INTERVIEWEE: Bill Carr (BC)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: November 14, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
SOURCE MEDIA: HD video
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s November 14, 2018. We’re at the Ladybird Johnson National Wildflower Center, and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Bill Carr, who’s a noted botanist in Texas and beyond, who has worked for the Texas Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, for his own consulting firm called Aca—Acme Botanical Services, and is—is very knowledgeable about all the natural systems plants in Texas. And—and we have very good luck to be talking to you today. Thank you.
BC: Thank you, David.
DT: So we usually start these interviews by just asking if there might be some starting point for your interest in the natural world and, in your case, it’s plants, in particular?
BC: Well it was a—it was a roundabout process actually. I grew up in northeastern Ohio and I went through school at the Ohio State University, beginning in 1973, as a French major because French was what I was good at in high school. That major lasted about a year. After we got through all the grammar and things that I enjoyed and had to start reading existentialism, I sort of lost interest in—in French. And actually took a year off and hitchhiked around the country. And when I came back, I decided to—my other interest at that time was geology, so I went back as a geology major.
And then that led to having to get life science credits to complete that—the BS in Geology. And it turns out that Ohio State has a research facility on a little, tiny island in the middle of Lake Erie called Stone Lab. And I went to Stone Lab for five weeks in the summer of ’76, I believe it was. Maybe I ma—I think that’s right. And I took Field Botany and Field Entomology. And I wr—really enjoyed Field Botany because that’s where I learned how to use keys to identify plants, books that have descriptions of plants and you run through this process of making choices and going through this step-wise process that leads to the name of a plant.
And we had to learn all the—all the detailed botanical terminology and—and put it to use right then and there. And—and it just—I had no idea that you could use a book without pictures to identify plants. That just fascinated me.
DT: Well while we’re on this, I—I think that—that one of the—I guess the recurring thing in your life has been identifying plants. And maybe you can talk about this sort of protocol of using the key to try to put a name with a plant that you might find in—in the natural world.
BC: Keys are still important, even today. When I started this process, there were—there was no digital technology, there was no internet, none of those shortcuts that we have today where you could just cruise the internet and look for pictures of something that looks like what you’re looking at. But even now, there’s—there—that—the keying process is important because it makes you look really closely at all the details of a plant and it makes you overlook thing—or makes you focus on things that you would have overlooked if you were just going from pictures alone.
So it’s still—it’s still a—a good, rigorous process for get—coming to the right conclusion about a plant’s identity.
DT: And—and so I—I guess the keys might ask you to make choices about what kind of flower or seed or stem or leaf, I mean, is it—is that what you’d be looking at?
BC: Yeah, or even more focused on little tiny hairs or—or ornamentation on a seed and things like that that you just don’t see in—in digital imagery—typical digital imagery. So it’s still—it’s still really important even today.
DT: And so du—during this summer, you—you took a lot of pleasure out of following these—these keys and—and identifying plants and thought this was worth maybe looking into further?
BC: Um-hm [yes]. But actually I’d—I detoured a little bit because I also took Field Entomology and I came from the Stone Lab, I wanted to be an entomologist. But the—the weirdest thing happened because I had to have financial support when I went back to school and I always got a work study job. So I went back to the main campus in Columbus that—that fall and I went into the Work Study Office and I said, “Do you have any openings in entomology?” The guy behind the desk goes, “An—an—anthropology?”
And—and I—I said, “No, entomology. It’s the study of insects.” And he kept looking at me like you mean anthropology. No, it’s—so he—he walked off, went behind this wall, came back five seconds later, and said that there were no openings in entomology. And—and I know he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. But the good thing was that my second choice was botany and the opening in Work Study for a botanist in the Botany Department was with the guy I worked with at Stone Lab—my—my teacher at Stone Lab, Dr. Ronald Stuckey.
And so that’s when I really started to learn about plants was being a work study student for him for three years because I’ve learned a—his interests were nomenclature, taxonomy, history of botany, and all of these—all—all of hin—his interests became my interests that way. So I just—I kind of like inherited his interests. It was really—really an important relationship.
DT: Well while we’re talking about Dr. Stuckey, I think you mentioned that—that one of his interests was the history of botany. Do you think that there is some founding fathers or mothers of botany that, you know, that there’s some sort of lineage that you could describe briefly about—about sort of major figures in botany over the years?
BC: Yeah, but I’m probably not—it’s not top in my memory right now. But also, I mean, what I think ab—about a lot, in terms of historical botany in Texas, are the stories behind all the major collectors like the Ferdinand Lindheimer story, which is just fascinating to me because he was—he was the—a German immigrant and he was—was in Houston for a few years and then ended up being one of the pioneer Germans to settle the New Braunfels area. And he was working for Georg Engelmann, another German, who was living comfortably in St. Louis at what is now the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
But Lindheimer was working in the—in—on the frontier. No botanist—no serious bos—botanist had ever worked on the Edwards Plateau before. So he was collecting all these things that were new to science and struggling to do it. I mean, it was—he was struggling to make a living, struggling to find food. Just—and then he would make specimens and ship them to—to Engelmann in St. Louis. And Engelmann described a lot of the stuff that he—that Lindheimer collected as new to science. Some others he shipped off to Asa Gray in Boston.
And Gray described a lot of the things that Lindheimer found. And—and that’s why so many of the plants that are endemic to the Edwards Plateau bear Lindheimer’s name.
DT: Or Engel—I’m thinking of Engelmann’s Daisy. Is that related or—?
BC: Well that—that’s Georg Engelmann was the guy that worked on Lindheimer’s plants from the safety of—of St. Louis. And there—there’s a excellent biography of—of Lindheimer. It’s really fascinating reading and it has some really interesting illustrations. The—the author was able to read Lindheimer’s handwriting. It’s in a German script that she knows. She knew it. She studied it. So that was why she was able to do the book. And she included a—a letter that he’d written to—to Engelmann on a, I don’t know, 8×10 piece of paper.
No margins in this German script that you, you know, humans can’t read. You have to be a student of that era to understand it. But margin to margin and then he rotated it ninety degrees and wrote again margin to margin. It—you just look at it, it looks like some child’s scribbling. But in—in those—she also includes stories about letters from Engelmann to—to Lindheimer complaining about his not sending enough material, having apparently no idea that, you know, Lindheimer’s dealing with Native Americans that were not always friendly with, you know, wildlife—fr—all the—all the frontier problems.
And it was difficult for him to actually make these specimens. And—and Engelmann just seemed totally clueless like—of the—of the difficulties that Lindheimer had.
DT: Well and—and so this was one of Dr. Stuckey’s interests was the—the history of botanical research. What were some of the other things that he was curious about and maybe passed on an interest to you?
BC: Well he was—he was an expert on nomenclature. There are all kinds of rules for the naming of plants. And it’s a pretty arcane topic. And back then, the, you know, that—that era from the sixties to the eighties or so, he was one of the only people that actually paid attention to the rules. And so botanists from all over the country would consult him. Did I—did I get this right? Did I—did—have I followed all the rules. So he was—he was the go-to guy for that.
And—and I—so I picked up a lot of that stuff and I still enjoy being able to understand why taxonomic ch—or nomenclatural changes happen and what happens when they do change, when names change. So it doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers everyone else. That people get all upset when names change but, a lot of times, it just has to happen. So…
DT: Well and—and do you find that the—the sort of taxonomic structures are changing as—as more genetic information comes in about plants and that maybe things get regrouped?
BC: Oh totally. It’s—we’ve had—we’ve seen massive changes. There’s a—a—been a program—the American Phylogeny Group I think it’s called—and they’ve been doing genetic studies of relationships of plants at like the—the family level. And they’re demonstrating that things we thought were closely related aren’t related at all and things we had no idea were—had anything in common are very closely related. And, I mean, one example is the—the figwort family, the Scrophulariaceae.
If you look in Correll and Johnston, the—the big manual of the vascular plants of I guess three-fourths of the species that were in the Scrophulariaceae then are now to other families. There’s only a few species left in the Scrophulariaceae. And the places they went are just unbelievable. There’s all these great, big, beautiful plants like the penstemons, that are in the family with plantains that are little tiny annual weeds. The Plantaginaceae is now a huge family and the Scrophulariaceae kind of just went away based on genetic, you know, research.
DT: And—and so I guess the genetic information reflects the course of evolution over time?
BC: Exactly. Exactly.
DT: Forks in the road many years ago.
DT: I—I was interested too that you said that Dr. Stuckey was interested in—in nomenclature and—and I guess the—the language of botany is—is n—n—I guess scientific botany is—is Latin and—and that they’re all—there’s this whole set and diversity of common names. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about having to switch language from one to the other, you know, that—that I guess a lot of lay people would—would refer to things in terms of their common name. But you—you probably are more precise and—and rely more on the Latin names. Is that what you’d say?
BC: Oh yeah, totally. I mean, I—ask anybody who was in my ACC [Austin Community College] class this fall. We’d be out looking at things and I’d show them all these features of this plant, then I’d give the scientific name and then I’d have to sit there going common name, it’s got a common name. I know it has a common name. And then somebody else would, you know, offer one. So I just—they just don’t stick with me.
But that’s actually one of the things that kind of concerns me, at this point in history, is that there has never been an effort to standardize common names until recently and people are using websites like the USDA Plants website, which assigns a common name. Th—so they’re taking that as—as the common name. And I—I’m afraid we’re going to lose a lot of our—our cultural history because a lot of our Texas plants have common names that don’t mesh with the USDA names.
Names that—that ranchers use that reflect some, you know, aspect of the plant that bothered them often, you know, some—some—pointed out some of the problems with these plants. But—but basically they were coined by Texans that lived here and worked the land. And those name—those old names are going to—are going by the wayside now. And I think—I think the more common names we have, the better, because it just shows all the—all the cultural references that—that you don’t get at all from a scientific name.
There’s just—they’re devoid of cultural references. So that—the common name is some way that we can, you know, preserve that—that history, which is important to me.
