In Memorium: Robert Wilson, Champion of Local History

by Peg Siciliano, TAHS Board of Directors, Archivist

The Grand Traverse Area lost a champion of local history with the passing, in California, of Robert Wilson in November 2017.  A Traverse City memorial service was held in his honor this past August.

Joy (left) and Bob Wilson, both past presidents of the Traverse Area Historical Society.

Born in Detroit in 1936, Wilson moved to Traverse City with his family in 1946. He graduated high school here, and would return to his “hometown” in retirement.  He then served for many years on the Grand Traverse Pioneer and Historical Society Board, as the Traverse Area Historical Society was then named.  Bob, and his wife Joy, both served as Presidents of the GTPHS/TAHS.  Wilson also authored the three volume Grand Traverse Legends series, the profits from which all go to the TAHS.

Now part of that history which he so loved, Wilson’s personal story, is fascinating in itself.  His father owned the Cities Service gas station on the northeast corner of Front and Park (today the site of the Dingeman & Dancer law offices, and before that The Bean Pot Restaurant).  Once Wilson retired back to Traverse City he delighted in regaling listeners with stories of his youth.  One involved his mother’s worries about Cities Service’s proximity to what was then a string of not-so respectable (at least in his mother’s opinion) bars.  (Today this is the location of the old Chase Bank Building, and the new building housing Sorrellina’s and Slate).

Mrs. Wilson insisted that young Bob walk only on the north side of Front.  At that time the  south side of Front, just west of Park, housed the bars. Patrons of those establishments often hung out on the sidewalk. Apparently his mother didn’t want Bob dealing with these sometimes-inebriated citizens, or maybe she was concerned about the temptations of alcohol.

Perhaps Bob’s mother was concerned because she sensed a streak of wildness in the young boy.  Such tendencies did, indeed, appear during his teenage years. As Bob aged and began  attending Traverse City High School in the 1950s, he often tangled with school administrators and city police.  Close to heading down “the wrong road,” the course of his life was changed by the wise direction of then Probate Judge Harold Hunsberger. When Wilson graduated from Traverse City High School in 1954, Hunsberger gave him a choice: Join the military or go to jail.

Wilson decided to join the military.  According to Joy, “He told me he chose  the Air Force because he liked  its blue uniforms.”  Whatever his reason for joining, military discipline seems to have brought out the best in him.  Wilson’s achievements once he joined the military, and after his service, prove that great success can come from surprising circumstances. 

In a Traverse City Record-Eagle article, his sister-in-law, Jeanne Hurst, recalls that Wilson was a man of many talents, saying “Bob had a brilliant mind.  He earned two masters degrees, excelled in engineering during his time in the Air Force, had a heart for Christian ministry, and poured himself into promoting local history wherever he lived, especially here in Traverse City.” 

While in the Air Force, Wilson earned first his Bachelor’s degree, and then his Masters in Aeronautical Engineering.  He retired from the Military as a Major  in 1975.  He also married while in the service, wedding Joy Skellett of Buckley, Michigan, in 1956.  Together Joy and Bob  raised three children:  Keven, Renate, and Teresa.  They were also blessed with four grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.  The family thrived in many different locations, including Sault St. Marie; Laramie, WY; Tullahoma, TN;  Cologne, Germany and Anaheim, CA.  Wherever they lived, the Wilsons strove to make that place a true home, delving into  each new place’s local history.

Wilson credited this love of history to a Traverse City High School teacher named William Gerard.  In Wilson’s own words “Gerard had the gift of teaching history in a way that made it come alive.”  Gerard also saw the depth of Wilson’s academic abilities, in spite of his  youthful delinquent activities. He encouraged Wilson to develop his writing and learning skills, something that served him well later in life. Ultimately, Gerard planted a seed of interest in history that grew,  and through Wilson, eventually benefitted communities literally spread across the globe.

After retiring from the military, Wilson returned to school at the Anaheim Center for Theological Studies, where he earned a Masters in Divinity.  This led him to work in a wide variety of Christian ministries, including directing a live-in drug rehabilitation Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, serving as Director of Admissions at South California College, and ministering to men at the Rescue Mission in Santa Anna, CA. 

