Local proprietor shares his knowledge
By: MARK HINELINE - For the North County Times
Last modified Saturday, June 5, 2004 11:00 PM PDT
Wildflowers are busily transforming the blackened earth, charred by
last year's Cedar fire, on the slopes of Iron Mountain in Poway. A
reader told me about it. As I write this, I haven't witnessed it
firsthand. I intended to go see for myself, early one morning, and to
take some pictures. Instead, while checking directions ---- Poway has surprised
me before by installing new roads that weren't
there on my previous visit ---- I got sidetracked
by an unexpected result from a Google search on the Web. It wasn't the top link from my search. It wasn't even on the
first page. I'm not even sure why I clicked on the link. The Web site's
name, a word play on the title of a popular film
from more than a decade ago, wasn't all that
promising. Even so, I clicked. It wasn't long before I realized that I
had wandered into a vast virtual vault made up of
twisting corridors, full of knowledge, with
surprises around every corner. I had discovered the holdings of our local proprietor.
There may be a proprietor for every region of the country, covering
small areas or large. Past proprietors have included Henry David
Thoreau, who knew all about Concord, Mass., and John Muir, who
reigned over the High Sierra.
Those who love the deserts of California, and make an effort
to learn more, soon learn the name of their local
proprietor: it's Edmund C. Jaegar, whose lifelong
proprietorship over the Mojave and Colorado
deserts yielded several books about desert natural history.
I call these and other natural historians "proprietors"
because, through years of learning and
investigation, they come to own a region. They
don't hold legal title to the land itself, but their ownership of
knowledge about the land is indisputable. I long suspected that North County had its local proprietor.
Now I am fairly certain who it is.
Our local proprietor is Wayne P. Armstrong, alias Mr.
Wolffia. The alias is a tip of Armstrong's hat to
a genus of aquatic plant. Armstrong has been
teaching botany at Palomar College for almost four
decades, which means that thousands ---- perhaps tens of thousands ----
of former students already knew what I discovered this week.
Professor Armstrong is the man to see about local
Now retired, Armstrong continues to teach online as an
adjunct professor. The
Web site I discovered is his "Online Textbook of Natural History." I
haven't gotten through a tenth or even the tenth part of a tenth of
it yet. I suspect I
could follow the links all day, every day, for several
weeks, and still not come to the end of it. Much of Armstrong's online textbook is general knowledge
about natural history. If you want to know about sand dunes, for instance, this is the place
to educate yourself. Those who yearn to learn about the world's
largest ---- and most foul-smelling ---- flower,
the stinking corpse lily of Borneo, can satisfy
their yearning for knowledge from Armstrong's site.
The morning I stumbled upon the site, I was looking for more
local information. I found that, too, in abundance. There were photographs of
wildflowers poking their heads out of the
fire-ravaged landscape, and there was an article
about post-fire succession ---- the process by which nature
recovers from fire.
As with all local proprietors, Armstrong neither hoards what
he knows, nor does he insist on making each and
every discovery himself. He does his own
fieldwork, but he also relies on the observations and systematic
work of others, some of whom ---- such as James Dillane, a science
teacher at L.R. Green Middle School in
Escondido ---- hold subproprietorships within Armstrong's greater domain. Dillane is the man to see about native
species at Daley Ranch.
I met Dillane a few years ago, while looking into amateur scientists in
the region. Although not exactly an amateur ---- science teachers are
professionals ---- Dillane's extensive knowledge of regional botany
does not pay his mortgage nor put groceries in his
refrigerator. It is science for its own sake,
accomplished out of sheer curiosity and zeal. As with Armstrong, Dillane knows a lot about local plants. I
made the mistake of asking him how many plants he
knows by name. He answered with a
question: "How many people do you know by name?" Too many to
accurately count, I replied. I took his point.
Neither Dillane nor Armstrong will win a Nobel Prize for
their endeavors. There
is no such prize for local knowledge. But for as long as native plants grow in North County, the
knowledge that its local proprietors have
discovered, gathered and shared will be treasured
by those who wish to learn more about our unique region.
For now, Wayne Armstrong ---- Mr. Wolffia ---- is our local
proprietor. He doesn't own North County's botany
outright, and no law makes him share what he
knows. But share he does. For local botany, he is the man to see.
Mark Hineline writes the weekly "Out Here" column, on science and
nature, from his home in Escondido. He is a historian of science. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.