DT: You—could you maybe give a—a couple of examples of common names that are sort of reflective of—of what a rancher or farmer’s attitude might be towards that plant?
BC: Oh, there—they’re all—all kinds of things like goat rue. Lots of plants have the name goat rue because apparently goats would eat them and not be happy that they did. And a lot of those names that reflect poisoning of—of—of livestock are being changed to other things like the things we call goat rues are now called Hoary Pea, which doesn’t mean anything to—to me, but I don’t know. That just—they—those cultural references are really important. We need to—we need to keep them somehow rather than trying to make one common name like the—the name of the—of the organism.
The birders have gotten away with that. I mean, everybody knows Northern Cardinal. No—no one ever says Cardinalis cardinalis. And those common names are standardized and everybody uses them. But there are so many more plants that I just think you can’t really do that with plants. You still need to keep your mind open ab—about what those common names mean and how important they are.
DT: Okay. Well, so—so let me see if I can kind of summarize some of your—what you told us about your life at Ohio State. You—you spent a—a good deal of time with this Work Study Program with Dr. Stuckey three years I think you said. And then maybe you can bring us through graduation and what was some of your first work?
BC: Well I graduated in December of 1978 and I knew that I wasn’t going to get a job with a BS in Botany. My plan was to work a—a day job basically doing whatever for, you know, manual labor or whatever and then botanizing as a hobby. And so I figured if I’m going to look for a day job, I want to go somewhere where I like the flora. And because of my long history of hitchhiking—I used to hitchhike every break from school, but this was back in the seventies when it was safe.
You know, all you had to do was have a pack and a sign of some kind and you’d get picked up right away and meet interesting people. So I came down to Texas a lot and focused mostly on Big Bend on breaks—winter breaks and spring break. And everybody else would go to Florida and I’d go to Big Bend. [laughing] So when I graduated, I just hitchhiked to Alpine and got a place to live and lived there for a while. Bought this copy of the Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas and just looked at plants as much as I could.
I had—had a—I got a job as a caretaker of a—of a three unit apartment. I got a free place to live to take care of two other units. It was a pretty good gig. And I painted trailer rooves and things like that to make money. And—but then that summer, I got a job offer in Ohio so I went back to Ohio and worked for a summer. And then I got derailed and didn’t get back to Texas for another year. So…
DT: And—well, two things occur to me. One is that—that this mention of—of your—your interest and facility for—for hitchhiking. And—and I—it seems like you—you’ve got a real interest in exploring, whether it’s, you know, by car at 60 miles an hour or at like the botanizing pace which is probably a half a mile an hour. And do you…?
BC: On a—on a good day.
DT: Yeah, do you see a connection to—about that, you know, the sort of curiosity about what’s over the horizon or, you know, the next plant?
BC: Yeah, yeah. I do like to travel and it was so easy back then to—if you didn’t have a car—I didn’t have a car—if you were poor, you could—you could go anywhere you want basically just hitchhiking. But at, you know, the—I’ve been thinking about that lately and how—I think I—I—something was instilled in me by hitchhiking so much because you don’t have any control over what kind of people you meet. And I think if you’re hitchhiking, I started to find similarities with people rather than differences because this like—this is my new best friend.
You know, I was—guy’s giving me a ride to Albuquerque. And I—and I think that was a really good experience. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just having fun. I was just a kid. But I think about that now with our current political situation, about how everybody’s looking for differences rather than similarities. And that wasn’t what I grew up with. I gr—it was the other way around for me. It’s like let’s get to know each other, you know. It’s—it was a good experience.
DT: Well and—and this—this—one of these forays, hitchhiking trips, takes you to Big Bend, what was it that—that drew you to Big Bend for that, you know, if—when you could choose where to botanize, you—you chose [overlapping conversation]?
BC: Well, actually, I mean, the first—the first time I went to Big Bend was before I became interested in plants. So it was just the beauty of the place—the desert of, you know, the—the climate, the isolation. That wa—there—nobody went to Big Bend in the seventies, you know. It was an empty place. So I think that was the charm that drew me.
DT: Well it—it seems remarkable to me as kind of an outsider, it—it would—I would think that botanists would—would be attracted to, you know, wet areas of big, dramatic—sort of like the—the—the mega fauna of the—the plant world, you know, the trees in the Piney Woods or something. But—but there was something about Big Bend and these very special desert niches that—that appealed to you?
BC: Yeah, because it was so different from where I grew up. I mean, I grew up in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and there’re just trees everywhere, you know. And then you get out into the desert and you can—you can see the horizon. [inaudible] that—that was really important for me. [laughing] It’s—it’s easy for a person from the Midwest to fall in love with deserts.
DT: Well and—and you mentioned the—the Midwest. So you went back to Ohio, is that right, and di—what sort of work were you doing? Was it—was it botanical or?
BC: Yes, the—the first job I had in Ohio was for the Department of Agriculture and they had this—they got this federal money aimed at discovering recently introduced, potentially noxious plant species, and they had no idea what to do with the money. It was just—they had to spend it. And they were desperate so they contacted Dr. Stuckey, who sent me a letter saying, “I think this job is yours if you want it.” So—so I went back and—and worked for the Department of Agriculture.
They gave me a car and just told me to do whatever it is you need to do to go find recently introduced, potentially noxious weeds. So I had to like make a program on the fly and I went to airports and all the river ports along the Ohio River, railroad yards, anywhere—anywhere there was major commerce. So I—I went to like every railroad yard in—in Ohio. Walked around and looking for plants. [laughing] It was on—and I actually did find four species new to Ohio that summer. So it did accomplish something.
And one of them actually resulted in a—in a removal, something I found in Toledo. Gypsophila scorzonerifolia was new to Ohio and then they wiped it out before it got a chance to spread.
DT: Well, can you—so what was the concern about this—this plant that they found, or that you found?
BC: I don’t know what their—what—why what—that one was so important, but you—certainly we can understand the concept here is like we’ve had all these plants that got introduced to Texas one way or another. And we didn’t get after them quickly and they became huge problems. So that—that—there was some considerable forethought for something that happened in—that would have been 1980 I guess. They were—they were trying to nip things in the bud so they just weren’t taking any chances with some of these new things coming in.
DT: Well could you explain for somebody who’s—who’s new to the world of botany—what—what is the concern about exotics and invasive plants? What—what’s the—the risk, the threat, as you see it?
BC: It—there—it—the level of threat varies a lot, but we have some species that are really capable of totally screwing up our local environments. In particular, I’m thinking of Old World Bluestems like King Ranch Bluestem. And we have these grassland systems in Texas that are dominated by bunchgrasses that don’t form a solid carpet. They’re individual plants separated by a few feet, often with bare soil in between them that gets colonized by annual herbaceous plants that are really important as seed sources for birds and things like that.
And these exotic grasses, the old—Old World Bluestems form carpets, just dense, uninterrupted carpets that—that have no—they don’t have any bare soil exposed. The thatch is really deep and they just—they just squelch our natural diversity for grassland species. And it takes its toll on things like quail, seeding—seed-eating birds like quail that can no longer find the croton seeds that they feast on because this dense mat forming grass has altered the—the landscape.
DT: Well so it—it sounds like part of the issue like with the example of KR Bluestem is—is the threat to the—the local native plants, whether it’s a bunchgrass like little bluestem, but it’s also an effect on—on other non-plant species like quail. Is that—is that true?
BC: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
DT: Can you give maybe another example of—of where that’s an issue?
BC: Oh, the…
DT: Spillover secondary effect.
BC: I would say the same thing about Chinese Tallow, especially on the coastal plain in—in—in coastal prairies that tend to have wet soils in places. And I have seen places—Brazoria County, places like that where what used to be coastal prairie pasture has become woodland overnight almost. Twenty years or something like that, just closed canopy woodland, composed of one species. And, you know, that just can’t be good for everything that was living in the grassland. The grassland’s gone. It’s just been replaced by a tallow forest.
DT: Well, so is that—is that one aspect of the problem or the basis that it’s—it’s not just replacing one plant with another, but that you may be replacing a group of plants with a monoculture of one plant?
BC: Yes, yeah, replacing a whole system. That’s the—that’s the issue. It’s not just one—one thing replacing another. It’s one thing expelling everything else. [laughing]
DT: I—I’ve heard maybe of other examples. Maybe I can just throw some out there and you can tell me if it—what you think. Well one that occurs to me is ligustrum. Can you tell me how that works as a monoculture?
BC: Yeah, that’s—you know, when you sent me the things I should be thinking about in advance of this project, I st—one of the things I thought about was the—the Bull Creek Watershed, which that’s where I learned a lot of the plants of the Austin area when I first got here in my first seven or eight years in Austin, I spent a lot of time walking around the Bull Creek Watershed and, at that point, there was hardly any ligustrum. And I go back to some of the same places I visited in—in in the 1980s and ligustrum is everywhere.
And part of the problem with that species is that it—when its leaves decay, it—they poison the soil for other species. So it’s hard for native species to germinate under—under ligustrums, to say nothing about the light levels. They’re such—they’re such shaders. And they’ve really—really changed—changed the whole aspect of that—of the canyon flora in the Bull Creek Watershed and elsewhere.
DT: Well so do you find that—that plants that—that maybe are evergreen like ligustrum or that—that have these chemical defenses are—are some of the more aggressive ones?
BC: I probably don’t know the—the story on all of them. All I know is that—that we have a huge problem where we didn’t thirty, forty years ago. So…
DT: Well let—let’s return to the—the situation in Ohio so you’re traipsing around railyards and—and river ports. And I—I guess that’s trying to track plants that came in unintentionally.
DT: Is that the way most invasives come in or is—or is—are there plants that have been introduced intentionally?
BC: There are lots of plants that were intentionally introduced. Both of those examples I mentioned earlier, the King Ranch Bluestem and Chinese Tallow, both were brought here intentionally. The Old World Bluestems were brought in experimentally as cattle forage and then they quickly discovered that cattle would eat everything else before they ate King Ranch Bluestem. And it started to get used instead to control erosion on like highway right-of-way, things like that, where they—there’s a lot of disturbance and they want something that covers the ground so the soil doesn’t disappear.