Then In 1993, after nearly forty years of “traveling the world,”  the Wilsons returned to Traverse City.  There, both Joy and Bob worked in Christian ministry, particularly with Meals on Wheels.  In the late 1990s Wilson served six years as an associate pastor at Resurrection Life Church in Traverse City. 

Wilson’s somewhat unexpected successes in life, given his youthful peccadillos, were largely due to his great intellectual abilities.  With hard work and dedication he harnessed those abilities to gather tremendous knowledge and then used that knowledge to the betterment of many people. That Alzheimers eventually robbed Wilson of the use of that knowledge is both ironic and tragic.  But that, as it does for anyone struggling with memory loss, in no way lessens the gifts of learning and service that Wilson bestowed upon his community during his life.

Traverse Area Historical Society  Board member, Sharon Jennings, feels that: “With Bob’s passing,  our area historical community lost a great friend and Traverse City lost a voice that could connect it to its past. Bob had a sign he carried with him that said, ‘Local History Spoken Here.’ He was never happier than when he was reminiscing with others about his early years in TC and about the changes he’d seen over time. He was a voice for Traverse City’s past that cannot be replaced.”

Spouses provide correct answer to our Summer 2018 mystery photo!

Congratulations to both Liz and Mark Roberts, who (in a fun twist on the old “Battle of the Sexes” game show) both provided the correct answer to our mystery photo, including the bonus question! See the drama play out in the comments on the original post!

Indeed, it happened in 1934, a year to remember. The school children occupied Perry Hannah’s  home for the next school year. Imagine listening to the teacher in the same room Perry Hannah occupied thirty years before. Wild!

Congrats to the happy couple, virtual libations all around!

What Was It Like to Teach in Traverse City a Hundred Years Ago?

Entries in the Grand Traverse Normal School record book fill dozens of pages in five bound volumes, beginning in 1913 and ending in 1952.  Written in the elegant cursive hand of an educated person, they contain information about young women who wished to become teachers, carefully detailing their grades on the teacher exams, notes about age, educational background, personality, performance in student teaching, along with miscellaneous notes predicting future success as a teacher.  Three of them dated 1913-14 are given below:

Rose Fifarek: Age 19; Traverse City High School graduate; No teaching experience.  Personality: Not good.  Inclined to careless in dressing hair.

Remarks: Work very ordinary.  Teaching fair.  Doesn’t get into the depth of things.

Ruby J. Shilson: Age 23.  Traverse City High School graduate; 3 mo’s teaching experience.  Personality: Very good.  Remarks: Bright and clever.  Did excellent practice teaching.  Disposition may cause a failure in discipline.

Laura Bannon: Age 19. Traverse City High School graduate.  Personality: Very good.  Remarks: Did excellent practice teaching.  Original.  Fond of argument.  Excels in drawing.  A very poor speller.

Each of the evaluations were signed by Blanche Peebles, principal of the County Normal School.

Teaching credential issued by the state of Michigan, issued in 1893.

A list of grades ranging from fair to excellent were entered for each young woman’s name over 23 areas with which she should become familiar.  The diversity of knowledge required for teachers was breathtaking.  They should know the rudiments of Agriculture, Civics, the Classics, Grammar, History, Reading, and School law.  They should be able to draw, sing or play an instrument, write with good penmanship, and spell accurately.  Arithmetic, geography, and physiology should not stump them, nor should manual training .  Good grades were not handed out cavalierly—many “Fairs” expressed weaker knowledge and capabilities.

Most—but not all applicants for teaching credentials—possessed a high school diploma.  A few had an education through tenth grade, their age as young as 17.  For most, the goal was to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, grades one through eight.  The teaching certificate most would get would be good for one year—at least for those that had no successful teaching experience.  With experience, certificates could be extended for three years or more.

