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Column: Gardening makes one learner in nature’s class

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Although I took the Purdue Master Gardener class some time ago, I am still a Master Gardener in-training. I have not yet obtained the coveted gold name tag because I still have a few hours of service and education to complete the requirements.

This is one of the reasons I was at the fairgrounds last week sorting and bagging dogwood and redbud trees in preparation for the Johnson County Garden Celebration. The other reason is because the Garden Club members are so nice to be around. It never fails to amaze me how much they know.

The other members and I share a love of gardening, obviously. I believe I can say, as well, that we also share a love and fascination with the incredible variety of life nature has to offer.

One of the biggest differences we have, I would say, is how much they know about so much of nature’s variety compared to my paltry knowledge of just about any area of gardening and the like. I usually keep my mouth shut because I’m so busy learning from them.

So I was happy that I could join in when one of the volunteers at my table exclaimed, “I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak yesterday!” and I could enthusiastically reply, “So did I!”

We briefly considered if it were possible we had seen the same bird but figured it was unlikely. We assumed it was a coincidence, although I learned this is the time of year grosbeaks come back to Indiana after their winter in Mexico and Central America.

I admitted to everyone at the table that I didn’t recognize this distinctive bird perched on my feeder and had to grab my “Birds of Indiana Field Guide.”

“Plump black-and-white bird.” Check. “Large, triangular rose patch on center of chest.” Check. “Wing linings rosy red.” Check. “Large ivory bill.” Check and check.

I was pleased that now I had a specific name for something that before was just another bird. My fellow grosbeak enthusiast said he also had to look it up in a book, and that comforted me somehow.

After the volunteer work, some of us went to a member’s property for a hike through the woods. Once again, I was fascinated by the depth of knowledge these Master Gardeners possess.

Walking through the woods alone, I might notice a tiny, delicate flower or curiously-shaped leaf and think, “That looks interesting,” and move on. On this walk with these people, every inch of ground was a textbook of information on the local flora. It was the best kind of classroom: The teachers were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and this student, at least, was motivated to learn.

As a lifelong student of words and language, I take a special interest in the names themselves. On our hike I learned that “wort” as in “bloodwort” or “liverwort” comes from the Old English word for plant or root. I also discovered that a grosbeak is so named because the word “grosbeak” means “big beak.”

To me, there are few subjects more interesting than the natural world and words with their endless, poetic possibilities. It is especially enjoyable when I can think of them together.

My mind went to the Genesis account of Adam being given the task of naming all of Creation. I thought about how there must have been a time before he received that assignment. During that period, did he look at the various leaves and flowers and birds and wonder what they were? Once they had their names, did he see them in a different light?

I can’t answer that, but I do know I am happy to now be able to identify a rose-breasted grosbeak.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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