And King Ranch Bluestem is really good at that. You know, it’s re—it’s really good at erosion control, but it doesn’t stop where you plant it. It escapes and covers the ground in places where we don’t want to have the ground covered. And then Chinese Tallow has all kinds of chemicals that it—including rubber like compounds and they did—they were trying to—they were growing it experimentally in I think it was Brazoria County or maybe closer to Houston, trying to develop it as a—as a source of—of chemical compounds for industry.
And it escaped from there and even got into the nursery trade because it’s such a beautiful tree. And so a lot of the plantings—a lot of the problem in—in our area is not from those original plantings on the coast, but landscape plantings because it’s got beautiful fall color. It’s a beautiful plant, but it’s just really nasty.
DT: Well so are—were some of these plants brought here as—as horticultural plants that somebody wanted some fall color in their—their yard?
BC: Sure, sure. And I think we’re still finding out what things are problematic, but being sort of optimistic by nature, I like to focus on the ones that haven’t become problems. And I always—I always point out to people that Crepe Myrtle is one of our most commonly planted shrubs. It has been for a hundred years. And, to my knowledge, it has never escaped and become a problem. It’s like the only garden plant we have that hasn’t escaped and yet it’s one of the most widely used ones. I wish they all would behave that well but most of them don’t.
DT: Well let me ask you one other question about exotic plants that—that maybe have—have been introduced and they’ve become invasive. I’ve heard people’s explain this as we’re always—we solve one problem and—and it—it creates like a secondary problem and that—that a lot of these plants that were introduced during the Dust Bowl to try to hold the soil and I guess KR Bluestem might have been an example.
BC: Could—it might have been. I’m not sure about that, but…
DT: Maybe that’s not the best example, but that there were—there were plants that—that were used because they could hold the soil, fight Dust Bowl problems, you know, to cure soil erosion and wind erosion, but then the—the very nature of how quickly they spread to hold soil makes them a ideal candidate as an invasive.
DT: Is—is that true? I mean, can you give other examples of where that happened?
BC: Oh man, unintended consequences. They’re—they’re all over the place. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, David, but there are plenty. There are plenty.
DT: Well I’m—I’m sure that some will come to mind. We’ll return to it later. So—so you were working in—in Ohio on this exotic plant issue and then what—what was your next stage in—in your work there?
BC: What did I do after that? I—I got a job at a warehouse for a while over the winter and then I came to—to Austin in 1981. And this is where my parents did me a big favor because that—they were not interested in my career. They, you know, they wanted me to make money. They didn’t want me to be a—a botany bum. But they decided to move—to buy a second house somewhere in the warm part of the U.S. to get away from winters. So I had been to Austin before to visit some friends just about the time they were leaving Austin.
My parents went on this three-week trip to places in Arizona, Florida, Texas, all the place—places where Snowbirds go. And the second stop was Austin and they bought a house just like that. I mean, th—I think it was like their fourth day out of this three we—planned three-week trip—they bought a house in Austin. And—and then they went back to Ohio because it was summertime and I got to live in their house for five months. And that he—that got me established in—in Austin.
I got a job in a bookstore that I had—I kept that job for seven years because it was a great day job and eventually found a place to live before my parents got back. And I don’t know what I would have done that summer in Austin if I—if I hadn’t had a pl—a free place to live. So they really helped me out.
DT: Sort of the—another one of these unintended consequences that you’re talking about.
BC: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, they—my parents didn’t want me to be a botany bum but then they bought a house in Austin and encouraged that. [laughing] There you have it.
DT: Thanks mom.
BC: Yeah, thanks mom.
DT: Well, so let me see if I’ve got this—the dates right. 1988, I think you went to work for Texas Parks and Wildlife? Is that right?
BC: I did. I did.
DT: So what was your role there?
BC: Well, we skipped over my—I went back to Ohio. Once I got this bookstore job in Austin, I went back on three summers to work for the Ohio Natural Heritage Program. And the Heritage Programs were something that was set up by The Nature Conservancy, continent wide, well the U.S. and Canada, and every state had a program that basically collected information about rare stuff and kept it all in a database. Everything was collected wi—with the same protocols. And they amassed this massive database.
And so my role in those summers when I went back was basically to look for and map populations of rare plants in Ohio in certain parts of Ohio. So I had that experience already. And then when a position opened up at Texas Parks and Wildlife, I applied for it and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it if I hadn’t had that sort of experience somewhere else.
DT: Well—well let’s just talk a bit about the—The Natural Heritage Program job in Ohio. So the—the focus was on rare plants?
BC: Um-hm [yes].
DT: What—what sort of things were—were you looking for and what were the—were there some—some key signs where you could find these plants? I mean, they’re, by their nature, hard to find.
BC: Yeah, yeah. Those—those jobs were really fun because I really liked the guy that ran the program, Bob McCance. And he would assign me a territory, a very small territory like two or three counties. And I would spend the whole summer looking for rare plants in those two or three counties. But he also gave me the worst car in the—in the Department of Natural Resources fleet and told me to destroy it so they could get a new one. So, at—so I would just—I would go to Columbus, pick up a car, get my assignment, go to those counties, find a place to live and just sp—spend the whole summer botanizing, doing—doing nothing else basically.
And every two weeks, I had to report my hours by mail. Can you imagine? That was a long time ago. So I’d send him a letter that in—that started off with a paragraph about how I destroyed the car. You know, I—I did what you said, Bob. I’m—I’m really sorry but, you know, it’s—it’s gone. And so he looked forward to hearing the latest fabrication story about doing him a favor of getting rid of the twenty year old vehicle. But, as far as—as where to look, that’s when I first became aware of how important it was to understand surface geology.
A lot of times rare plants have found some niche that is related to surface geology, some certain substrate or a—or a particular kind of canyon or soil moisture or something. And you can predict where they’re going to occur—these rare plants are going to occur—by looking at a geology map. It’s—it’s that easy. [laughing] So, in southern Ohio, there is some formations like the Black Hand sandstone that you knew was going to create dry rock shelters that was going to have mesic north facing slopes.
If you’re looking for certain kinds of—of Lady Slipper orchids, you could go into the certain habitats in those canyons and find them there when you probably wouldn’t find them somewhere else nearby. And that was really good training that I brought back with me to Texas and—and used here a lot.
DT: So there was—there as—it sounds like there was kind of a—an overlay, some kind of matrix of things that would give you clues, you know, that it might be the terrain or it might be whether it was north or south facing or—or what the subsoils or whether it was well watered or not. I mean, is that a summary of it?
BC: Yeah, that’s—the—plants are always, especially rare plants, are always picky about where they grow and—and just pay attention to those features and look for them elsewhere—those same features and that’s how you get lucky.
DT: Well and did—did you ever find that there were people in those two or three counties who you could turn to and say I, you know, I—I’m looking for these rare plants? Any…?
BC: Yes, yes. And I have—I have a story about that. There was—my—my favorite summer was ’85 I think it was, and I was in Portsmouth, Ohio, working mostly on the Shawnee State Forest, which was on the Allegheny Plateau, dissected, full of what they call hollers down there because it’s basically—the culture there is Appalachian, just hillbillies, living at the end of dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. And a lot of people make money digging ginseng. A lot of people ate things that grew in the wild.
And I got to meet several of them because I’d be out wandering around in the woods and nobody wanders around in the woods, you know, un—unless they’re up to something. And one time I ran into a bunch of guys that were out digging ginseng, which is illegal, so they were immediately suspicious of who I was and what I was doing. They thought that I was digging ginseng too. And so I talked to them for a while and I told them I was looking for this one particular skullcap. And they said well which one? And I’m going, what?
You guys know that there are like five skullcap species out here? And so I told them which—I—I described it—and they had a name for it. They knew what I was talking about exactly. And I was going up that hollow because there was an old record of it from a hundred years ago or something. I was trying to re-find it. And they told me where to go. They knew what it was without any formal training, just because they were people that were really connected to the land and they knew all these plants. It was just awesome.
And—and then another time in that same area I was up on a really high ridge a lightning storm blew in and I wanted—I really wanted to get off that ridge as fast as I could because it was—I would have been a target. So I went down this steep slope and I ended up—the—the rain started falling and all of a sudden, I realized I was walking in glass. And I had come down into somebody’s dump basically, where they just threw all their garbage, and I’m making all this racket.
And I—and, all of a sudden, I was walking right by a house that was on the road that—where I’d left my car hours before and this woman called from the porch and asked me what I was doing? So I explained to her that I was out looking for plants. And she asked me about some plant—I can’t remember now—but she knew the common name and she knew that it was on that ridge and she was old and couldn’t get back up there. So I told her that I’d seen it. It’s still there and, you know, that kind of stuff.
And it’s just—you just don’t meet people that have that deep connection to—to the flora of their—their own backyard in other cultures. It was just a really, really special summer.
DT: Well and it sounds like you—you also located some of these plants because there were historic records that—that—I guess there had been naturalists a hundred years before who had found these things. And was that usually a pretty good guide?
BC: Yes, a very good guide. There was a—a legendary botanist in Southern Ohio named Floyd Bartley, who was a mailman. Actually he hung out with the mailman, Leslie Pontious, and he would—this guy would just deliver the mail every day and Floyd Bartley would go along and look for plants with his buddy the mailman. And so—they operated in a time when it was hard to make accurate statements about locations. They didn’t have GPS units. They didn’t have topographic maps. They had local names for things.
So Floyd Bartley found a lot of these plants and, a lot of times, they were just—the label would say something like Vastine Hollow, you know. And so you’d have to go to Vastine Hollow and look all over it or—or appropriate portions thereof. So I—I did a lot of that stuff, updating old Floyd Bartley records. That was really fun.