High school teachers tended to be better educated than elementary teachers.  Three profiles of teachers are presented here, the descriptions derived from the 1912 yearbook, The Pines:

Miss Emma Shafer: Ph. M. (Masters degree).  Teacher of English Literature and German has een with us for two and a half years.  She graduated from Hillsdale College and later from the University of Chicago.  The senior class feels fortunate in having a woman of Miss Shafer’s character for an instructor in English literature.

Miss Amy Scott, teacher of English and Geometry, came to our high school in the fall of 1909.  She graduated from Bay City high school after which she went to the University of Michigan, receiving a Bachelor of Arts.  She is a competent instructor and her untiring interest in our welfare has been a great benefit for the high school.

Mr. P. S. Brundage, B. Pd., came last fall to take the place of Mr. Hornbeck and has proven himself to be an able instructor.  He has charge of the physics and chemistry departments.  Received a life certificate and the degree of B. Pd from the Ypsilanti State Normal School.  Also attended the University of Michigan.

Prospective teacher’s report card, 1914. Note the age of the student.

Most members of the Central High School faculty had a four-year degree from recognized colleges and universities.  Some graduated from smaller colleges such as Olivet and Hillsdale, while other obtained their degrees from larger institutions such as the University of Michigan or the Michigan Agricultural College (Michigan State).  At the least, they would have attended the state Normal College in Ypsilanti, now called Eastern Michigan University.  The reason for the higher academic achievement of secondary teachers has to do with University of Michigan accreditation.  If pupils graduated from an accredited institution with a “C” average, they were admitted to the University of Michigan without examination.  To keep standards high, the University insisted that high school teachers in academic areas had to have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

It is notable how young teachers were, both at elementary and secondary levels.  All at the elementary level are women, but at the secondary level men are represented, though not in the same number of women.   Men or women, few taught longer than a few years at any location.  Between the years 1916 and 1921, yearbooks indicate only two teachers carried over from one faculty list to the other. The twenty-year tenure of the janitor at this time stands in stark contrast to the one-, two- or five-year commitments of teachers.

Interior of unknown one-room schoolhouse, from the SE Wait Glass Plate Negative collection, Traverse Area District Library.

There are plentiful reasons explaining the tendency of teachers to leave their jobs.  Upon marriage or pregnancy, women teachers were obligated to resign.  In an age before teacher’s unions and tenure, many teachers were not rehired for reasons as trivial as disagreement with the superintendent of schools or the principal.  Salaries in Traverse City were not only below those of those with equivalent degrees in business, but fell below average teacher salaries in many local communities.  Finally, teachers with several years of successful teaching experience often became administrators, that job paying more than teaching.

What was it like to be a teacher more than a hundred years ago in Traverse City?  The job was not an easy one.  In 1894-95 the school year was roughly comparable to the present one.  At that time, three terms of different lengths made up the school year, the fall term beginning on September 3rd, the winter term beginning on January 7 and lasting until March 29, and the spring term beginning on April 8th, ending on May 31.  As with today’s schedule, a two-week Christmas vacation and a one-week spring break is granted to pupils and teachers.  In 1895, school hours were also similar to today’s; school opened in the morning at 9 o’clock and ended at 3:30.  One and one-half hours separated the morning from the afternoon session.

Class was conducted in a manner somewhat different from school nowadays.  Typically, students were asked to stand and recite—give answers to questions asked by teachers.  In the Public School Handbook for Traverse City, teachers were advised to call on students “promiscuously” and never to repeat the question, these techniques designed to compel attention in classes.  Some advice given there holds up today:

Be independent of the textbook as far as possible.

Be animated and enthusiastic, but do not be noisy and fussy.

Never address your students in a petulant, ill-natured manner…

Avoid loudness and harshness of tone, and cultivate purity of voice and sweetness of expression.

Kindness and affection are the strongest elements of a teachers power, when set in an iron frame.

If a pupil persistently disregards the regulations of the school…, send a          warning notice to the parents before resorting to harsher measures.

In general, the use of corporal punishment was rare, though it was permitted by school regulations at earlier times.  At present, it is forbidden in the state of Michigan.

