Balancing the natural and the cyber worlds
Interview by Marcy Stamper
George Wooten is a botanist and web designer and teacher. His encyclopedic lists of plants and other writings can be found on his website at www.okanogan1.com.
It’s interesting to me that you work both with computers and with plants.
I teach web publishing and I will be teaching botany in the summer. We have a lot of fun. Students learn we aren’t just a botany class, but there’s a whole political drama. They see that there’s all this depth. The biology has shifted. It used to be that habitat was assessed by biologists saying, “Yeah, I think this is good habitat.” Now it’s qualitative.
I’m primarily a botanist. I’ve learned enough about biology to be dangerous, but I don’t call myself a wildlife biologist. Habitat is still the key to wildlife biology because it’s difficult to inventory the wildlife. A lot of it still depends, and always will, on the enterprises of a botanist. And those include going out and counting how many trees are in the area.
A lot of what I have taken up now is less the realm of botany and more plant geography, which includes remote sensing and a number of other tools to basically do what humans do, which is to categorize and enumerate. It’s not why I do it – I do those things because I can get paid to go out and have a good time getting paid to count things.
A good time being out there and walking around?
Yeah, a good time from fresh air you can breathe and being outside. You’ve got to get outside. About half of what I do is at the computer, and about half of what I do is outdoors in the field. I consciously make that decision because, for my own health, it’s not a good idea to sit in front of a computer all day. Fortunately, with field science, you do have to be outside.
You don’t find the counting part tedious? You don’t lose track and have to start over again?
There are all sorts of enterprises – a lot of them don’t really involve a lot of counting, and a lot of science is simply presence or absence. You don’t actually physically count it, you just look for it and note if you see it. So that’s basically the guy who goes out and says this is a grassland or a forest – well, that’s kind of boring. So, what if this is an old-growth forest? Hey, that’s starting to sound a little more interesting. What if it’s an old-growth forest and there’s a spotted owl in the tree above you? Now we’re getting really interesting. All of a sudden, the politics come in, and you’ve got various interests in this piece of ground with the old-growth tree and the one spotted owl.
So, it’s the cultural and political context that makes it really interesting for you?
It’s the game you play in your head to make your life bearable. To me, you don’t have to make up a game, because you are having fun if you’re out there. But typically what agencies want is a specific category that is part of their management plan. They want to know how many trees there are over 18 inches that don’t have a defect that can be put on a truck, or that need to be thinned to reduce the fire hazard.
Often the botanist will be charged with assuring that there are no rare plants. About 10 years ago I was a botanist for the Forest Service, and that’s really what we did. There is a cute little gentian up in Horseshoe Basin that only occurs in one place in the western U.S. So we observe and write that down. I tell my students the most important thing is taking clear, useful notes. Even somebody who isn’t a scientist will become a scientist through that exercise.
I’ve met biologists who simply had a list of plants to find, and they’ve got a mental picture. Well, they’re not going to find anything new, they’re only going to find ones that are in the box. So, they turn in a report – boxes are all empty – so it’s OK to log, bulldoze, whatever. Well, that’s not good enough, really, in my opinion. I pride myself on trying to take good notes and it has paid off in a number of instances.
I’m picturing the size of Horseshoe Basin – where do you have to walk to stumble upon this little gentian?
There are key indicators that you begin to recognize, but nobody would have ever expected that the favorite habitat for that little gentian was old, abandoned salt licks that the sheep herders had left behind.
How does it work when you are hired to do these surveys?
I worked with State Parks last year and they just recently acquired Palouse Falls State Park. This is gorgeous. There were no guardrails, one or two picnic tables. If you felt like rappelling down the edges, nobody was there to tell you that that was a bad idea. And I asked the person, since I’m supposed to survey this whole park, “How do I get to the other side?” and they said, “We don’t know, we’ve never been there.” That sounds like a fun adventure. Sometimes it’s a reconnaissance – you’re building a foundation for some future plan.
These detailed lists of plants on your website run to hundreds of pages – they seem like somebody’s life’s work.
Well, some are pretty intense. Some are life’s work. If I’m not paid to actually develop a product, like a list of all the plants that occur in Okanogan County, I just do it. It’s more of a labor of love.
Did you always want to be a botanist?
I’m a biochemist, and I find that to be a really dry science. Then I went to graduate school and did what I really wanted to do, which was to study botany. I ended up becoming very successful at fairs, selling herbs. Then life got complicated and I ended up here.
All that botanical knowledge, all that biochemistry – it came to good use. I became a perfumer. I’d have to deal with these Jamaican ladies in the Florida Keys – that’s where a lot of our perfume comes from. There’s a lot of lore mixed with science, and voodoo thrown in for good measure. One house was full of plants drying, from top to bottom. And in the basement, it was like a medieval lab.
When I came out here, I did run a perfume booth in the Omak Park. But in this climate, with 2- to 10-percent humidity, the expensive floral essences – you open the bottle and they’re gone and, what’s more, your perfume stinks. So that’s when I transitioned more into botany and did a lot of rare plant surveys for the Forest Service.
Every person who works for the government needs to have two things in his mind: 1) he was hired to count beans, and 2) – and this is more important – he’s a human being first and foremost and he needs to never forget his humanity. I see these ethics classes put on by agencies, but it isn’t really about ethics; it’s about how not to get the company in trouble. What ethics is about is morals and culture and it goes beyond your job, and if you narrow that down, you’re being unethical.
How did you come to this area?
Well, actually my mom lived here when she was 2 years old – she’s a Wenatchee gal – and she moved to the Chiliwist when my dad retired. He went into ranching. I came out here probably 15 years afterwards. We had some neighbors who were very concerned about the environment, and I became the go-between for my dad’s operation. My job was to go over there and read botany poems to the neighbor lady, and it actually did calm her down a bit.
That all helped me in my present job, because what I really do a lot now – I really like going into a room with cantankerous farmers, mixed with a few bean-counting bureaucrats and a couple of fluffy-tailed BMW drivers. I love it. That is the perfect set-up – that’s the society we live in. The challenge is – can you make it work? Often my goal at a meeting is to go in there and just make one bridge, just try to make one person see one point of view, and learn one new thing for myself as well. Otherwise, going to meetings wouldn’t be as fun as just going outside.
On some level, the world of computers and the world of plants seem completely at odds with one another.
Computers are great – they can tell you where to take a good vacation – find a place that doesn’t have weeds, find a place with cliffs.
There are a huge number of people who believe that the computer can be a tool for education and positive cultural enlightenment. One of the ways to make that possible is to make them accessible to people who are currently not tech-savvy – who are kind of computer-phobic. From what I can see, people have good reason to be phobic. The acid test is, can my mom do this by herself? The goal, I think, is to do that – to use computers as a social-networking tool.