DT: Were yo—and you mentioned that—that, you know, back in the day, the day when—when the mailman and Floyd were going around, that they didn’t have ways of accurately plotting where they found this plant. And I—I would think that it—in the late eighties, this is before—certainly before cellphones and—and, you know, you—did you have a GPS unit or were you using topo maps? How were you locating…?
BC: I had—I had topo maps, yes. So I would—and I used them. And, I mean, like I used to be able to look at the map, go up a hollow, go well here’s this little finger coming in from the west. Here’s one coming, you know, so I—I would look at the map every five minutes probably just to make sure I knew where on the landscape I was just by looking at landmarks. And—and I did that here until 2000 when the GPS units became available and, all of a sudden, it’s like boy, this is a lot easier. [laughing]
But it was fun to—to work from topo maps. But other than, you know, that I had a camera, but the—it’s not digital so I hardly took any pictures.
DT: Would you take specimens?
BC: Oh yeah. It was all operated on specimens, yes. So every time I—I reported a population, I collected a voucher specimen.
DT: And—and so would that be put in a plant press and—and where—where would it go after that?
BC: Those all went to the herbarium at the Ohio State University. And they’re—I assume they’re still there somewhere. But that was how we operated back before other—other methods of documentation became so easy.
DT: Well, so we—we talked a little bit about your return to Ohio and then it sounds like that was a temporary thing and that—that pretty soon after that Natural Heritage job was over, you came back to Texas. Is that correct?
BC: Yeah, they were just summer jobs like a summer intern kind of situation. So I’d come back and go back to work at the bookstore and go back to botanizing Texas, you know, before work, after work, weekends.
DT: So when—when you were botanizing as a—as a hobby or as a sideline, what—what was your special interest? Was there particular kinds of plants or places where you just open to whatever you might run across?
BC: The, you know, my problem is I like all plants. I just wanted to learn every species. There’s some I liked more than others and some ha—you know, habitats I liked more than others, but basically I just wanted to know all the plants. And I haven’t mentioned Brother Daniel yet, but this would be a good time to get into that. Brother Daniel Lynch and I met in 1981. I had written him a letter saying how much I enjoyed his woody plant book and how it had keys in it and I could key out these plants without flowers. It was great.
And so he invited me to get involved with his project where he was—he was working on a—a wildflower book for the areas within sixty miles of Austin. And his photographer was Ed Kutac, the birder, because Ed had done a book about the birds within sixty miles of Austin. And so he wanted to do, with Brother Daniel, something similar for plants. So I…
DT: Can I interrupt you? So Brother Daniel Lynch taught at St. Ed’s and was a—I guess a—I don’t know if you call him a monk or he was a…
BC: He was a Brother.
DT: …was part of the—part of the order there.
BC: Yeah, yeah.
DT: Okay, all right.
At St. Ed’s and—and just one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. It just really gracious and real generous with his time and just encouraged me everywhere you cou—every way he could, basically hooking me up with Ed. And Ed and I would drive around every Saturday morning for I don’t know how many years—a long time. And wat—when we’d find something that Ed didn’t know or I didn’t know, you know, I’d collect a specimen, take it back, key it out, tell Ed and Brother Daniel what it turned out to be and so we—we did a lot of learning together, both of us.
It was good. But that was all because of Brother Daniel. He—he did so many nice things for so many people. He was a good guy.
DT: And—and I understand that he was involved in the effort to protect Blunn Creek Nature Preserve and—and other parks in the—in the Austin system. Do you—do you know much about that aspect of it?
BC: No, I don’t really. But, you know, Blunn Creek was his backyard. So he was—he—he did a lot of research on parts of the campus that were feral basically and in—in the Blunn Creek Watershed. But, beyond that, I don’t really know much about how he—how he operated in the—in the conservation realm.
DT: What do you mean by a feral landscape?
BC: Not cultivated, not landscaped. Just wild. Natural.
DT: But maybe not wilderness?
BC: Well, if you can call something in the middle of Austin wilderness. Yeah, I guess—I guess it’s wilderness, undeveloped.
DT: Well so—so your work with Mr. Kutac and—and—and Brother Daniel Lynch was—was really just a volunteer avocation that you enjoyed?
DT: Eventually though, you go to work as a—for a paying gig, is that right at—at the state agency, Texas…?
BC: Yeah, Texas Parks and Wildlife, yeah.
DT: Tell me how you came on there and what was the role that you played there?
BC: Well it—it started out my—I was actually a vic—a plant community ecologist for the first couple of years. And that funding came through a project that was aimed at developing a plant community classification for Texas. So my boss, David Diamond, wanted to focus on state parks since state parks are part of Texas Parks and Wildlife. So we—I sort of worked with—with the Parks Department.
And I visited like I don’t know how many parks—most of them—just long enough to write up a thumbnail sketch of vegetation, where it—what different communities were on the park, where the best examples were, and that kind of thing, but wasn’t so much—not an inventory project, not—not identifying every species, although I did a little bit of that on—on the sly but basically to develop a—a—a map of communities for each park.
DT: Maybe you can help us lay folks understand—so the difference between maybe an ecoregion and then a community. I mean, there’s—this is more details, right, and more local? Is that right? Ho—how—what’s a—maybe give some examples of what communities might be?
BC: Well, if you start with—with the ecoregion, let’s call the Edwards Plateau, one of the eleven ecoregions of Texas. It’s on cretaceous limestone. It’s isolated from other limestone so it’s high in endemism. Lots of different habitats because there’s so much topographic variability. So you’d have, within that ecoregion, you’d have certain types of communities that grow on north-facing slopes, some that are grasslands that grow on shallow soils, grasslands that grow in deeper soils, riparian woodlands, and all those different habitats would have different communities.
So we had things like the—the Texas Oak Series Woodland, which was a—a mix of Texas Oak and Ash Juniper that grew on upper slopes of—of mesic canyons. And then we’ve have like the Sugarberry Elm Series, which was just a catch-all for riparian woodlands, all these different communities within the same ecoregion, just in different habitats.
DT: Well, so what—could a community have everything from groundcover to shrubbery to, I don’t know, canopy trees? It could be a whole sort of series of levels, is that right?
BC: That’s right. Depending on which kind of community it is, but, for the—for the woodland communities, you know, when I went in and described them, I would describe the dominant species in the canopy and then describe, you know, give estimates of the percent cover in the canopy. And then sometimes there’s a sub-canopy of smaller trees and I’ve described that in—and estimate the—the cover and then describe the shrub layer under that, and then finally the ground layer.
Each—each component, you know, merits description when you’re talking about the community as a whole. It’s not just trees. It’s the who—the whole shooting match.
DT: Okay. I think you mentioned in passing that—that David Diamond was your boss. And I—I’ve heard that he was a—is a pretty extraordinary naturalist. And can you maybe fill in a little bit of the picture about him?
BC: Yeah, he was—he’s a smart guy. He could see the big picture better than most people I know. That’s why he was able to attempt things like describing vegetation which is hard for people that don’t have a big brain. It’s really complicated. And you can easily be distracted by minutiae in the—in—which species are in there and which are absent, but he could—he could see beyond that stuff and see the bigger picture. And—and he wrote several papers on grasslands in Texas.
He wrote—he published his—his community classification that had a—wasn’t fine detailed, it was like 88 communities for the whole state, but something like that hadn’t been undertaken before. But he also—he was also the director, I guess he was, of the—of the Texas Natural Heritage Program. So when things got political in the late eighties, early nineties, he became a huge target for people that didn’t like the Heritage Program.
DT: So then is this the era of Tex—Take Back Texas and sort of private landowners resisting this program?
DT: Can you sort of sketch out what—what that involved?
BC: Yeah, that was—I mean, that—that was a dark period in the—I wish it—I wish there had been better communication, but I think one of the sources of—of—of anxiety for private landowners was that our program had a database with rare plant locations in it. Some of those locations were from fieldwork we actually did, which was almost entirely on public land, but it also included records from herbarium specimens, from, you know, anywhere from ten to a hundred years ago—well seventy years ago, something like that.
And those records were—were like Floyd Bartley records. They were just—they’d be very vague, like grassland west of Marfa, you know. But there—we had a convention for mapping it at that time—this was before GIS—where we would—if it said four miles west of Marfa, we’d draw a line four miles out and put the dot there somewhere. Sometimes that dot fell on private land and the landowners thought that that meant that we had been there and seen the plant there, when actually all we knew was that somebody collected something in that general area a long time ago.
And I don’t think we ever succeeded in convincing them that those records were not based on trespassing. So it was just this massive misunderstanding. And I blame myself in a way because, I don’t know, they started attacking the people that I worked for and—and I felt obliged to stand up for my tribe and I didn’t help any. I mean, I wish I had—had called up Susan Combs and invited her over and said, “This is why the map has a dot on it here. It doesn’t mean that we went there. It’s because here’s the original data.
We didn’t have any other way to ex—to map it to put it in the database, so we just put it in there as this vague thing in this area.” I think—I think that would have helped some, at least—least from a—from, you know, she as a leader might have—might have gotten that, but we never got to that stage. It was just, you know, butting heads. And also I was never able to convince anyone that the Endangered Species Act, as it—as it pertains to plants—doesn’t involve any restrictions on private landowners.
If you have a—a listed endangered plant on your property, you can bulldoze it if you want. It’s—that’s your prerogative. The plants are yours. That’s the Old English law that says the—the plants belong to the peasants, but the animals belong to the King. So the plants are—are the purview of the private landowners and not the federal government. But that never got—that message never got transmitted either. So that was another issue.
DT: So I guess some landowners might have seen what was going on with the golden cheeked warbler or the black capped vireo and the endangered species protections for them and—and maybe the interference with their property use and they—they [inaudible] then said oh well, then that’s going to—if they find endangered plant on my land…
BC: Yeah, they’re going to take my ranch. You know, that, yeah. That was—that was how it worked. And that—that’s—that’s why I’m not a big fan of the Endangered Species Act. I wish they’d found a different way to implement it in Texas because, you know, we’re—at that point, we were like 97 percent private land and that just alienated all the places that we might want to conserve things. The owners of the places where we wanted to do conservation just got off on the wrong foot in a big way.
