The day of my Damascus Road switch to botany-believer took place in my senior year of zoological purity. A couple of car-loads of us from the Zoo (pronounced ZOH as in TOE)Â department were field-tripping somewhere – near Lochapoka, Notasulga or any one of a dozen other south Alabama cotton-patch ghettos–on a sweltering afternoon field trip in a swamp.
We were more than an hour from campus, stalking an obscure water snake the prof needed so he could add a dot on a range map in his soon-to-be-published herpetology book. We slogged along in tepid, tea-colored, knee-deep water to find the occasional elevated “hammock” and there on relatively dry land, turn logs with our potato rakes, avoid water moccasins, and ferret out the reptile of focus.
Now my professor was a real man, make no mistake about that–a field biologist and scholar for whom I had the utmost admiration. I’d once watched him blindly reach into a pillowcase full of student-collected snakes, flinch almost imperceptibly as the writhing inhabitants struck at his hand. (He attempted such a thing often, and only after being assured by lightly-informed novice students like me that there was nothing poisonous inside –imagine the blind and often baseless trust this took!) to identify the snakes inside by their feel, size and temperament alone.
Then, this same macho professor, on this life-altering field trip I so clearly recall, got into a heated argument with a doctoral student member of our entourage about whether a certain genus of shrub belonged to one or another species based on arcane details of the length of their stamens and shape of the hairs on their stems or some-such. I was confounded: my professor was a BoZo–a chimera–part zoologist, and (gasp!) part botanist. He knew his plants most expertly and professed this openly before us without apology.