The curriculum teachers taught varied considerably from that taught now.  Kindergarten was firmly in place before the beginning of the twentieth century, but there was no effort to begin children on the path to reading—as there is now.  Kindergarten was a time to prepare children—socially, emotionally, physically—for the academic world to come.

In general, curriculum objectives were vaguely defined, existing mostly as segments of textbooks that were to be covered in each grade.  In first grade, for example, children were to learn 75-100 common words—not just to recognize them, but to understand their meanings.  From the beginning, phonics were not neglected, nor was writing in cursive, that the preferred style of writing to be used by first-grade teachers.  The curriculum of subjects like arithmetic, geography, science, and history was laid out in the form of sections of appropriate textbooks to be completed at the different grade levels.  In contrast to today’s detailed lists of learning objectives, there was no explicit statement about what skills or knowledge should be learned at any level.  Apparently, objectives must have been fairly well standardized among different textbooks, since the series of books used changed quite regularly.  It would have been impractical to have teachers learn a new scope-and-sequence with every textbook change.

Interior of Beitner School, ca. 1910. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Class sizes can be determined by looking at photographs of classes at the elementary level and at class yearbooks at the Senior High level.  A cursory examination of ten of them reveals a range between 14 and 36, the most common number centering around 27 or 28.  Thus, the numbers are not far different from today’s, though they amount of organization required at the elementary level must be even greater than demanded of teachers nowadays.  It is hard to conceive how to organize a classroom with students ranging from first-grade to seventh and eighth grades.  Small groups of children about the same age must have tackled assignments together while the teacher moved from group to group.  No doubt, older students worked with younger ones, too.

In high school classes varied in size.  A note in the Evening Record in 1908 informed readers that a school evaluator from the University of Michigan observed that classes were too big in Traverse City with some approaching 45, when the best class size was said to be 25-30.  In agreement with this note, a report to the Board of Education in 1906 displays a comparison of Traverse City to other school districts in Michigan with regard to class size at the secondary level.  With an average of 36, the local district was the worst in this regard, that figure some six pupils higher than the next-highest school on the list

The same report indicated how many periods for each high school as well as the number of classes teachers were expected to teach.  Traverse City had six periods at the time, and teachers were expected to teach all six of them, that schedule permitting no preparation period.  It was the only school of the 17 compared that made such heavy demands on its teachers.

Teacher salaries varied within the district for several reasons.  First, women teachers were paid less even if they had the same credentials and experience.  This was a common practice at the time, the rationale perhaps relating to traditional views of the man as the breadwinner for a household.  Second, secondary teachers were paid more than their primary colleagues.  In 1908 primary school teachers were paid salaries of approximately 500 dollars per year at a time when an average worker made about 600 dollars.  Secondary teachers earned somewhat more, some approaching 900 dollars.  The reason for the discrepancy was that secondary teachers had a Bachelor’s degree, while primary teachers often had Normal School training of a year or two after high school graduation.  A B.A. carried salary advantages.

A third reason salaries differed among the teaching staff was that the school superintendent would meet separately with each teacher in May and present an offer to her/him individually. Through this practice, teachers could be offered more or less money for a variety of reasons: a pleasing personality, an attractive appearance, connections with persons the superintendent knows, experience teaching at various institutions, an educational background at a more prestigious university.  At the turn of the twentieth century, there was no collective bargaining and no tenure.

Teacher salaries were lower in Traverse City than in other districts in Michigan.  Evidence from the proceedings of the Traverse City school board points to teacher resignations attributed to better offers from other districts in and out of northern Michigan.  In 1917 local teachers submitted a petition to the mayor of the city, asking for a salary increase in the face of the increased cost of living: it is unclear if they were successful.   The Traverse City Press in the same year conducted a discussion about teacher salaries, the consensus being that teachers deserved more, but the community was unable to pay (this was a time of economic depression in the Traverse area).   From that day until the present, teacher salaries in Traverse City have lagged behind those of other equivalent cities in Michigan.