I wish they had turned it around and made it a financial benefit for landowners to have golden cheeked warblers. Like they could get a tax break if they had golden cheeked warblers, you know, some—some incentive, some recognition of the fact that there—they have this property. They’re—maybe they’re doing the right thing, which was the case in, you k now, in most cases. And yet, all of a sudden, there were people trying to tell them how to manage their land. That was just—I wish we hadn’t done that. I wish we hadn’t done that.
But things are turning around now. So things are a little—communication’s a little better. I think people have a better concept of the reality of the act, that they’re not going to have their land taken, but it’s still—it’s still an issue in—in—in some places. So…
DT: So, Bill, when we left off, we were talking about the Natural Heritage Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife. And your tenure there ended I guess with the closure of that program. And can you talk a little bit about why it was shut down and what you did after you left there?
BC: Well it was actually kind of interesting because we behaved badly, as I was saying before, in the Heritage Program. I mean, we were very defensive and just not very respectful I—I think, in retrospect. So in—in one meeting about our future, some people in the—in my group said that, you know, that Parks and Wildlife couldn’t close the Heritage Program because it was the intellectual property of The Nature Conservancy. And the director at the time said something to the effect of, oh yes I can. I just did. So that was it.
And I took them at their word and so I turned in my resignation and left. And about a—a—three months later, Terry Cook from The Nature Conservancy of Texas got permission to establish another Texas Natural Heritage Program. So I went to that program and they ran that out of the San Antonio Office of the Nature Conservancy because their concern was that this program was not going to function at Texas Parks and Wildlife so they needed to have another program. And that was easy for them because they had all the data.
All the data was always in this Heritage Program database. So it was just a matter of moving it out of Texas Parks and Wildlife and into the Nature Conservancy. And, of course, that didn’t sit well with Texas Parks and Wildlife because they wanted the data. They just didn’t want the staff. So they maintained their program and The Nature Conservancy of Texas started its own and I went with that one. And that was the best choice I ever made. [laughing]
That was a—because I—I really, really enjoyed working for The Nature Conservancy of Texas because I got to work with private landowners a lot. And that totally changed my perspective.
DT: Well why—why don’t you tell us a little bit about maybe a handful of—of farmers and ranchers and other landowners that—that you found good to work with.
BC: Well coming from a program where we had—we were as paranoid about landowners as they were about us. We just assumed that everybody hated nature and—and they didn’t want to have somebody come and look for rare things on their property. And—and, you know, within a few years of working for The Nature Conservancy, I realized that that wasn’t the case at all. There were lots of private landowners that were—that loved to have somebody come and show them little, tiny plants that they’d overlooked, you know, things they didn’t know, things they—they could do to maintain diversity on their property and were just, you know, happy to do it.
And—and that’s made me—I still have that optimism that other people don’t have because I got this—I’ve gotten to meet so many landowners that are interested in their land and they’re—they’re willing to share knowledge and—and do things and—and it’s so easy.
DT: Well, so I would think that—that a lot of ranchers would be looking at the landscape and thinking mostly about forage and that farmers would be looking at the—their lands and saying crops and weeds and that there wouldn’t be that—that interest in the little plant. And I was wondering how you—how you felt they came to be interested in some of these more unusual things they have?
BC: That’s a good question. And bo—I—starting with farmers, I have to say that I haven’t worked with farmers at all really because of that issue. I mean, they’re growing crops and they don’t have—they don’t have room for nature, for, you know, they’re—they’re running a business on a very tight margin and they’re growing food and that’s their business. Ranchers, on the other hand, often have multiple things going on at once. There’s running cattle or goats or whatever and also a big hunting enterprise where they get as much money from selling deer leases as they do from running cattle.
So they’ve always had an interest in maintaining things for deer to eat for deer to be healthy. And that’s given them a perspective about—about the land and—and its uses that serve—serves them well, serves everybody well. And then a—another thing that’s happened recently is there’s been so much—there’s been generational change on big ranches in Texas. And people that really had to struggle to make a living on a ranch in the past maybe have sent their kids off to college and they became lawyers and doctors and now the kids don’t need to run cattle anymore to—to make a living.
They have outside income that they can use to maintain the ranch. And that—and that opens up all kinds of possibilities for them. If it’s not—they’re not so much worried about cattle prices and—and getting as many cattle as possible on the land. That’s—they’re more open to other uses—recreational uses and—and just nature uses. So that’s another interesting development.
DT: So—so help me understand—when—whether it was Parks and Wildlife or The Nature Conservancy who are putting together this—these natural heritage databases of plants? What was the—what was the goal? What was the use that they intended for that data?
BC: Lots of different uses, but primarily I think is to direct conservation efforts. I know the way that we used it at The Nature Conservancy of Texas was we did ecoregional plans. We would take an ecoregion of Texas such as the Edwards Plateau and use rare species information to identify hot spots where you could get a lot of bang for the buck. You could protect a lot of things in one area. Some places are just more interesting than others. And this rare species data helps to identify those. So that was—that was the primary issue.
DT: What—what do you think would be some examples of, as you said, hot spots of endemic species that were rare?
BC: Oh I could go on forever about that.
DT: Yeah. [overlapping conversation] three or four examples from different parts of the state. Would that be possible?
BC: Okay, okay. Well let me start out by saying that Texas has about 320 endemic plant species. And, by that, I mean that plants that grow only in Texas. They don’t grow in Oklahoma or Louisiana or New Mexico or Northern Mexico, that just only here in Texas. And that’s a lot. That’s a—I mean, we have a lot of—it’s a big state, granted, but we have a lot of places that are isolated from the rest of the country and—and so they—these plants have grown up on these particular sites that aren’t represented elsewhere.
It’s not just that we’re big but we have special stuff. And if you take those 320 endemic plant species and correlate them to the natural regions, the eleven natural regions. There are two regions that are way more rich in endemics than the others and tops is the Edwards Plateau because it’s this big mass of Cretaceous limestone. And things that like to grow on limestone often don’t like to grow on other substrates so they’re on this big island of limestone and they can’t go anywhere else. That’s—that’s it.
And another hot spot is our deep sand environments. We have these three Eocene formations from well like 65 million years ago, that neighborhood, where materials that were deposited by the then Gulf of Mexico vary in—in—in materials. Some of them are—are just deep sand. Some of them are clay. Some of them are silt. And the—and these three bands that are mostly sand—the Carrizo, the Queen City, the Sparta—have these sandy land habitats I call them. They’re just where the surface sand is just like sugar sand, really deep, down to a layer of impermeable clay, maybe the—the sand can be three or four feet deep.
And it’s a really interesting environment because it’s hostile to a lot of plants. Plants that grow on limestone will not grow on that sand at all. It’s just a whole different deal. And those things are—are—are stringers that fo—sort of follow the current—parallel the current line of the Gulf of Mexico. And that is another—another real hot spot. One of my favorite parts of the state, one that I’ve been concentrating a lot on lately and…
DT: Were you saying earlier that—I think this is off—offline—that—that some of these hotspots don’t receive equal amount of attention, that—that, for some reason, the—the Edwards cretaceous Cretaceous limestones support one group of endemic species—those Bastrop Eocene sands support another, but, for some reason, the limestone species in that area of the state gets more attention from a conversation standpoint. What—why—what do you think’s going on there?
BC: Birds. As you know, the golden cheeked warbler and the vireo Vireo atricapillus, common name—black capped vireo—there you go—were both listed as endangered. They’re animals. They’re things that Texas had to do to help protect them. And ergo, we have the Balcones Canyondlands ca—Conservation Systems and—which is great because the—they brought a lot of plants with them. I mean, it’s not just protecting those two birds. It’s a whole bunch of endemic plants that grow in those same habitats that the birds use.
So basically that—those projects were driven mostly by bird conservation. And I’m very happy that happened. [laughing] But, on the other hand, we have this other hotspot on the Eocene sands that doesn’t have rare birds, doesn’t have rare—well it does have one rare animal, the Houston toad is in some of those areas. But it’s also in other areas that aren’t botanical hotspots. And it’s just been really hard to put together big chunks of land to do conservation of rare plants, you know, absent the—the—the driving force of birds.
And so that’s why I’m—I’ve been focusing a lot of my attention there trying to meet people that have these deep sand environments and just showing them how cool they are. And I met this guy a few years ago after I—after I gave a talk on the rare plants of sandy lands in—on the Eocene sands. A woman came up to me and said, “Well I’ve got these friends that have a ranch on the Carrizo sand, I should—sh—they should invite you out.”
So I gave her my number and, believe it or not, she actually made the connection and I got invited out to this place in Eastern eastern Caldwell County, not a huge place but it—all of it was on the Carrizo sand. And it—and sandy lands everywhere. And the man who owns it was—was the perfect kind of guy to work for because he just—he invited me out, he met me, drove me around in a four-wheeler, let me get an idea of the lay of the land. And during that drive-around, I looked over and said I’m coming back here.
And—and so he—he went back to his house and I got in my truck and I drove back to that spot and I found one of the rarest plants in that whole system, this thing called Hymenopappus carrizoanus, named for the Carrizo sand. And so I jumped back in my truck, went back and got him, brought him out. He looked at it and goes, “That’s a rare plant, huh?” He was like, “Look at that soil. It’s just—there’s nothing growing there except this rare plant. I—I’m glad you told me that because I was going to figure out some way to mulch that stuff so it would grow something. Now I don’t have to.”
And he was so proud of it that we now have this tradition of we do tours of his ranch in the spring when these things are blooming and he invites all his friends. And he—he has—he has one of those transport vehicles they used to use at Astroworld for ferrying people from the parking lot to the facility. So it’s like a—a—a tram, a—a—with gasoline engine and it seats eighteen people or something. It’s got a little bell that he rings. And we drive around in this tram and every time we see something cool, we—everybody jumps out and we look at plants for a while.
