle shot over the neighboring ridge. While the student sought cover, Petty took off running in the direction of the shot, hurling over his shoulder an explanation: the ____ was hunting illegally in the preserve.

A few minutes later, the student marveled to see Petty strolling arm-in-arm with another man, who was toting some light artillery, both men laughing and chatting amiably. Petty introduced the bewildered student to the hunter: Dick Ristine, aka Wabash Trustee and soon to be Lieutenant Governor of Indiana. Mr. Ristine pleaded that he had not heard of Pine Hills’s status as a preserve and so he was spared a citizen’s arrest by Dr. Petty. Or perhaps he was given a short sentence by the arresting officer, a lecture in natural history, and released.

So what is it that makes a man or a woman a poet, at least the sort of poet that Bob Petty was? I do think it has something to do with that Wyandotte blood, a sort of wild or atavistic strain in the human genome. I also think that this strain combined with Bob’s prescience of death, from his long mortal combat with Chron’s Disease, set him on his path toward poet hood. He lived quite naturally, and with more than a little courage, at the metaphysical edge, that tideland of the final dark water. That surely must have pierced him to the marrow and given him his uncommon sympathy for all mortal things. You feel that sympathy in much of his work. For instance, in this late poem called “Path to Garden World” from his posthumous collection, Splitting the Witness Tree:

For years we only watched what
we could not walk through
without a mower
A cycle or a scythe.
The wild briar was too thick,
New goldenrods, rose and poison ivy.
Then all the shades grew tall.

Shadows came at night
And left their tracks in paths
Like tiny traces in the weeds
Which larger shadows followed.
Then one year not long after fallow
The largest shadows left clear paths
That even we could follow
At first hunkered over—a path
like a tunnel in the cover.
“Was it for this the clay grew tall?”

Everywhere we looked were miracles—
A myriad; flowers, fruits and nesting birds,
Butterflies never seen before
In that region, wild ferns and honey bees.
Yellow jackets drilled the earth;
Hornet’s nests and paper wasps,
Spiders of all sorts and many snakes—
This web of life like something seen before!
One tree had thorns heart-deep
To fall against, tricorn and long—
Sweet bloom of Honey Locust.

Move about with care in such a garden.
This new world could be your own backyard.
To cut a tree is all that is forbidden;
The secret is the act that is not done—
A garden world before the fall
After the forgiveness.

In these difficult times, we feel further from that garden than ever; but remember “This new world could be your own backyard.” Or the waters of Babylon for that matter. The legacy of such Wabash men as John Merle Coulter and Robert Owen Petty bring that garden nearer to us. It takes human action, a man’s or a woman’s arête, your arête: a whole mind linked to a whole heart, to find and cultivate that garden. That is the work of the liberal arts, of the informed and engaged citizen, and of, I would say, the human soul in its long journey toward caritas, toward love. I’ll close with a final poem from our poet-naturalist-adventurer. Bob Petty’s family found it among his things some time after his death. It was “written in pencil on ruled yellow paper.” It’s entitled, “We Who Come”:

We who come from the earth
Must speak of the earth
Softly, gently, a quiet fierceness.
Far away in the mind
A homeland yet lives.
Silent before us
And beautiful
Into our eyes and ears
The earth does happen,
Speaks through our tongues
To wind and sky,
The great trees and after them
All flesh alive,
Familiar forms
And ancient souls
Of bone and flint.

Know my people
From where you came
And of that long far coming.
It is an awesome epic
Up from that wet dark
Into the light
With life.

Hudson is Professor of English at Wabash.