In early Traverse City schools, the work was difficult, the rewards few.  Teachers rarely made a career out of teaching for economic reasons, for reasons relating to the difficulty of the work, and for reasons connected to social values that required women to resign after marriage.  Standards were quite low—especially for elementary teachers who often had little more than a high school education.  Still, in the face of these and other obstacles, the business of education got done.  We should remember the dedication and sacrifice of our early teachers.

“Traverse as a Resort” by Scott Woodward, 1911

Scott Woodward (1853-1919) was a local author and publisher living in Traverse City at the turn of the last century. His work is firmly in the realm of realism, but it is often difficult to discern if his writings are autobiographical in nature, or if he’s just good at spinning a highly believable yarn.  Woodward’s style is deftly described by George W. Kent, editor of Traverse City Daily Eagle circa 1910: “In his early life this author differed from his fellows in that his imagination was most vivid and he turned his visions, as some called them, into realities and wove them into his paintings of life in various phrases about him, taken from his peculiar viewpoint.”

The following is one entry in Woodward’s Life Pictures in Poetry and Prose, originally published in 1911, and details the warm welcome Traverse City residents would offer to any visitor to the region, long before the day of the derogatory term, “fudgie.”

It is a pleasure for the residents of this beautiful region to welcome you to our shore for a few weeks of rest and recuperation, and to see here the cozy little hotel nestled among the hills as a place of refuge from the cares and ills of the outside world.

We have all lived “out Side,” as we term it, and are better prepared to bid you a hearty welcome.  Having found the door to our retreat, we ask you stay as long as you wish and help to make one among us, for our attractions are many.

As the summer advances and the weather grows intensely hot each incoming train is sure to be loaded with its wearied freight, all looking, as it were, where care, sickness, and the perplexing scenes of business life are left behind, if but for a few weeks.

It is a matter of interest to the idle spectator, as he stands at one of our depots and watches the unloading of a train that has just arrived.  Here we see a strong, healthy man with his week delicate wife leaning upon his arm.  Over there in an invalid chair is a child of uncertain age, he may be ten years old and he may be older, we can not tell.  Tenderly does the fond mother bend over the little sufferer.  The disease of an unhealthy climate, unknown to this country, have left their stamp upon that face so prematurely old.  This is their first visit to a region where malaria and its associates are unknown.  And still they come.  There goes a man whose close application to business for the past ten years has left him but a shadow of what he once was.  Now he is willing to leave it all behind if only he can regain his former health.  He is fairly ashamed to let people see him shiver as he pulls his heavy woolen shawl about his shoulders.  He feels for the first time a breath of our pure, invigorating atmosphere.  Still they come.

See, now the train moves slowly back out of way, and for the first time in their lives they drink in the beautiful scenery.  The beautiful bay which laps their very feet and reaches off to the northward as far as the eye can reach, has captured the attention of all, and, as by magic, a changed expression comes over the tired and care-worn faces.

Then it is all hurry and excitement, each looking after some earthly possessions which have been most jealously guarded during the long journey northward.  They are all looking for temporary homes.  Some have friends at the depot to meet them.  Others find homes in private families for a short time, and still others have taken up quarters in our hotels, where they partake of the good things furnished by the genial hosts. Nearly every house in or about the city has opened its doors to some friend from the outside world.  It is a pleasure to play the healer, where there is no call for quinine or the doctor’s tablets.  Gladly we note the change that comes over their tired and careworn faces.  How pleased we are to see them take on new hope and a new lease of life.  We would say, “Sleep on, for you can sleep here.  Eat on, as you will surely be taken with a coming appetite before you have been here many days.”  Many enjoy taking sail during the afternoon, and they may be seen gliding hither and yon as they move about in their self-propelling craft far out over the sparkling water.  Others enjoy a quiet drive about the city or a spin on the highway which reaches for miles on either side of the bay.

Then at close of day as the sun sinks behind the hills to the west of us, the scene changes, the wind goes down and there is no more use for the white sail, but as evening advances many are the little craft to be seen gliding about the water.  Listen and you catch the sound of song, accompanied by mandolin and guitar as it floats shoreward.  It is inspiring and helps to pass the time all too swiftly by.  But the fun does not stop here.  Many a good housewife has allowed her carpet to be lifted in the dining room.  Tables and chairs disappear and the cottage organ, so well adapted to sacred melody, now rolls forth its music to the dizzy waltzers.  Music, singing and rhetoric all have their respective places, and it is usually a late hour before the guests have discovered that it is time to retire.

