We’re having this conversation somewhere in the western Serengeti. The “first one” was that visit to the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, and the fulfillment of Karen’s lifelong dream of going to Africa. “This one” is the tourist safari to Tanzania, with stops in several national parks, including the Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti. It’s also an opportunity to spend somewhere around $25,000 so that I can stand, in silence, re-living the past two million years of human evolution, on the rim of Olduvai Gorge. In her childhood dream, Karen meets the Maasai; on John’s trip, she dances with the Maasai women then goes into one of their houses with a man dressed in traditional shúkà, but with a smart phone clipped to his waist. In her childhood dream, she sees a lion, a real, live, lion, her birth sign; on John’s trip she sees dozens, one of them close enough to touch, so close, in fact, that she can see his bloody front paw and four really nice, bloated, ticks attached to his ear. She resists the temptation to reach out the Land Cruiser window and pet it, but back home, two weeks later she’s still talking about that possibility.
On the “first one,” she marvels at the beauty of everything, especially the people she encounters, including that small girl in Zambia’s Simoonga Village who took her hand the minute we walked through the entrance, a gap in the living wall of giant Euphorbia tirucalli, known in American nurseries as the pencil tree, and refused to let go through our entire visit, never speaking, periodically digging around in her pocket for some kind of a snack—offered but politely declined—and at the end of our walk, waving goodbye. We introduce ourselves to some villagers, one of them named “Theresa.” My sister is named Teresa, so I tell Theresa that I have a sister with her same name and ask if I can take her picture; she smiles and says “yes.” Later, I send Theresa’s picture to Teresa, who responds “she’s beautiful.” Back home, we go to a local nursery where I buy Karen a specimen of Euphorbia tirucalli, my solution the problem of being smart enough not to reach out that window and pet the lion with ticks in his ear.
This chain of events is typical of those experienced by a semi-educated tourist. The scientific name is part of the deal; nearly a year later, in the middle of an American Great Plains winter, Karen buys a traditional Christmas plant, Euphorbia pulcherrima, the familiar poinsettia. Botanists put both of these plant species, one native to Africa, the other to Mexico, in the same genus, Euphorbia, and in the family Euphorbiaceae, a group that is widely distributed, especially in the tropics. The family includes about 7,500 species, over 2000 of which are placed in the genus Euphorbia. Karen notes the scientific name and the origin of this poinsettia plant, manipulated by growers for the express purpose of celebrating a religious holiday; after all, she’s been married to a biologist for half a century, so scientific names are part of the household conversation. In Tanzania, however, our driver, Prosper Haule, breaks off a small Euphorbia tirucalli twig and explains traditional medicine uses of the gummy white fluid oozing out. I ask whether it really works to cure cancer; Prosper just smiles.
That single word, Euphorbia, also is used in the vernacular—“euphorbia”—by everyone who cultivates houseplants seriously. A Google search, using the phrase “number of commercial nurseries in the United States” produces 28,100,000 hits in half a second. A lot of people love and care for their house plants as if they were family members. The italics—Euphorbia—along with what those italics signify, and the geographical information readily available on Wikipedia, are what separate regular tourists from semi-educated ones. Sorry; I wish the education issue, and the behavior it produces, could be stated a little more gracefully, but it cannot. Even those other italicized words—tirucalli and pulcherrima—known in the scientist’s jargon as “specific epithets,” one African, one Mexican, stick in my mind. I wonder what they mean, who chose them to designate a particular kind of Euphorbia, when that choice was made, and whether molecular biologists have told us something about those plants that makes their names invalid. I make a mental note to find out the answers to those questions later, back home, when I have access to a real library.
“Euphorbia candelabrum,” says Prosper. American tourists may be afraid of scientific names, but our driver is not. We’ve stopped at an Arusha National Park rest area. I take photographs of a truly gigantic, symmetrical, plant, towering above the surrounding acacias. Why do I take pictures of plants when I’m really interested in animals? That’s a good question, with only one answer, having to do with academic politics at a large university out in the Great Plains of America. One time, many years ago, some ornery people in my department decided that the course I taught, and loved dearly—Introductory Zoology—was old fashioned and needed to be replaced with a modern course, something named Biodiversity. One of the ornery ones had written a textbook by that name—Biodiversity. Evidently use of that book, declined by major publishers at the time, was part of the stimulus for this petty academic politics scenario.
I lost the vote, but immediately demanded to teach the spring semester of Biodiversity. Quickly thereafter, I brought home a couple of microscopes then went out into our back yard, dug up one of Karen’s geraniums, and started studying plants, an activity that I’d purposely avoided for the first fifty years of my life. Now, twenty years later, standing in Arusha National Park, I’m reviewing that whole part of my professional career and wishing that I had been to Africa before tackling a subject as open-ended, as vulnerable to subversion, as “biodiversity.” If I could turn back the clock, with my present camera, I’d ask Prosper to stand beside that E. candelabrum and deliver an impromptu lecture which, later, I’d convert into a ten minute video for my class of 250 first year students. His voice—deep, gentle, authoritarian, and validating a fundamental interest in traditional biology in a way that I could never do.