And—and he’s just so proud of—of what he has that, you know, that a lot of places don’t have that, you know, you know it’s go—it’s in good hands and he’s doing a good job of just taking care of these rare plants. And it’s just a matter of being aware. You know, if people become aware of these things, they’re happy. You know, it makes them happy to know they’ve got something rare.
And that’s kind of what I see as my role is kind of like cheerleading for these plants and trying to find people to—that have these things and become—let them know what they have and a—and let them show their pride by taking care of them.
DT: So—so this—this whole visit is—is making me think of—of things related, maybe unrelated, but one is, you know, you worked for Parks and Wildlife and then you go to work for the The Nature Conservancy. You—I guess, at one point, you were working for a state agency and folks in a state forest—state forest, state parks and state forests. Another case, you’re—you’re dealing with private lands. And—and I would think that the state agency has—has many more rules about how a piece of land can be used. And then you go into private land and—and there aren’t so many rules, but there may be more focus and love and attention because it’s got this sort of family tie. And I was wondering, you know, where do you think the—the protection is more effective? You know, where you’ve got a se—a se—a public land or a private land?
BC: Oh my God, I’ve got really strong opinions about that. [laughing] You know, there are—there are bureaucracies in the world and I think if you’re dealing with a state agency, you can have a whole lot of meetings about what to do and never make a decision and just have more and more meetings. And like Barry Hogan, the guy in Caldwell County—the meeting we had was here’s your rare plant. Said, “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” You know, that’s—it’s that simple basically.
You know, if you just—if they’re of a mind to take care of a rare plant, they’ll just do it and you don’t have to have big meetings about it. You don’t have to write up a management plan. You don’t have to study things ad infinitum. There’s just very, very few barriers as long as you have the right people.
DT: Well and—and let’s see if you—I—I was interested in too how you found Barry Hogan. It—it sounds like you went and you gave a talk. I don’t know if it’s the Native Prairie Association of Texas or Native Plant Society, but what’s the—what’s the venue for sharing your knowledge and finding these people and these plants?
BC: If—if I was good at that, I’d be—I’d be busier than I am right now. Yeah, I’m not very good at advertising. I haven’t figured that out yet. But—but I do—I do a lot of presentations to native plant groups and master naturalists and master gardeners and some communication gets started through those venues for sure.
DT: And what sort of presentations, tales, you know, explanation seems to hit a chord with the public?
BC: I think it’s just becoming aware of how much stuff we have, how many plants we have that are special, you know, that’s—it’s real easy for people to go through life thinking there are Texas bluebonnets and paintbrushes and firewheels. And then when they find out that there’s all this other stuff, I mean, we’re so—we have such a diversity of plants. You know, probably 4,500 native plants species, 6,000 altogether, in Texas—a lot of plants, way more than anyone imagines. And I think just opening—opening the eyes is wh—is one of the things that helps the process. Does that make sense?
DT: Yeah. And so to sort of carry on with this idea of opening the eyes, I—I think of how there—there’s a burgeoning industry of—of ecotourism where people spend money and time and they go to restaurants and hotels and they hire guides to go see birds, but do—is there—is there a—a botanizing, analogue sort of—of people bouncing over the landscape in this Astroworld tram that I could—wasn’t aware of? Is this something that’s getting more popular?
BC: I wish I could say it was. It’s very local, you know. I keep thinking that, you know, when I saw the change in attitude about birds when—when birding became this massive hobby that, you know, with millions of people traveling all over the country to see particular birds, I thought next it’s going to be plants but no, next it was butterflies. You know, and—and then it was lizards. And I keep thinking, at some point, people are going to be done with the animals and they’ll just go, “Wow, let’s go to Texas and look at all these cool plants.”
So I’m going to—I’ll be ready for them when they get here, but it’s not happening at the pace you would hope. But…
Yeah, I do focus on usefulness because, like you said, that’s what a lot of people want to know. So when I do plant walks, everybody has to eat a whole bunch of stuff. You know, I make them eat everything that’s out there that’s edible, whether they want to or not. And—and I think a lot of people appreciate that. But, for me personally, I mean, I have—I have a really strong opinion about—it’s kind of my—like my philosophy about life is just that if you know all the plants in your environment, your life is enriched.
You know, it’s just—it—there’s—you get a really good sense of place by being really familiar at a—at a—at a really sophisticated level with the stuff around you and you just feel at home, you know. It’s…
DT: Is it sort of like knowing your—your neighborhood by knowing your neighbors?
BC: Yeah, that could be it. That could be it. It’s a good comparison.
DT: Well so—so tell me a little bit more about—about when you—when you left—I—I—I’d like to move into—so your next chapter of your career. And—and, as I understood it, you—you worked at the The Nature Conservancy through 2011. And then you went out on your own and you have a firm called Acme Botanical Services. And could you tell me a little bit about the—the scope and thrust of—of that work?
BC: Basically, I was trying to continue the work that I did with private landowners at the Nature Conservancy and they—at—at around that time, 2011, they went in a different direction that was less focused on individual, private landowners and more on massive scale conservation efforts that they’re good at doing because they’re such a big organization, so well-funded. So I kind of lost those opportunities because I really—I really like to work one-on—one-on-one with people.
So—but I wish I could claim that I’m a huge success, but I’m just not that good at selling my—my—my projects I guess. So it’s been a—it’s been a struggle, but it’s been a fun struggle. [laughing] I call myself self-unemployed.
DT: Well maybe you can give me two examples of—I—I think that—that you have worked with private landowners and—and I think you’ve also worked at—for nonprofits that own land or that—that are friends of a piece of—of public property. And—and you—you go out there botanize—provide a report—and—and what are you trying to—to do and teach and share or document?
I think that’s part of the problem. It’s like what is the value of what I do is—is an issue for me because I go out—I can go out and I can create a—a list of all the plants that we see on a property, you know, on one day or over the—over the course of a—of a year. And I can write up descriptions of vegetation and in—include that in a huge report with lots of pictures and things. But it’s kind of a—a mystery as to the value of that to the client. Like am I really producing something they want or am I producing what—what I want to give them?
So I’m really good at giving them what I want to give them and maybe not so good at giving them what they want. I mean, if I can discern it, you know, it’s easier, but sometimes it’s kind of cryptic. So I’m full of—full of self-doubt about that process.
DT: Well I—I—I’m wondering if like—if one of the—the outcomes might be to tell somebody you have something of great value and rarity here that—that needs protection and—and that they—they could be a force for good if they set this area aside or didn’t develop it in some way or didn’t cultivate it. And it—does that often happen? I mean, do you see that—that as being one of the outcomes?
BC: I’ve been involved in things that did get conserved. Some friends of mine out by Hamilton Pool have just finally gone through the two-year process of getting a—a conservation easement on their property, but I can’t say that it was because of me. It was—the reason they invited me out was that they had a conservation easement in mind and were looking for things that would be selling points. So I did help in that way, but it wasn’t like I found these things and told them you need to have a conservation easement.
It’s usually—it usually comes the other direction that it’s their idea first. So…
DT: And if—for those who—who aren’t familiar with it, what is a conservation easement? What’s that involve?
BC: It’s a—it’s an arrangement between a private landowner and a conservation group, in which they—the landowner gets a reduced valuation on his property in exchange for a commitment to conservation of some sort. And each one is different. It’s not like there’s a boilerplate conservation easement because every family is different. Everybody has certain concerns about doing conservation and still being able to use their property for what they want to use it for.
So they’re typi—re—I think one of the reasons they take so long is that people have to—both sides have to express their concerns and figure out a way to come to a happy medium. In the case of this place that—that just finished the process, they wanted to make sure that they had hom—two more home sites that could be developed on this—on this ranch for the two kids so the—so the kids will still have a presence on the property. And then everything else is basically for the benefit of—of birds and plants. But each one is different.
DT: Do you find that—that some folks get enthusiastic about the native plants that you show them and decide not only am I going to protect this—this particular population, but I—I want to plant a bunch of them? I—I want to do a restoration. I want a prairie installation or something. Does that—have you seen that happen?
BC: That—that is definitely the way things are—are going these days. And I—I have mixed feelings about it. I think the potential for unintended consequences it’s—is huge. And, I mean, if there’s one thing I’m—I’m sure of it’s that we can’t improve on nature. You know, that nature’s going to win in the end. It’s smarter than us. And I know people are trying to bring in the—well here’s an example. I—I work with people that are mostly groups rather than—than landowners, but they’re less interested in what’s there than what’s missing.
And that’s really hard for me to gauge. It’s really hard for me to give that kind of information because my view is that if—if conditions were right, the plant would be there. But they are focused on boosting their diversity by bringing things in from other places and I don’t—I don’t know. I—I don’t think nature works that way. So…
DT: You think there’s some kind of odd greener pastures on the other side of the fence that you, you know, you—this—the diversity or the value somewhere else is better than what they have there and they want to import it and…?
BC: Could be. Could be. So I always try to stress enjoy the plants you have. Look at all these cool plants you have, rather than, you know, you need to have some of this because the ones you have are already there and that’s—and it’s so easy to enjoy. I mean, you don’t have to bring stuff in from other regions and enhance it. But I think I’m in a—a minority in that regard these days. Everybody wants to make things better.
DT: Yeah, and—and it—it reminds me of when I guess in the—in the fifties when people felt like, you know, unimproved pastures needed to be improved. And so you would take something that had natives and then you would come in and—and spray Bermuda grass and—and walk away feeling like you had made progress. Is that fair comparison or…?
BC: Well, I mean, I—I have to keep in mind that back in the era when people improved their pastures, I mean, a lot of it was done by people that had to make money. I mean, that was how they made their living. And if they felt that they had to do that to stay on the land to, you know, to stay solvent, I, you know, I can’t argue with that. It’s their, you know, that was their business. It’s a little bit different now when it’s more just for aesthetic purposes. It’s not for surviving, you know, on your land. It’s more—more just to make it prettier or something to that effect.
So I don’t—not a—not a—not a one-to-one correspondence. Does that make sense?