But the morning hours on Traverse Bay are the most enchanting.  Lulled to sleep by the repose of night the bay now appears like a sea of glass.  Everything in the distance takes on a different aspect.  The hills and trees appear like huge sentinels guarding the sleeping infant at their feet.  Northport Point and Marion Island stand high up in the heavens as if to bid defiance to the storm king who may at this hour be abroad.

It is wonderful, wonderful and grand.  Oh, what a scene for the brush of a painter.  Man has done much towards making the place attractive, but nature alone has made it an Eden.

Introduction provided by Richard Fidler, GTJ Editor.

A New Book, Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes by Daniel Palmer: A walk with the author in search of the elusive Goldie’s fern

Goldie’s Fern. Image courtesy of

Goldie’s Fern is a giant among wood ferns, sometimes standing four feet high or more, its scaly stems arching in blue-green rosettes.   Contrary to our expectation, it does not live in swamps but in rich woods, the soil often damp but hardly mucky.  While not endangered, it is quite rare—few Northern Michigan residents have taken note of it—even if they have walked past it as they hunt for mushrooms or seek out deer habitat.  To the unpracticed eye it is only a larger than average component of repetitious plant life upon the forest floor.  Lacking flowers and colorful leaves, it does not attract our attention, perhaps a boon to its survival since it offers humankind little of value.

Except for some of us, that is.  Dan Palmer, for one, finds the plant to be a treasure.   Author of Ferns of Hawaii, Dan has been studying ferns and their relatives—horsetails and club mosses—for more than twenty-five years.  Formerly a dermatologist, he was able to retire from medicine at a relatively early age and indulge his interest in ferns, a group of organisms overshadowed (quite literally) by the more showy flowering plants.  Perhaps that was their attraction: there exists a whole group of living things, relatively ignored, inhabiting sheltered places near and far.  Ferns beckon the curious mind.

Renowned fern expert Warren Wagner of the University of Michigan mentored Dan in the early years of his interest.  Later, after having traveled to such remote fern habitats as the rainforests of Indonesia, the mountains of New Zealand, savannahs of Africa, outback of Australia, and the islands of the South Pacific, Dan became an expert in his own right.  His carefully researched Ferns of Hawaii has earned the praise of the small community of fern lovers world-wide.  As a special gift to Michigan residents, he has just completed a new guide, Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes, recently published by the University of Michigan Press.

Though Dan married his wife Helen in Hawaii and brought up his three children there, he has strong ties to Northern Michigan.  Brought up in Frankfort, he has a summer residence in nearby Leelanau County.  For many years the custodian of a vast hardwood forest, he recently got out of that business, turning over a large acreage to the Leelanau Conservancy, that tract named “Palmer Woods.”  Is it an accident that his forests nurture a diverse fern and club moss flora?

As if pulled along in the wake of a passing ship, several of us naturalists—Julie Medlin, Rick Halbert, and me, Richard Fidler–have become fern devotees, following Dan’s lead. It is hard to resist the call of these plants, especially when Dan is breathless with excitement about having found a rare hybrid fern he has not seen in some time.  With such shared enthusiasm, it is not surprising that our party headed out in a forest one July morning to a location in Sleeping Bear in search of Goldie’s Fern.

On the way we pass by fields of scant grass, juniper, and struggling trees, the black humus of the soil blown away or burnt away after the intense logging of the previous century.  One fern grows there with a tenacious hold on the land: bracken.  Ignored because of its ubiquity—it is found all over the world except in Antarctica—the species takes up more biomass than any other plant or animal species in the world.  Favoring acid, well-drained soil, it is at home in Northern Michigan, especially in areas deforested by loggers and burned.  Its crosiers bending upwards in spring, are said to be delicious when de-fuzzed and steamed, though concern has been voiced about carcinogens lurking inside.  In Asia, where the fern is consumed in large numbers, stomach cancers are more common than in the West and accusing fingers have been pointed at bracken as a major cause.

