David Clarke brings his love of working with plants in the field to his students.
Field notes of a Botanist
David Clarke: collector of plants in the world's last great tropical wilderness
Near his desk at UNC Asheville, a few tell-tale appurtenances suggest that David Clarke has once again been out of town.
In the corner: a blowgun with darts tipped with curare, a paralyzing poison that can enable a Guyana tribesman to chase down a monkey, then eat it. On a nearby shelf: delicate basketry made of palm reeds. Inside: necklaces with pendants that, again, have a distinctive out-of-town spin—claws of great armadillos, teeth of ocelot, tusks of wild pigs, bones of spider monkeys.
Clarke, who joined the UNC Asheville faculty in 2000, is an associate professor of Biology. Previously, he worked as the last full-time resident plant collector for the Smithsonian Institution's Biological Diversity of the Guianas Program. Today, he continues to catalog vanishing plants in Guyana (previously known as British Guiana) during the summers. Since the mid-'90s, he has collected more than 12,000 distinct specimens, making more than 20 expeditionary trips into what he calls "the world's last great tropical wilderness." One particular species, a passion flower called Dilkea clarkei, was discovered by Clarke and recently named for him.
David Clarke (far right) in Guyana during a plant collection trip with Patamona Amerindian guides (L–R) Charles Joseph, Colin Albin, Rodney Daniel and Moses Williams.
Because of his journeys of discovery, there is more to a David Clarke lecture or lab than general taxonomy. Into discussions of plants and ecosystems enters a sense of actually being in the bush, the mists and drips and understory of the tropics rising to the occasion, along with night sounds and the conversations of Amerindians on the trail. For some students, more than the imagination is engaged. On a number of trips, Clarke has been accompanied by one or more undergraduates, who are doing research.
On his expeditions into the wild, into the Acarai and other mountain ranges, Clarke has collected—along with plants— scores of stories, each one drenched in the wet, staggering beauty of the rain forest. He calls Guyana "the land of lost toys" and, in the breadth of a sentence, out tumble jaguars, anaconda, piranha, catfish that adhere to your body, bushmasters, macaws, tapirs, orchids, 400-foot waterfalls and luminescent earthworms three feet long.
His journals, painstakingly hand-written, reveal not just his scientific discoveries but also the personal revelations that shape his spirit of adventure.
Wanted: Botanist to collect in vast rain forest
Souvenirs from Clarke's travels include poison-tipped arrows and ocelot teeth, which he keeps in his campus office.
A chance encounter with a small notice in a botany newsletter triggered Clarke's first trip to Georgetown, Guyana.
"I was finishing my Ph.D., heading for a post-doctoral position at a lab at Duke when I saw this notice from the Smithsonian advertising for a botanist in Guyana," Clarke said. "I sent them my vita, and they sent me back a one-way ticket."
From the moment he landed, he had to figure things out on his own. "I had to put together the first expedition piece by piece. It was a steep learning curve."
Piece by piece means food, equipment, transportation (generally a small plane into the interior), medical supplies and fuel, plus items to compensate native Amerindians for their help bushwhacking trails and minding camp (and occasionally saving your life), including beads, buckets, machetes, soap, salt and fishing line. And one other largely indispensable item: newspapers for holding plant specimens that would be flown back, in heavy bundles, to Georgetown for drying.
Writing from the University of Guyana on his first trip (1995), he assays for friends: "It's my job to collect and identify all the plants in the Iwokrama rainforest reserve on the Essequibo River. My Macushi Amerindian workers and I collect along rivers or crude machete-cut trails during the day and sleep in hammocks under tarps at night. To collect, I need flowers and/or fruits, most of which occur in the canopy some 40–50 m. off the ground. All of the action is in the canopy, so I have to climb up with tree climbing spikes and a safety belt, get some 20, 30, or 40 m. off the ground and then pull up pole pruners with 3 ten-foot sections to reach out into the void (holding on to the tree for dear life) to clip that precious branch. And you thought that botanists were effete myopic nerds!"
He continues: "But the view from the canopy makes it all seem worthwhile, filled with butterflies and sunlight, and contrasting strongly with the dark, cavernous uniformity of green of the understory. The forest is majestic. The canopy is not quite as high as some of the Pacific NW rainforests, but the trees have huge buttressed bases and are draped with mighty lianas and epiphytes (orchids, bromeliads, like wild pineapple), ferns, African violet cousins, mosses, and Philodendron-type things."
Into the mountains with the Wai Wais
On a later expedition, with the intention of reaching the summit of the Acarai Mountains to collect orchids and other plants at cloud forest levels, the travel party consisted of five Wai Wais, two Wapishana, one Arawak, one Guyanese coastlander, five American ornithologists and Clarke. There were also, according to Clarke's notes: "Three prodigious Wai Wai dugout canoes; 70 miles of river travel from the Wai Wai village of 200 people (the only permanent human habitation within a hundred-mile radius) to the headwaters of the Essequibo River; eight miles of cutting trails with machetes and carrying load from the river to two mountain camps to reach the summit of the mountains, the highest of these at 3,700 ft."
Clarke's close working collaborations with Amerindians has shaped both friendships and personal observations. Of the 200 remaining Wai Wais in Guyana, he writes, "The only thing scheduled for extinction in the very near future in that area is their culture."
So remote it takes two weeks to paddle to an outpost for salt, the Wai Wai village has often been a jumping off point for collection trips, an assembly point for river expeditions into mountainous regions both vast and unknown.
"As usual, the mountains appeared abruptly and almost miraculously right where they should have been, behind a large, clear stream flowing over white sand out of a gorge. Later the Wai Wais made one of their baroque monkey bridges in the form of a large tree felled by cutlass over the creek and rigged with a bush rope for balance. We waded the first day and could have easily done without the monkey bridge altogether, but the Wai Wais really get into their work and are hard to discourage from any activity involving an axe or cutlass.
"They know that they have our respect because of this and I gain their respect by picking up a heavy load and walking with it. Without this respect, an expedition is in serious trouble; with it we can survive and persevere through almost any hardship."
The corner office with tapirs and blowguns
As a visitor—sitting quietly with Clarke in his unobtrusive office space in Zeis Hall, talking about his Wai Wai friends, about beer made by spitting chewed up cassava into a bucket, and the delight of drinking unfiltered water directly out of the Essequibo River with its layer of piranha—it's easy to be of two minds.
The first relishes the notion of spending time with this interesting person, David Clarke, teacher and chronicler of biodiversity, as fall begins at UNC Asheville and students rush between appointments. The second, quite of its own accord, is reasonably sure that water is rising in the room and that, around Clarke's desk, a tapir is swimming by, followed by the branch of a banyan tree encircled by an anaconda.
It is that sense of wonder and discovery that takes shape in the minds of Clarke's students. They are often challenged by their professor's questions, like the following from one of his many journeys:
"So the question is, can we at this time, all six billion of us with our umpteen billion cows, pigs, and chickens, afford the luxury of keeping this green leafy guy around? Can we first of all afford the luxury of documenting these organisms since most of them, especially in the tropics, are unknown and, secondly, after we find out what and where they are and evaluate their value in human terms—which is likely to be slight in comparison to our many pressing social and economic needs—can we decide that the world is a better place with these plants in it?"
The terms, conditions and texturings of the answer to that question are, thanks in part to David Clarke, a matter of personal and historical record.