Story and Photographs by Joshua Brown
On september 13, 2017, Liz Thompson, director of conservation science for the Vermont Land Trust, was walking in the woods in Shaftsbury, Vermont. On Bucks Cobble Hill, she and a colleague came across an unusual plant growing on limestone. They knew it was some kind of snakeroot, in the genus Sanicula—but which species? As botanists will do, they both got out their field guides and began to look more closely at the parts of the plant’s green flowers, its calyx and stigma. They keyed it down to two possibilities: an uncommon snakeroot called Sanicula trifoliata or the more rare Sanicula canadensis.
But their two books had different drawings and keys. “And these were conflicting. So we were confused,” says Thompson G’86, an expert on Vermont plants who co-teaches a UVM field botany course with senior lecturer Cathy Paris G’91. “There are books and books and books, and there are descriptions and descriptions and descriptions. But there is nothing to substitute for natural specimens. To actually see them in the flesh—so to speak—there’s just no substitute for that.”
So she decided to go take a look at the plant collections in UVM’s Pringle Herbarium.
From 1975 until last August, that would have meant going to the third floor of the venerable but-often-overlooked Torrey Hall, dedicated in 1863. It’s home to a collection of some 660,000 specimens. These include more than 330,000 dried plants from around the world—many thousands of which were contributed by UVM botanist Cyrus Guernsey Pringle (1838-1911) for whom the herbarium is named—as well as 280,000 pinned insects, 40,000 spiders and other arachnids, 12,000 mammal skins and skeletons, and a modest selection of stuffed birds, bird eggs, amphibians, lizards, snakes, fish, and mollusks. It’s by far the largest natural history collection in Vermont and now the state’s official archive for documenting its plants and animals after the State of Vermont’s own collections were deeply damaged by flooding during Hurricane Irene in 2011.
But, as Vermont Quarterly readers may have noted in the last issue—and as many Burlington residents saw on the campus skyline—smoke began pouring out of the roof of Torrey Hall at 8:12 a.m. on August 3. A spark from a workman’s torch, during renovations to the building’s copper roof, had gone astray.
When David Barrington arrived on campus a few minutes later, “Twenty-foot flames were coming out of the roof,” he says. “I thought: well, that’s the end of my forty-three years of investment in Pringle and his heritage. I thought I was just going to drop.” The curator of the herbarium since 1974 and professor of plant biology, Barrington has been the driving force behind designating the collections in Torrey, in 2014, as the University of Vermont Natural History Museum—bringing together the plants in the Pringle Herbarium with the animal specimens in the Zadock Thompson Zoological Collections. This work included securing a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to reorganize the collections to align with a modern understanding of the tree of life, make high-res digital images of the specimens for online viewing—and move the whole collection from substandard wooden cabinets into new fireproof metal ones.
As the four-alarm fire burned, several near-miracles unfolded. First, the fast-moving firefighters went into the building and covered some of the cabinets with tarps and were able to contain the blaze to the crawl space on the flared outer edge of the building’s mansard roof. “The lieutenant climbed right in there with a hose,” Barrington recalls. The top of the building was surrounded by a crown of flames, but the interior frame was spared. Second, the tinder-dry sheets of plants, glued on paper, just feet from the scorching heat overhead, were unharmed in their new cabinets.
And third, in the days after the fire was extinguished, “an absolutely amazing outpouring of people came to help,” Barrington says. The few thousand plants that were in open cabinets, or out on work tables, were carried by hand to dry out in nearby buildings or shipped to a specialized freezing facility in Massachusetts for protection. The insects and mammals—housed on lower floors of Torrey—were safely moved to Blundell House on Redstone Campus. Cabinets of plants on the fourth floor were lifted by crane through a hole cut in the burned roof of Torrey Hall and reorganized in the basement of Jeffords Hall.
Which is how Liz Thompson could be heading for the Pringle Herbarium, six weeks after the fire, by walking down into the Jeffords basement. She opens a locked storage room, and steps through a narrow canyon of metal doors. “Cabinet 413, let’s see, it’s right here,” she says, and opens one. She scans down the hundreds of stacked folders, color-coded by region (plus a few in red, that are “type” specimens, meaning they are the original plant which a collector used to describe and name a new species) and picks out two green folders; green for Vermont.
She places them side-by-side on a small metal table, takes out her smartphone and opens pictures of the plant she saw in the Shaftsbury forest. In one folder, she goes through a sheaf of specimens of Sanicula canadensis, collected at different seasons, peering closely at their flowers with a silver hand-lens. One of the plants in this folder Thompson collected herself, in West Haven, near Rutland, in July 1990, on a “hill NW of Fish Hill,” the label reads. In the other pile are sheets of Sanicula trifoliata. She looks closely at one collected on August 18, 1898, by the former president of Middlebury College and distinguished botanist Ezra Brainerd. “Yep, that’s the one,” she says, smiling. “It’s awesome to think that Ezra Brainerd made this collection more than one hundred years ago and here it is and it’s vitally useful to me right now.”
