Why Awkward? Why Botany? Why Now?

Have you ever wondered why this blog is called Awkward Botany? I have. Naming things can be difficult, and there are days that I question whether Awkward Botany was the right choice and if instead another name would have been more appropriate. Most days I am happy with the name, but I also perceive that there might be questions about where it came from and what it means. Or maybe no one cares? Either way, I figured I would start the year off by putting this out there. It may or may not be of interest to anyone, but so be it. Rest assured that regular programming will resume shortly.

Why Awkward?

Awkward is a word that best describes my general state of being. I am uncomfortable in virtually all social situations. The degree to which discomfort manifests itself varies depending on the circumstances, but it is always there. Anxious is another fitting word to describe me. On the surface I may appear calm and collected, but my mind is constantly racing. It’s hard to relax.

I am a high level introvert, and there was a time when this really bothered me. I didn’t like feeling so shy, nervous, and bumbling. I didn’t like that my voice got shaky every time I talked in front of a group of two or more people (no matter how well I knew them). I wanted to be able to make a phone call or start up a conversation without first having to rehearse what I was going to say a dozen times in my head. I envied people who could socialize so freely and who could dance like no one was watching even when plenty of people were. I saw my shell as a curse and thought I was defective because of it.

These feelings haven’t gone away, but they have waned. In my adult years I have grown to accept, even embrace, my awkwardness and introversion. I’m not particularly thrilled about being this way, but I find ways to celebrate it. Claiming the awkward title is one way that I do that. It is nothing to be ashamed of, despite at times feeling shamed for it. Just acknowledging that fact makes tiptoeing out of my comfort zone that much easier.

Awkward can also mean amateurish or inexpert. I am a degree holding and professional horticulturist and I have taken a number of graduate level plant science courses, but I certainly don’t claim to be an expert botanist. I am passionate about botany, and I love to study and explore it, but I am not on the same level as professional botanists. I could be someday, but that isn’t really the point. I would rather illuminate the amateur aspect, the part an enthusiast can play, the role of the citizen scientist…or citizen botanist in this case. The point being that anyone can join in the conversation regardless of their credentials; all that is required is passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn (and to admit when you’re wrong). That is why I have settled on the tagline, “citizen botany for the phytocurious.” Perhaps this approach will inspire other awkward entities to emerge, like awkward history, awkward herpetology, awkward astronomy, awkward linguistics… Just a thought.

Why Botany?

I am unapologetically obsessed with plants. It is not something I fully realized about myself until I was in my twenties; still it feels like it must be in my DNA. I spend significant portions of each day thinking about plants, reading about plants, writing about plants, and working with plants. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am this taken by plants, then why not botany?

But why should people care about plants? Those who already find themselves fascinated by them don’t really need an answer to this question, and the space it would take to enumerate the myriad reasons why plants matter is more than I want to take up in a single post. Suffice it to say that if plants were not around, we would not be around. And if the vital functions of plants don’t convince you to care, just imagine a world without green things and ask yourself if that’s a world you’d want to live in. Dr. Chris Martine, a professor of botany at Bucknell University, defends botany famously in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post last summer.

Why Now?

This is a nebulous question, and I could take it in several directions. To simplify things I will address this line of inquiry: why am I blogging now, rather than expressing myself using some other medium (or none at all)?

When I was in the 7th grade, I discovered that I like to write. It feels wired into my DNA the same way my interest in plants does. I have been writing regularly ever since. At first it was just poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Then when I was in my teenage years, I discovered punk rock and along with that fanzines, or zines for short. I had been envisioning something similar to zines before I knew about them, so once I came across them, I knew that I had to make one. Over the course of about 17 years, I produced at least 66 zines under 9 different titles. My two main titles were Elephant Mess and The Juniper. While I haven’t completely given up on zine writing, I have been on hiatus for about two years now.

juniper 16_edit 2

My hiatus is largely due to the expense of doing zines (photocopies, postage, office supplies, etc.) and the markedly reduced interest in them (a PO Box full of mail used to be a fairly common sight for me; now it never happens). So I blog instead. I hesitate to compare blogs to zines, though. For a seasoned zinester like me, that feels blasphemous. But there are clearly some similarities, and now that the internet has become nearly ubiquitous, for someone who likes to write and publish content regularly, blogs seem like the way to go.

But I don’t see this blog as the end goal either. I love to write, and I have long wanted to be a writer. Maintaining a blog doesn’t necessarily mean I’m on the road to a successful writing career, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For now, Awkward Botany is where I hang my hat, and I am more than happy to call it home.

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Hundreds of Japanese Plants Threatened with Extinction

Life has existed on earth for at least 3.5 billion years, and during that time there have been five mass extinctions. Currently, we are in the middle of a sixth one. The major difference between the current extinction event and others is that this one is largely human caused, which is pretty upsetting. However, knowing that detail has its upside: if humans are the drivers of this phenomenon, we can also be the ones to put on the brakes.

Biologists have spent the last several decades tracking the current mass extinction, endeavoring to come up with a list of species that have the greatest risks of extinction, as well as lists of species that are at less of a risk, etc. The problem is that factors leading up to extinctions are diverse, and available data for making predictions is lacking, especially temporal data. Recognizing this information gap, researchers in Japan set out to better determine the extinction risk of Japanese flora. Using data from surveys done by lay botanists in 1994-95 and 2003-04, they were able to calculate a trend which indicated that, under current circumstances, between 370 and 561 plant species in Japan will go extinct within the next 100 years.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The methods for this study, as described in the findings which appeared last month in PLOS ONE, involved dividing Japan into 3574 sections measuring around 100 square kilometers each and covering about 80% of the country. More than 500 lay botanists tallied the numbers of species that were found in each section during the two time periods. 1735 taxa were recorded, and out of those, 1618 were considered quantifiable and used in the analysis.

Japan is home to a recorded 7087 vascular plant taxa. Historically, the extinction rate of plant taxa in Japan has been around 0.01% per year. According to this study, over the next 100 years the extinction rate will rise to between 0.05 and 0.08% per year. Researchers are organizing a third census in the near future in order to monitor the actual extinction rate and better determine the accuracy of this prediction.

Data collected in these censuses was also used to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas and determine the need for improvements and expansions. Natural parks cover 14.3% of Japan, but only about half of that area is regulated for biodiversity conservation. The researchers found that protected areas do help to reduce the risk of extinctions, but that their effectiveness is far from optimum and that even expanding protected areas to cover at least 17% of the nation (a target set at the recent Convention on Biological Diversity) would not effectively gaurd threatened plant species from extinction.

In their conclusion, the researchers advise not only to expand protected areas but to improve the “conservation effectiveness” of them, and “to improve the effectiveness of them, we need to know the types of pressures causing population decline in the areas.” They go on to list a few of these pressures, including land development and recreational overuse, and suggest that management schemes should be developed to focus on specific pressures.

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit: eol.org)

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit: eol.org)

One thing I found very interesting and encouraging about this study was the recruitment of lay botanists in collecting data. As stated in the findings, “Monitoring data collected by the public can play an essential role in assessing biodiversity.” I am excited by the growing citizen science movement and hope to see it continue to expand as more and more people become interested in science and eager to add to this body of knowledge. In fact, I consider the term “awkward botany” to be synonymous with citizen, lay, and amateur botany. That is precisely why I chose it as the title for my blog. So, in short, expect more posts involving citizen science in the future.

You can read more about this study on John Platt’s blog Extinction Countdown at Scientific American.