Plants and Places

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Andrew Hipp


"And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. And this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung--that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself--until at last he comes to know what beauty is." -- Diotima, in Plato's Symposium 211b-c, translation by Michael Joyce


I don't really have a love story about plants. There are, however, many moments I cherish that are connected with plants. The first, I think, are prowls I took by the Menominee River in Wauwatosa when I was nine or ten years old. I would get up early in the morning and bike through suburban streets to a storm sewer outlet that was vomiting into a river we all believed would eat the skin off our feet if we stepped into it. Was it really polluted so badly? Probably not. In either case, when I was there and most of the neighborhood was still sleeping, I was as free as a person could hope to be. I don't suspect that I could at that age have distinguished an oak from a maple, and I frankly had no interest. But the love of this particular place I came to find out was a love of particular places in general, a love perhaps of knowing that each one is a place of my own. As I learned particular plants, I would suddenly see them everywhere, and the individual places and moments of my life came to be associated with plants I found there.

There were the spruces beside my tarp in the Rattlesnake Wilderness outside of Missoula the summer I was 20. I was on my own, and hardly into the wilderness, but I didn't see a soul and I felt I could be at the edge of the world. The rain that night didn't stop, and I wrote letters home until I fell asleep. I rose to a clear sky the next morning, and the tips of the spruce branches were bejeweled with rainwater. I walked from tree to tree, sipping water from between the needles until I was no longer thirsty.

There was the abundant wild ginger in Wyalusing State Park when I was 22. I knew I shouldn't pull it up, but I pulled a few, just partly, so I could get a section of rhizome to sauté in oil that I poured over pasta. It hardly tasted of anything, but the odor was worth the price of admission.

There was the wild strawberry on Outer Island the summer I was 23, as I was scrambling up a bluff in search of the common butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris. I found only one berry. It was perfect. A few minutes later, on the same bluff, was the butterwort.

In northwestern Ohio, my wife Rachel and I camped in a backyard where there was an abandoned concrete silo whose roof had long since rotted or blown off. We were 27, biking through the upper Midwest for a few weeks, sleeping where we could, seeing everything. Inside the door was an impromptu garden of ferns and mosses in the shade and cool, a few meters of mesic forest hiding in the dry Ohio landscape. A few years later, in upstate New York, during a family reunion when Rachel and I were 29, I found a patch of woods filled with broad beech fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera). I think about it frequently.

When I was 15, I awoke in the middle of the night in a shelter I'd made in the woods with a group of Boy Scouts I was teaching about wilderness survival. There beside my cheek was a glowing piece of bark, riddled with luminescent fungus. I placed it the pocket of my sweatshirt and fell back asleep. When I woke up the morning, I studied it closely. It didn't look like anything special, but I knew it was.

There were so many plants in the UW Madison Arboretum during the years that I was a ranger. The gravelly moraine overlooking Greene Prairie was thick with Pasque flowers and Carex siccata, and when I think of them I think too of the woodcocks spinning overhead through the month of March just as Arcturus would start shining in the south. There was a red oak in Gallistel Woods whose bark had peeled off, revealing a reticulum of Armillaria rhizomorphs. There was another red oak in Wingra Woods--there were of course so many red oaks in Wingra Woods. In a windstorm it cracked loudly and slowly fell, back arched like a dancer dropping into the arms of her partner, hitting the ground and bouncing before it came to rest. Did this moment last one second? Ten? I couldn't tell you. This was 20 years ago, and it's still clear in my mind.

I love all these times and places and the plants that were there with me. I feel so grateful for this cacophony of moments I've been given and the individual plants that came along with them. I love the funny places they grow, the seedlings sprawling underneath the edges of fallen logs, the hollows where Dutchman's breeches run amok, the burned woods where mosses recolonize cinder piles and sedges poke out from burned-out hummocks. When I am wandering around with a notebook in my hand, finding plants in their goofy, individual places, doing their funny things, I'm about as happy as a person could hope to be.


Andrew Hipp is a naturalist who got interested in evolutionary biology by way of sedges. He actually wrote the book about sedges, and Rachel Davis (Rachel from the stories above), painted them.

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