DT: Yeah, yeah. This—this idea of—of developing land in a way that—that can support you and, you know, feed your family and—and put a roof over your head seems to have—have been part of the history of lots of areas of Texas. And—and I—what I’m thinking about is, you know, the cultivation of the Blackland Prairie and silviculture in the longleaf pines. And I was wondering if you could talk about some of the, you know, the—the plant histories in those two areas and what’s—what happened and…?
BC: Yeah. Bad things. Bad things happened to the Blackland Prairie, that is for sure. Because it was some of the richest land in Texas, it grew crops. Poor people could make a living by growing cotton. And it was—and the farms were densely packed. I mean, it’s like every square inch was cultivated it seems like. And that really did a number on the natural vegetation—the—basically there was hardly anything left in the Blackland Prairie ecoregion I—by, I don’t know, by the thirties probably or forties. It’s been a long time.
And that makes—that makes conservation really difficult because you’re starting from ground zero and building up again. Once—once you’ve conserved all the things that are—are left, all the remnants that are left, which has pretty much been a focus of a lot of effort for a long time, then you just—you’re just bringing in things from seed and—and cultivating those basically instead of cultivating crops.
And people that know prairies really well say that you can have a lot of grass and—and not have a prairie because you don’t have the soil microorganisms and all the other things you need to make what was really a big, functioning system back in the—back in the old days, so it’s a—a special challenge. I don’t know—so I don’t—haven’t worked as much in the—in the Piney Woods so I’m not really familiar with all that, but there’s an awful lot of loblolly pine in—in that part of the world that—that wasn’t there before.
DT: Well here—here’s another question for you. So there are plants in Texas that are native but they—I guess they’re signs of—of land use and I’m thinking of—of mesquite and huisache and juniper. And—and I was curious how you see those as parts of the landscape when they’re probably remnants of overgrazing?
BC: Yeah. That—that is a—a—a big problem. And it’s—it is developing in—now in weirder ways as more people get interested in getting away from ranching and letting pastures go. And without active management on some of those grasslands, they quickly can turn into cedar breaks or mesquite thickets or weesatche stands. And then you have to—then you’ve got a real problem on your hands. But, yeah, I’m—the—that—woody encroachment is a huge issue because so many of our—of ou—so much of our diversity is in—in the ground layer in the grasslands.
And a lot of those—that diversity is threatened by invasion of woody plants like—like Ashe juniper, like—like mesquite. And—and managing those appropriately before they get out of hand is a—is—is an issue. I don’t have an answer for that one.
DT: Well one of the tools that I think landowners have been using, especially those that no longer rely on the land for their income and they’re not farming or ranching, they’ve—they’ve turned to this tool called a wildlife exemption. And I was curious what you think about that.
BC: A great concept just so that people don’t have to do a lot of cr—crazy things just to stay on their land, just to have their—their tax valuation low, rather than, you know, residential, which no one can afford. Again, it’s one of those practices where attention is focused mostly on animals. And I—I wish there were more aspects of qualifying for a wildlife exemption that involved plants.
Like I wish—I wish people could have a—could qualify by having an inventory of their flora say and, I mean, in ad—in addition to putting up a bird feeder, in addition to putting up a—an owl box, that they could get credit by having a botanist come out and look at their plants. I think that’d be awesome.
DT: Well and—and speaking of having a botanist come out and look at their plants, what—can you give us an example of a typical day when Bill Carr, Acme Botanical Services, comes out to a—a ranch and—and what are the tools of your trade and what—what would a typical day be creating one of these inventories that you mentioned?
BC: Well, you know, every case is different. Some landowners want to come with me all the time because they want to know the names of all the plants. They want to know—they want to see the fifty species of grass that they have. They want to learn all those. And—and others are—are too busy. I mean, they—they would like to come but they don’t have the time to wander around in ninety-degree heat and get on your belly and look at all these little tiny plants. So they’d just turn me loose.
And I—and I do have a—a standard method that starts with a geologic map that—knowing what the surface geology of the property is, what to expect. That’s a huge part. And then a soils map, which are easier to come by now. That’s all digitized. You can get that at the—there’s a web soils website that—where you can create your own map and—of—of the soils of the property. That’s very handy. So you put those together and figure out a plan of attack, knowing the soils and knowing the geology like where should I best focus my attention.
So, in order to do a—to start an inventory, I look at those and pick out representative areas that are either easy to get to or really, really important and the really important sites I’ll hit really hard. The representative ones that maybe aren’t so interesting, I visit to just to get a knowledge of the species that are in those other habitats. And just walk around and—and look at every species and write everything down and take GPS points for—for everything basically, but particularly for rare species—for anything that I collect.
There are often times when I have to take something home and identify it at home. I have to make a specimen and look at it with a microscope sp—particularly with grasses and sedges. So I take GPS points for those. And then I also feel obliged to collect county records. Texas has—has—has really poor documentation at the county level because so much of the land is private and entrée to a lot of places. Just wasn’t happening until recently. So I have all these opportunities to collect new county records.
When I—when I worked on a project at—on the Refugio-Goliad Prairie for The Nature Conservancy, I had access to ten ranches and three of the—yeah, it was amazing. I mean, just full access any time. And three of them were in Goliad County, which is to—almost nothing had ever been collected in Goliad County. So I added two hundred county records by collecting voucher specimens just from Goliad County alone by having access. So that—I think that’s like one of the contributions I can make.
Anywhere I go, I can collect county records just to fill in the blanks on distributions. So I spent a lot of time doing that. But mostly, you know, I focus on a product that I think will be useful to the landowner. So I take a lot of pictures of rare species obviously, but also just general landscapes and describing what that landscape is composed of, what the—what soil it’s on, its—its topographic aspect and things like that. Just sort of a—an overview of the plant life.
DT: So—so it sounds like one—one product might be a kind of a narrative about what’s there and—and—and maybe a plant list, photographs of the plants there. And that all would go to the landowner?
BC: Um-hm [yes.]
DT: Is that right?
DT: And then I think you said yous—you collect voucher samples, specimens, and you—I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your work with the herbaria, particularly the Herbarium at—at UT, which I think you’ve been pretty closely affiliated with?
BC: Yeah, I have actually. Well the, you know, herbarium is a—is a collection of dried plant specimens. It’s basically the same technique that your mom used when she put leaves into a book and dried them out—flattened them and dried them out. Same concept but on a bigger scale. Everything’s mounted on acid free archival paper, heavy arch—archival paper so that it’ll last forever. There’s stol—starting a airtight cabinet so that museum pests don’t destroy them and they basically last hundreds of years.
They take up a lot of space and so herv—herbaria are under attack on college campuses especially which is mostly where they are because they take up so much space and other people want that space now. Anyway, but UT’s collection is a—is—is really good for—for Texas. They have had many contributors over the years. And I think—well it’s all—it’s all digi—all the information is digitized now so you can—we now know exactly how many plant specimens they have because you—it’s all in a database. And they thought they had a million specimens at—from Texas for years and years.
And then when they databased it and they found that they had 220,000, so not as many as they thought. So I’m—one of my goals is to contribute more to that—to that database by—by collecting. But it takes a lot of time. I mean, it’s—it takes a lot of time to do—to press the specimens. It takes a lot of time to make a detailed label, which I like to do, that describes, you know, has the GPS point and it describes the surface geology and soils and vegetation and all the associated species. It’s a lot of work.
DT: Do you—do you—when you go to the Herbarium, do you feel like you’re—you’re sort of part of a community that’s supporting this? I mean, I—I understand that there’s some Lindheimer old collections. Is that correct there?
BC: Th—there are a few Lindheimer specimens there but they’re—it was not the principal destination for his specimens. They were—Missouri Botanical Gardens and the Gray Herbarium in Boston. Some of that Lindheimer stuff came back to Texas sort of almost accidentally. So it’s not—not a place for a lot of really old stuff. It’s mostly post-1900. It actually probably really got started when Mary Sophie Young was at the—at the Herbarium. Mary Sophie Young is one of my—my heroes.
She was a botany instructor or professor—I guess she was a professor—in the 1910s. And she was a single woman operating in—in Texas in the 1910s and she somehow managed to collect all kinds of plants. And, more than that, she developed the first list of the plants of the Austin area, which was really interesting for me because I’ve been doing—I’ve been studying Travis County ever since I got here and I—I maintain a huge list of all the things that have ever been found in Travis County. And it all goes back to her initial efforts.
And un—unfortunately she died of cancer in 1919, just when she was just getting started, but she left a—a great amount of information and a legacy behind her. She—she took the time to make a—a flora of Travis County. That was really interesting. You can find out from her comments what the status of certain species was according to her perceptions in the 1910s and that’s super valuable.
DT: Well I—I think it’s interesting that you have this connection and tie to scientists who spend time in the field and I was wondering—it seems like there’s a, you know, different factions within the scientific community. There’s some who spend time on computers doing simulations. There’s some who spend time in laboratories doing wet lab work. And then there’s some that go out in the field and I think you’re kind of the—the latter. And it—and is that somewhat rare these days? Is that fair to say?
BC: It is but that’s because of where the jobs are. I mean, there aren’t any—very many jobs for people that do what I do. It’s just the money goes elsewhere. So people follow—follow the money and—and do those jobs that they can get paid for.
DT: And why do you think the—the—the money and the priorities are where they—they seem to be?
BC: Oh because, you know, science is all about—about discovering, finding new things, finding new ways of looking at things. And what I do is more like natural history. It’s using the information that other people develop, but actually putting it to work in the field. So I’m not out there, you know, trying to get genetic information about plants so I can write new classifications of flowering plants. I’m just out there looking for plants and keying them out and pressing them, you know. It’s just—it’s not rocket science.
And so people that want to have a career in science are, you know, they’re obliged to do something more original, new, boundary expanding, and I totally respect that. I mean, that’s—that’s science. So it’s a—hi—natural history is sort of a lost—a lost art I guess.