This Shaftsbury forest, where the plant was growing, was recently conserved by the land trust and Thompson and her colleague were scouting it on behalf of the owner, an organic farmer, helping her develop a land management plan. “We know exactly what the species is now,” says Thompson, “we can talk to the landowner about how she has something quite special and get her out to see where it’s living. We’ll advise that area not be managed for timber because of its conservation value.”
While natural history collections certainly need cabinets, the Renaissance notion of the Kunstkabinett or cabinet of curiosities—the vision of a natural history collection as a mash-up of exotic plants and stuffed creatures curated for its own sake—“misses the point of what I do,” says assistant professor Michael Sundue ’99, the assistant curator and research librarian of the Pringle Herbarium.
Last summer, before the fire, I spoke with Sundue as he was preparing for a botanical expedition to Colombia. Part of his work takes place in a laboratory in Jeffords Hall, extracting DNA from plant cells; part among the cabinets in the herbarium, studying dried plants; and part in mountains, swamps, and forests—from New Guinea to South America—collecting living plants, especially ferns. “They all fit together,” he says.
“Museums are repositories for collections. And collections are a tool of natural history, which is a tool we can use for understanding many biodiversity questions,” he says. “All of our questions are much more interesting than the collection itself. But they can’t be addressed without the collection.”
“When I tell people I work in an herbarium, they say, ‘so what do you do up there all day? Categorize things?’” Sundue tells me, with a big smile. “I try not to be offended,” he says, now laughing out loud. And then he pauses and looks up at the ceiling. “And I think, well, yes, I guess I do. I do categorize things a lot.”
Then he picks up a small bag of dried and ground fern leaves that has been prepared for DNA analysis. “But that is not the point. The point is not to categorize things. This is the point: categorizing is a process we do in order to develop a tool—which is a collection—which we use to answer questions about the natural world.”
For example: how will global warming affect insect life in Vermont? Numerous scientists use the UVM collections to look for clues about how climate change may be shifting the geographic ranges of species. In the Vermont portion of the collection, “we have only one specimen of the carpenter ant, Camponotus chromaoides, collected in the Champlain Valley in 1984,” says UVM biologist Nick Gotelli, who studies ants as part of his ecological research. “This is a warm-climate species that rarely occurs north of central Massachusetts,” he says. Having this baseline information from the collection can allow him and other scientists to better understand what they discover in the field. “It could be a harbinger of climate change if we start to detect additional occurrences in Vermont,” he says.
Similarly, in 2015, a team of scientists, including Leif Richardson, a bee expert at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment, and Sara Zahendra and Kent McFarland from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, donated some 9,000 pinned, identified, and digitized bumble bee specimens, drawing from their work on the Vermont Bumble Bee Survey, to the UVM collections. Combined with the labors of collectors going back decades, this bee collection helps tell a story of how land-use changes, pesticides, and climate change are rewriting the distribution and abundance of the state’s bees and other pollinators.
But the questions go much farther than Vermont, and much deeper in time than the geologic eye-blink of the reign of the naked, large-brained primate categorized as Homo sapiens. “People will say, ‘so, then you have all of the bugs in Vermont?’” says Sundue. “Well, yes, we do have many of them. And we have insects and plants from all over the world,” he says, including the best collection of DNA-grade Caribbean spiders in the world, gathered by UVM spider expert Ingi Agnarsson and others; a stupendous worldwide collection of ground beetles collected by legendary professor Ross Bell and his wife, Joyce Bell; Cyrus Pringle’s pioneering plant collection from Mexico and other dry places, including some 1,200 new species he discovered; a fine collection of rare shrews and other small mammals from Pakistan collected by mammalogist Bill Kilpatrick; Dave Barrington’s extensive collection of hollyferns—and the collections of hundreds of other naturalists and scientists stretching well back into the nineteenth century.
“The point is not to have one of everything, but to have a representative sample which we can use to understand the morphology of an organism, its shape and form,” says Sundue. Historically, this set of visible traits—like flower shape or skull size—has been used to describe and distinguish species and place them on their branch in the tree of life. The molecular revolution of the last few decades has redrawn large parts of this tree by exploring microscopic DNA. But the same basic task remains: to find the traits of a plant or animal—whether the shape of a leaf or the molecular sequence of base pairs in a gene—that shows how it is different from, but relates to, other organisms.
And the engine of this ever-branching, currently shrinking, 3.95-billion-year-old tree of life is evolution by natural selection—organisms trying to make a living in the constant ecological flux, with the ones best-adapted to their place and moment surviving to pass on their distinctive genes to the next generation. It’s an endless process of diversification and movement, innovations and failures. “And we use natural history collections to explore some big questions in evolution,” says Sundue. “Where is biodiversity distributed on the planet? Why are there more species at the equator than anywhere else? Why are there more species halfway up the Andes Mountains than there are at the top or the bottom? Collections are the fundamental primary data we use to address those questions.
“The information we need is not necessarily written down in books anywhere,” Sundue says, sitting in the library of Torrey Hall. Behind him are hundreds of mostly green- and brown-spined books: Fruits of the Guianan Flora, Sex in Plants, Megalastrum of the Andes, Parts I & II. “So you have to have collections at your disposal so you can constantly query the specimens. Does this specimen show this trait? Let’s pull it out of the cabinet and see.”