Thursday, March 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: summer of 1984


This isn't my favorite photo of myself, but it shows some of the people I worked with in the summer of 1984, just after graduating from Cornell University.  That summer helped change the direction of my life when I worked as a seasonal gardener at the Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, New York.  I had gone along with my friend Jim Steuerlein, an ornamental horticulture major who was looking for a summer job and had heard they were hiring, and I was looking for work myself as I was about to graduate with a degree in Entomology and had no job lined up.  Almost on a lark I decided to apply, and I was hired.

I had always been interested in plants and gardening, and had taken several undergraduate courses in botany and horticulture, but those 6 months at the Cornell Plantations gave me a hands-on education far better than any other I could have gotten.   One of the first, and hardest, lessons: gardeners get up early.  Having to be at work by 7 am every day nearly killed me but aside from that, I loved the job.  Head gardener Mary Hirshfeld kept us busy and worked us hard, but was also patient and fun to work with, as were Kim and Donna, the other full-time gardeners.  One of the jobs I'll never forget was moving several dozen full-sized peonies, in full bloom, as part of a renovation of the peony garden.  We all thought it was crazy but Mary told us that as long as the root balls were big enough--and they were huge!--the plants would be okay, and she was right; they didn't so much as wilt.

November finally came, and when the growing season ended, so did my job.  I stayed in Ithaca with my partner (now husband!) Dan and went on to a series of different jobs in Cornell's Department of Entomology but something had changed.  My heart was no longer in that field and my interests were turning more and more towards plants, so in 1988 I applied to the Cornell Graduate School for a degree in Systematic Botany.  After spending 3 years of grad school in the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, in 1991 I left Cornell and Ithaca for good and I've been in Washington, DC ever since.

I had a chance to revisit my old haunts, including the Cornell Plantations, when Dan and I went back to Cornell for our 20th reunion in 2004.  I was pleased to see that one of my favorite trees, a specimen of Magnolia macrophylla, was still alive and even more impressive than I remembered it.  I was always amazed that such a tropical-looking tree could be so hardy, and this was one of my early inspirations to seek out tropical-looking hardy plants.  It's not a stretch to say that that tree led me to this blog 30 years later.

Magnolia macrophylla
Magnolia macrophylla, Cornell Plantations, 2004

Entirely by chance, while we were visiting the Plantations I ran into Mary.  I said hello and as we chatted I was finally able to tell her how much I enjoyed that job and appreciated what I had learned from her.  It's hard to believe that was already 10 years ago, and my 30th reunion is coming up later this year.  I hope to have some photos with a new perspective to post from the Cornell Plantations.

Getting the best photo (cropped)


  1. Wonderful story, thank you for sharing it. I also love the photo of you and the Magnolia macrophylla. Please forgive me if you've covered this, but what exactly is your current profession? Meaning where do you spend your work days?

    1. Thanks! I work in the U.S. National Herbarium (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History). If you search my name on Google Scholar you'll find papers I've authored or co-authored but lately my job is mostly collections & data management and not really related to what I'm blogging about.