DT: Well I—I—I think I’ve heard that you’ve been doing your part to keep it alive. I think you mentioned off camera that you had been teaching at the Austin Community College recently and had been teaching field botany and taking people out on the pastures and meadows around town, the thickets. Can you talk about those outings?
BC: Yeah, it was kind of fun. It was—it was a different experience. I’d do—I do plant walks almost every weekend somewhere for somebody, for some group. I do a lot of them. And this one I wanted to—a chance to give the same group different experiences in different places and that the informal class at—at Austin Community College was a—a good opportunity to do that because I had them for five—five sessions and I got to take them to several different places.
And what I was really interested in showing them was how we live in a—a really lucky place if you live in Austin because there’s so much different stuff within a short drive. You go west of town; you’re on the Edwards Plateau. You drive across the Blackland Prairie and into the sand; you’re in another hot spot. You drive up to the Llano Uplift and you have plants that grow on granite and—and gneiss. And I wanted to show them how different those floras are. And I’ve done some floristic analysis of—of parks in different parts of the state, comparing the species that they have to each other.
And I compared Bastrop State Park, which I helped on a—a huge inventory of that park for years. And I compared that one to Government Canyon in San Antonio, which is on limestone. And they shared—they each had over 500 species, but only 20 percent of them were shared in the two parks. So it’s just night and day difference wise, that just a whole different flora just—just a few—a few miles apart as the crow flies. So in this class with ACC, I took them to a ranch in Travis County on limestone and then the next week we went to Bastrop State Park into a part that burned during the big fire in—in 2011.
And—and they got it right away. I mean, as soon as we got out of the car in—in Bastrop, they’re like this is all different. And that made me feel really good. It’s like yeah, that’s—that’s—that’s the point. So there’s a lot of stuff out here that you don’t see on the other side of town and we’re just in the middle of it. We get to enjoy it all.
DT: Well and—are—are some of these plant communities in ecoregions in—in flux? And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about climate change and what sort of impact you’re seeing from that on the plants?
BC: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve been around long enough yet to—to comment on climate change. I mean, I know we’re—we’re—we’ve had long episodes of drought and is it just—is it just more drought or is it really climate change related? I mean, you look at the numbers and it’s like yeah, it’s getting hotter everywhere in a big way. There’s more carbon in the atmosphere and all these—all these things. But I just don’t know what to make of it on the—the microscopic level.
I mean, I’m not seeing anything like rapid vegetation change or, but I’m sure there’s subtle things that are happening under my nose and I’m just not—not equipped to detect it at this point. Yeah, I don’t know yet.
DT: I guess it’s—it’s still in process.
Yeah, I try to remain optimistic I guess is what I’m doing.
DT: Well I—I have a few questions that I usually ask as—as we draw to a close. And maybe you can help me there and I hope add if there are things that we haven’t covered. One is you’ve been in many places in Texas and elsewhere. Is there a favorite spot that you particularly like that—that seems to bring meaning to you?
BC: You know, this is going to sound dorky, but most of the time my favorite place is wherever I am because I just, I mean, there’s always plants, there’s always something to look at. It’s always interesting. But I do have places that I really like. I—when I worked with the The Nature Conservancy, I got to spend a lot of time on—on the Devil’s River. They had a big—that was one of their big conservation projects, driven by Black-capped Vireo conservation. Vireos are common out there. That’s—that’s their—the heart of their range.
They’re rare in Travis County here over on the eastern edge of the range. But out there, they’re all over the place. So they paid a lot of attention to developing conservation easements and buying property and doing what they could to—to protect that watershed. And it’s just a beautiful place. Have you ever seen the Devil’s River? I mean, it’s just a gorgeous river and it—and you never hear anything about it. And it’s full of interesting plants and vegetation, all kinds of interesting shrub lands and—and shortgrass grasslands.
It’s just a wonderful place and just beautiful. So that’s, yeah, that’s one of my favorite spots. But—but I also fell in love with Bastrop State Park that—after the fire, I had this contract with Parks and Wildlife to do a—an inventory for three years, starting in 2012, in fall of 2011, the place burnt to the ground in that horrible, you know, the Bastrop Complex Fire that burned up 1,600 homes and, you know, did a lot of damage. And the next year, I just happened to be scheduled to do an inventory there and I got to see things that hadn’t been seen in the park forever because it was so fire suppressed.
Before the fire, it was just big trees and yaupon and pine needles on the ground and pine needles hanging from the yaupons and no herbaceous plants and just awful. But that was what people wanted from that park was big trees and shade and, you know, darkness. And—and the fire—the fire really changed that. So it was weird for me to go out there in the spring of 2012 and just be surrounded by stunning wildflower displays, all this beauty, all these interesting things, knowing that, you know, the thing that created that beauty also took away 1,600 homes.
You know, it was like—I felt like I was the only person that was having a good time in Bastrop County that year. Everybody else was, you know, devastated and I’m out there going, “Oh look at all this cool stuff.” So, you know, I had to be kind of careful about that but that—but it’s—and it’s expanded. That park expanded a lot in the last few years. They’ve—they added—they about almost doubled its acreage and it’s not open to the public yet because it’s—they’re still developing a plan for it. They have things to consider such as the Houston toad populations.
So they would, you know, trying to make plans that accommodate a lot of stuff. So I got to see parts of the park that hadn’t been seen before. And I got to see them in the best time ever. I mean, the best three years ever to see plant diversity in Bastrop County were those three years after the fire. Was spooky though, really spooky. Just empty. No animals. No…
BC: Yeah, but sure was beautiful.
DT: Well another question that we usually ask is—is about—I guess you could say legacy or—or a message. And I—I think we should give some mention of your—your wonderful book, Rare Plants of Texas, that you completed with other botanists and—and maybe describe a little bit about that book and what you’re trying to achieve there and then maybe more general thought about what sort of message you might have for the future from, you know, your experience as a botanist here in Texas.
BC: Well, as far as the—the book goes, The Rare Plants of Texas book, I really don’t deserve credit for that. How that came about was when I was at the Heritage Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife, the senior botanist was Jackie Poole. And during all that political nonsense, she decided to quit and go to Montana. She got a job in Montana working for the Montana Natural Heritage Program. Jackie had been the one to answer all the phone calls and information requests about rare plants and where they were and everything was in her head, in—including all this stuff about all these cacti in West Texas that I just didn’t have any experience with.
So I was confronted with a situation where I needed to make something that I could use to hand out information to people. So I came up with the framework for the 230 species that were considered rare at the time. And my—I—I forget—we called them abstracts or something and so I could leave a copy with the people at the front desk and when they got questions, they could look at that and answer the questions and not have to find me and talk to me. And it was pretty basic. It was—the descriptions were really brief.
I was trying to write for the general public rather than for the scientific community. And—and then I left the department and that stayed behind. And then so it was Jackie that—when she came back from her job in Montana, came back to her old job at Texas Parks and Wildlife that picked it up and turned it into a book. I had shopped it around to a—one of the big publishers in Texas and they said well if you’ll give me $65,000, I’ll publish it. And I’m like nope, I don’t think so. Thank you. [laughing] But Jackie got it done somehow.
She raised some money with—I—I don’t even know the details on that—and—and got it published. So really I wrote a first draft that was nothing in comparison to what Jackie finally did.
DT: Well it’s—it’s a very nice contribution. And—and I was wondering if—if you could use that as sort of a springboard to talk about, you know, what your love of plants might mean to younger people who might see this tape, you know, read this transcript, and—and what you might want to pass on to them?
BC: Yeah, become a botanist. [laughing] No, I just think there’s—it’s really special to be able to identify all the plants you see because once you—once you know their identities, then you get to figure out what they do for a living and you really get a good concept of how things operate that you can’t get if you don’t—if you can’t even see the stuff that’s there. And it just—it’s just really rewarding in a very personal way. And I wish there were more jobs for people that ha—take the time to get that knowledge. It’s a lo—it’s a long process.
It’s a lot of work, a lot of fun work, but it’s work. And we need more botanists. Texas still is way behind the rest of the country in knowledge of what it has and they’re, I mean, we’re still finding new species, species new to science. I mean, I described one a few years ago from Travis County, a rare endemic on the Edwards Plateau that was published in like 20 or 2005, something like that. There’s still stuff out there that—that we just don’t have enough passionate people out there looking. And all we got to do is figure out how to pay them.
DW: Speaking of rare books and rare plants, we’ve been sitting here watching it all this time and saying nothing but Mr. Carr brought along a book and we know nothing about that mysterious book sitting to his left.
BC: Oh we have to do this.
DW: Care to share that?
BC: We have to do this.
DT: Yes, please.
BC: This—this book is why I have a career. This is the manual The Vascular Plants of Texas by Donovan Correll and Marshall Johnston. It was published in 1970. And it is the way that a trained botanist can identify any plant in Texas by using what we call keys, diagnostic keys, and by reading the technical descriptions. And, as you can see, it’s profusely illustrated. It’s just nothing but words and it’s—you have to have a lot of patience to use it and I’m fortunate enough that I had the training and the patience to use it because this is how I learned the plants of Texas.
There is—there is an illustration. One species is illustrated, the oh—the Texas bluebonnet, the one plant that everybody already knows. But that’s funny because I—I had this habit of writing the date and the location where I bought a book. And on the inside of this, it’s pretty worn now, but you can see that, David.
DT: What does it say?
BC: It says, “Twenty-six February, 1979, Alpine, Texas.” So I’ve had this thing for a long time. Got well used. And that’s—a fiftieth anniversary is coming up next year for that book. Big—a big occasion for celebration I would say.
DT: Well, thanks for helping us celebrate botany and—and your many contributions. And I was curious if there’s anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
BC: I can’t think of anything, David. You covered it. I’m just grateful for this opportunity. I’m still wondering what—why are you interviewing me. Of all the—of all the people in the wo—you know, in the—in the community—the scientific community—to interview, but I’m—I’m grateful that you did.
DT: Lots of good reasons. Thank you very much.
[End of Interview with Bill Carr – November 14, 2018]