Since leaving the botanical buffet of Shennongjia- indeed one of the most diverse floras our consortium has ever experienced, there had been, as expected, more time getting toasted with government officials than meaningful time in the field. Frustratingly, the weather- virtually unworkable during the most floristically opulent part of our trip- was now close to perfection. Our second to the last day of collection work had taken us up a mostly denuded mountain 2.5 hours from our hotel on roads under construction to a research facility devoted to medicinal plants. After lunch, we worked down slope along the remaining remnants of forest, and though some important collections were made (Rhododendron auriculatum, Lindera cheinii, Disporum cantoniense., et al), there remained no dubiety that our collective spirits were punctured. And though dramatic in silhouette against a scuttling sun, large thunderheads to the west heralded another change in the weather due in that evening.
Awakened the following morning at 5 am by someone’s attempt to repair the hotel’s hot water heater with a jackhammer (no, it was not a successful essay), and during considerable discussion over breakfast regarding possibly returning to Wuhan a day early, we ultimately donned our raingear and boarded our transport.
First of a few flashbacks; very Hollywood, I think.
Fade in. It is October, 2004 (it says this in Chinese subtitles as well). Ozzie, Scott and Dan (Dan is portrayed by George Clooney) are hiking in northeastern Sichuan where we witness a few tall but unmistakable specimens of Acer griseum, that of the paperbark maple. No seeds were present though scion wood of a small seedling was successfully returned and grafted.
Fast Forward, now October 2014. Andrew, Scott, Ozzie. Dan and Donglin are in van with windows smoggier than a winter’s day in Chengdu. Dan is portrayed by Bruce Willis. It is our first day in Shennongjia and those with views outside shout an arousing observation; we are amongst Acer griseum. After piling from the car, in pouring rain, our Acer griseum genetically transmute to Betula utilis var utilis.
Ok, so flashbacks can be a bit overused, so we will probably have to go real time for a bit. I am seeing someone along the lines of Wally Shawn though he has an undeniable propensity of being killed off in his movies long before the rolling credits, and it would be a stretch even for Hollywood to kill the poor guy off by maple research. None-the-less, he explains in extremely poorly written dialogue, dumbed down to the level of a 10 year old Chinese student i.e. 5th year post doc from the States, that Acer griseum, as we know it in cultivation in North America, probably arises from only a few clones- perhaps even a single clone- collected by Ernest Wilson over a century ago. It is certainly the most beautiful of the maples, with shards of crisped skin the color of pellucid copper and trifoliate leaves that transmute to seductive hues of distinctive orange-red in autumn. If trees have discernible lines of royalty, Acer griseum is Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Nancy Reagan all rolled into one. I have seen it grown to perfection in Boston, Atlanta and at a McDonald’s landscape in Juneau, Alaska (perhaps this is where Wally Shawn dies?).
Oh Sweet Lord, another flashback. This is not going to go over well with the critics, but the American public seems so easy to please. On October 28th, we were hosted by the Wuhan Forestry Department to see the original Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), discovered here as an ‘extinct’ species in 1945. Bruce Willis begins drinking before the formal toasts are made. We express interest in seeing Acer griseum in situ and sites were suggested, though we fully realize that botanical sites in China are as highly transparent as the windows on our fog covered van.
So, here we are in real time again. Rain is pelting the window and my poll numbers are dropping faster than Christie’s during the lane closures. We are led to a farmers ‘nursery;’ he has recently dug numerous very dead Acer flabellatum for sale plus a mostly dead Stewartia rostrata that appears mostly like a very dead Acer griseum. I mentally prepare for a very quiet cocktail hour in our room that evening over our collective shares of antibiotics, Ibuprofen and the five grams of Chivas I had successfully watered down the night before.
Here, enter Donglin. He is played by the sweetest, gentlest Chinese America who has ever lived. He can play himself. “We want a tree that has bark like your Stewartia but has three leaves!” Our farmer knows. Within minutes, he is on his bike, shrouded by a makeshift poncho and we followed in the comfort of our transport; always doubt. Doubt in botany is the master of ceremonies; it is the ringleader, the pimp, the lecher, the mountebank. It is our respect for the local knowledge that is always lampooned.
We were led across fields of cabbage and corn and up onto rocky ledges of karst. On three of these, grew sensational species of Acer griseum. Scott and I took the higher route to find the highest, most unlikely specimen, encumbered with seed. Andrew soon made his way up slope and held my belt as I leaned over the ridge to shake the branches to release its progeny. Scott collected as they fell.
The rain fell in biblical proportions and those below waited patiently, perhaps too patiently, as we performed our work for the next hour. Soon enough we were reunited, in the local farmhouse, drinking hot tea, crowned by smoked hocks of ham that looked somewhat like Yule logs, all laughing in a language that is common among all of us.
Fade out. Wally Shawn dies by rushing our newly collected seed across a small street in lower Manhattan, not seeing that the lights have changed.