Have I told you my Swink & Wilhelm story? It begins in a wonderful little bookstore in a nature center in Peoria. This was the gathering place for all of us volunteers embarking on a new venture~habitat restoration! Professional ecologists had their offices upstairs, and they would come down to mingle with us. It felt wonderful to be included, and treated as colleagues.
One day there was a buzz about a book that had “finally” come in. “Plants of the Chicagoland Region”, by Swink & Wilhelm. I forget which edition. Wow! I thought. I love books…but this thing is a monster. If I were of a technical nature I would now go measure and weigh it but I’m an artist so I’ll just say it is about 4″ thick, weighs a ton and costs a fortune. When I peeked inside its cover, I confess I was disappointed. No pictures! Keys, and brief descriptions~frankly, it looked indecipherable to me. I put it out of my mind at the time, little suspecting what a talisman it would become for me. Back then our focus was mostly on habitat, and we picked up plant ID on the fly but it wasn’t our focus.
A move to the northeastern corner of Illinois and a botany class later, things changed. Our wonderful instructor, and my dear friend, would exhort us to read our Swink & Wilhelm. We all laughed. It was a joke, right? And yet, something was making my fingers tingle. I looked again, and realized, it is like a puzzle, and she’d given us the first few pieces. For each plant, the authors gave a list of companions to look for. If you know one or two, you can begin to intuit another. And another. Suddenly it felt like it does when a camera lens pops things into focus. I could “see” the plant community a plant lived in, the soil conditions, etc, just by what was listed to grow with it. It was like a giant orienteering game! That book has been directing my footsteps ever since. I find the focus on my inner camera lens switching from wide-angle to take in the lay of the land to close-up to count stamens. Forest for the trees, flowers for the prairie, and back again. Kind of dizzying but exciting, too.
Journeys encompass more than one dimension, of course. You are already familiar with my struggle with myself over whether I am more scientist or more artist. It is a real relief to be able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for exactly what you are. And know that it is enough. While I’ve hiked over dunes and under oaks and splashed through wetlands, looking for the “next” one to draw, I’ve learned a great deal about myself as well.
But I can’t wait to see what the next plant will be….