Thirty years ago, I took the natural history course purely for exercise. I figured, what better way to stay in shape than to get credit for it? At the time, I couldn't tell a maple from an oak, let alone one old weed from another, and it wouldn't be easy. But just to keep off the flab would be a benefit in its own right. Since the prospectus promised daily field trips, no mention of love or awe or wonder, the last thing I expected was a miracle.
Showing up for the first day's trip, I wore old tennis shoes, of the thin-canvas Keds variety. I had no idea L.L. Bean's half-rubber hiking boots were de rigueur for a course of this kind. What god-awful-ugly shoes just to walk in the woods! I thought in horror. Right then, I realized I'd made a huge mistake and it was too late to change my mind -- I'd have to stick it out for the whole semester. I knew for sure I was going to be more miserable getting exercise than I ever would have with my thighs turning to mush safe in the college library.
The teacher, Miss G, took off stomping down the path and we tramped on after her. I was last, straggling behind, half-hoping to get lost so at least I could head back to civilization. Before we'd gotten far, she halted, peering intently at something near her feet. She waited for us to catch up and gather round her, then pointed at a weed. "Heal-all. Prunella vulgaris," she announced sternly and without passion. "Vulgaris means 'common.' Learn both names, genus and species. Be forewarned, 'Heal-all' by itself will not be an adequate answer on your quizzes."
She stepped aside so we could take a better look. As instructed, one by one the class dutifully wrote down a description and the two names weíd been given. I was still at the back, waiting my turn without the least enthusiasm let alone the anticipation of what, in those days, we called a mind-blowing experience.
"Come on, now, don't be shy. Step up and look for yourself," Miss G scolded me, pushing at my elbow to propel me closer.
Finally the clump of students cleared out and I had a better view. For some reason, I found myself actually kneeling in front of the weed to look at it close up. Then it happened. As if the proverbial light bulb flashed on over my head, I understood what Miss G meant when sheíd said: Weeds are only wildflowers growing where they aren't wanted. Prunella, I know now, was no more than a common mint, found in poorly manicured lawns or waste ground. Yet, with its conical head of iridescent purple-lipped flowers and its square stem ñ on impulse, I'd reached out to touch it and discovered an amazing fact: the stem wasnít round! Heal-all was the single most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. The world went still--there was only the flower and the realization I'd fallen in love.
Since one of my other courses concerned the history of early Christianity, I knew immediately what had happened. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I'd been struck by unexpected lightning and converted. I put away my notebook, knowing I wouldn't need to write down a word, knowing I'd never forget "common Prunella" as long as I lived.
There were many other miracles in my life after that, but none came close to the thunderbolt that knocked me flat that afternoon when I saw, truly saw, that homely little mint for the first time. "Sedges have edges but rushes are round and grasses have nodes where willows abound." Yes, I learned such mnemonics, which helped me as much as the next person when a plant was hard to identify. But I discovered in myself an amazing feel for botany that was like sunken treasure thousands of feet beneath the ocean. Once I knew it was there, I had merely to plumb the depths, more or less subconsciously, and gold would magically appear.
I went walking in the woods every chance I got and carried Peterson's guides with me even into town, checking out the most humble and inconspicuous snippet of green that poked through the sidewalk cracks. The first time I came out with a certain plant's genus and species before Miss G told the class what we were seeing, she looked at me oddly. I began repeating this performance until once she even allowed me to argue her into changing her classification of a tricky species. If I still hung back behind the group as we walked, it was no longer from reluctance. I was simply too caught up in looking at each tree to keep up the pace.
By December, as the semester was coming to a close, Miss G had begun using me as her unofficial assistant, asking my opinion whenever there was a question as to what was before us. Oh, I confess, I never did get the knack of birds--it was the trees and wildflowers that stole my heart entire.
At the end of the semester, we received course evaluations in lieu of letter grades. I opened mine eagerly, expecting praise. Instead, Miss G was terse and unenthusiastic: "Pamela faithfully attended every field trip, but for most of the course she failed to share her insights and established expertise with the rest of the class." End quote. "Failed to share her established expertise"? What was she talking about? Did she think I'd already known everything she taught us? How could she not understand what she'd done for me, introducing me to little Prunella, how I'd learned everything I knew after that moment, not before?
It was the worst evaluation I'd ever been given, the injustice of which struck me to the marrow. I went to her office to explain and found a sign on her door saying she'd been called away on a family emergency and would not be returning until the next semester. But I wasn't returning for the second semester. I was transferring back to my original school.
I caught my ride home, spending four hours crammed into the back of an old Volkswagen with three other students, wordless with indignation that reverberated in my mind. How could she think such a thing? I couldn't stop writing and rewriting a letter of protest in my head as the highway flowed endlessly beneath us.
I did write the letter, finally, explaining all she'd awoken in me, emphasizing my new-found joy and amazement. At the end of March I got a reply, but no apology or hint that she understood her misunderstanding. Not even appreciation for my gratitude towards her and what her course had done for me. Just a brisk, no-nonsense note, little better than a form letter. I had the impression that she didn't quite remember who I was, that I was just another faceless student writing to her about a natural history course she'd taught perhaps forty times in her long career as a teacher.
Whether she knew who I was or even recognized what she'd done for me mattered little in the end. What did matter was that when I met homely little Prunella I discovered the whole world in a common weed and it changed my life.