Lake Tahoe.

Wayne's Aunt Doris, cousin Kathy and family friend.

Mono Lake.

San Diego Zoo.


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Wayne in Maui.

San Diego Zoo.



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 plants.

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 hineline@ocotillofield.net.