Herb Robert. Image courtesy of

Arriving at the Empire Bluffs parking lot, we head for the maple-beech woods growing upon the perched dune high above Lake Michigan.  The spring wildflowers—the trillium, violets, Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches—have long finished blooming, leaving less spectacular blooms like Herb Robert to brighten the trail.  The ferns, however, are just hitting their stride.  Their leaves, called fronds properly, are unfolding in coil-like fashion, forming fiddleheads for their resemblance to the scroll of a violin.  We see the Evergreen Wood fern unfurling thus, sending up new fronds over last year’s leaves flattened by the winter’s snow.  Dan confirms the identification by checking for the presence of dots called sori that lie near the margins of the fronds.  They make the spores that blow about in the summer wind, seeking a favorable place to begin a new plant.

As with all things in biology it seems, nothing is straightforward about the lives of ferns.  Spores only grow into little green chips of green that harbor male and female sex organs.  Upon one warm or wet night (or day), a sperm with many tails will swim from the male organ to the female and fertilize an egg there.  Then, as the fertilized egg divides again and again, a new fern arises above the forest floor.  The fern life cycles suggest midnight trysts and passionate mating—sometimes between different species, even.

To Dan, that represents an exciting possibility: Could we find not only Goldie’s fern but a hybrid of Goldie’s and another wood fern?  As we walk along, his eyes examine the Evergreen Woodferns carefully.  Are there some Goldie genes concealed in the ferns all around us?

We pass other ferns, taking time to note their locations: Lady’s Fern, Intermediate Wood Fern, and the less common Christmas Fern and Common Polypody.  Michigan has a diverse population of ferns, not as diverse as large states like California with its enormous number of specialized niches—deserts, mountains, rainforests, and prairies—but it still has a respectable array of species.  About xxx fern species have been found in Michigan.

As we walk through an area of young maples, the ground bare of last year’s leaves, Dan bends over suddenly to examine something we had missed.  He brings out his magnifier to get a better look and regards us gathered around with enthusiasm:  A moonwort, he declares, Botrychium matricarifolium.  The plant is scarcely two inches tall, its clustered spore-bearing structures overriding a single leaf.  Spending most of the year locked deep underground, it puts up this green shoot in late spring in an effort to spread its spores to the wind.  Remarkably, it is still visible this far into summer, for, like Spring Beauty and Dutchman’s Breeches, it has only a short time to share its above-ground presence with us.  Such things are the treasures only botanists appreciate, their senses more attuned to the life cycles of things that neither do us no harm and nor provide us with benefit.

Goldies Fern surprises us.  We top a hill in this hardwood forest, and there they are—scattered upon the forest floor, rosettes of green fronds growing higher than our waists.  We check the leafy scales at the base of the stipe—the stem of ferns—to confirm a black mark bracketed within a light brown matrix.  The leaves are acuminate, trailing gradually to a sharp point—that configuration unique to this wood fern species.  We pause for a moment, glad to be at this place to see something so rarely seen.

Our moment of ecstasy does not last long.  Dan is on his hands and knees examining a fern frond carefully.  It might be, he says, It might be… We know what he is pondering: Is this fern a hybrid between Goldie’s and another wood fern?   The answer to such questions so rarely asked by human beings takes on unexplainable importance.  In a world of uncertain economics, uncertain politics, and uncertain environmental health, the pursuit of answers to questions about ferns seems like a waste of time to some.  But to Dan Palmer, it is a voyage into discovery and wonder.  And so it is for all of us who cherish the small things of Nature that lie beneath our feet.

Note to readers: Michigan Ferns and Lycophytes is available at bookstores and online now.  Beautifully illustrated with scans of living ferns, it contains descriptions, distribution maps, identification keys, and fascinating information about the ferns, club mosses, horsetails, and spike mosses to Michigan.  It is a delight for all naturalists with a spark of interest in this neglected group of plants.