As I prepare for the attendees to arrive for one of Tyler’s Saturday Botany walks, I think through some areas we might visit to showcase some of the interesting plants that have recently begun to flower. I have quite a few options, but I like to make my final decision based on the group joining me. Will they be new to Tyler, or some of the regulars? Plant novices or plant lovers? In order to provide the audience with the best experience, I’ll adjust my plans based on who joins the group.
A few people showed up, then a couple more. I’ve seen them before, so I’m mentally finalizing my tour route as we greet each other. Then a man and a woman join us. He’s holding a white cane, and she seems to be guiding him to our group. Now I’m thinking I may need to alter my plan. They introduce themselves as Steve and Jean, and Jean lets me know that Steve works with plants, and she is his interpreter helping him to get the most out of his visit. He is both blind and deaf, and they will be using a tactile sign language to translate and communicate, with her hand in the palm of his hand.
Now I’m really wondering what to do for the next two hours. The only thing I can think of is to head to the Fragrant Garden by the Barn. There I know we will find scented herbs, and a variety of leaf textures. I talk as we walk, but my mind is racing and I admit to being a bit nervous. Can I do this tour and provide everyone with the experience they are expecting? We enter the garden and talk about the first plant. After a minute, I asked Jean if either of them would like to hold one of the fuzzy leaves. She preps Steve before I place a leaf in his hand. Steve smiles as he gently rubs the leaf and breaths in its scent. Jean shares their conversation as we move down the garden path.
A sweetly scented flower from a shrub is next, then a seed head from a spent blossom. Lavender and rosemary follow. It amazes the group how easily we begin to communicate. On down the row we go, with others beginning to share items they think would interest Steve. We all feel the edges of the leaves – smooth or serrate, then we feel the veins and leaf shape, everyone with their eyes closed. We feel the texture on our cheeks, then repeatedly inhale the scent of nature. Concentrating on smell and touch has all of us enjoying a new way to learn and share, a new way to relate to strangers with a common interest.
We leave the Fragrant Garden, and walk across the Barn Field to visit Corky, up near Painter Road. This sweet gum tree is officially called Liquidamber styraciflua ‘Corky’, and it is well known for the pronounced wing-like protrusions on its twigs and branches which resemble large pieces of cork. The contrast to the other nearby sweet gum trees is striking, as we touch their smooth branches. We feel the sweet gum seed pods underfoot. I encourage the group to return in October, as Corky is the best Halloween tree.
We cross the bridge over Rocky Run and turn right towards the Painter era white oaks (Quercus alba). I think of these trees as grandparents, craggy and old, but full of wisdom. As we walk up to the larger tree, we are careful not to trip on it’s large roots as they radiate from the trunk. Steve wants to touch the tree so we safely guide him up to stand on the roots at the base. He wraps his arms around the tree, and begins to sense its size. He motions for the rest of us join him, and it takes all of our outstretched arms to encircle the tree. Steve asks how many people are there and he is amazed. He gets his phone out, and asks Jean to take his picture in front of this tree that he so admires. Steve quickly texts his father a picture of himself standing in front of this monster sized tree. Steve looks so small by the trunk and his excitement is palpable.
Now I know we can continue with the rest of the Botany Walk without me worrying about how to guide this group. We are all students, and we are all teachers, sharing and learning together.
I will always remember this walk with these visitors to Tyler. The experience was enlightening as we involved our senses of smell and touch, even noting the feel of the ground beneath us, expanding our sensitivity. Steve’s presence allowed us to think and feel differently, giving us a new perspective on observing nature and a chance to put others before ourselves. Now, as I pass by the old oak trees, I recall our outstretched arms embracing the tree, uniting ourselves while hugging these wise old grandparents.