November 12, 2012

Vol. 28 , No. 05   


View Entire Issue (Vol. 28 , No. 05)


Turn the Poet Out of Doors: A Natural History of Robert Frost
PETER WHITE
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2012

Robert Frost wrote, "It takes all kinds of in and outdoor schooling/To get adapted to my kind of fooling." Never more serious than when he was fooling, Frost's in and outdoor schooling included a life-long passion for natural history in general and gathering flowers, the most fundamental anthologizing, in particular. Cautioning one friend, "Don't put me down for a botanist," Frost would write to others about his relentless "botanizing," wondering, in one instance, whether one group of mountains contains ferns and another contains Braun's Holly or a particular species of wild orchids. He loved to talk with students about the qualities of Spencer, Braeburn, or Northern Spy apples but remained keenly aware of what the tension between what we know and what we believe about the natural world, between literary and natural history, essence and family resemblance: "The rose is a rose,/And was always a rose./ But the theory now goes/That the apple's a rose,/ And the pear is, and so's/ The plum, I suppose. . ." ("The Rose Family").

Frost's knowledge of natural history has often taken literary critics by surprise but has also captivated scientists as well. After visiting Amherst in 1931, Niels Bohr was impressed by Frost's understanding of the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics; Stephen Jay Gould remarked often on the stunning insights he found in Frost's poems. Peter S. White, a renowned botanist and ecologist, has found in Robert Frost a remarkable compendium of dramatic insights. The director of the University of North Carlolina's 700-acre botanical gardens and a professor of biology and botany at UNC Chapel Hill, Peter White is in a unique position to reveal what flowers and poetry tell us about the world and about the interrelated worlds of poetry and science.

White is a plant ecologist with interests in communities, floristics, biogeography, species richness, beta diversity, conservation biology and disturbance and patch dynamics. In vegetation science he is interested in the composition and dynamics of plant communities, the relationship between vegetation and landscape, and role of disturbance, and the ecology of individual species in a dynamic setting. In conservation biology he is interested in the distribution and biology of rare species, the design and management of nature reserves and alien species invasions.

Under White's direction, The UNC Botanical Garden became one of the first gardens to enact policies aimed at diminishing the risk of release of exotic pest organisms in 1998 and was presented with a Program Excellence Award in 2004 by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. In 2009, the Garden opened the Education Center, a 29,000 sq ft facility designed to achieve a Platinum LEED rating.

Between teaching classes and running the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Peter White finds little time to actually stop and smell the roses. "We live in a world teeming with other species," White has observed. "We're evolved from the same cell that started it all, and we don't understand it worth beans."That quest for deeper knowledge takes him from his University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Office to the Smokies in Sevier County, Tennessee, to hunt a missing Arctic wildflower last seen in 1892. His research put him before lawmakers in Congress to testify on the importance of cataloging and preserving as many species as possible: plants, bugs, bacteria, anything.

Peter White serves on the Boards of the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, the Center for Plant Conservation and Discover Life in America.

His talk is sponsored by The Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.