Although I enjoy the work, spending most of the last couple weeks curating the collection by myself had moments of great monotony. I received a list of assignments from my supervisor: sections of the herbarium that were overflowing, others where many specimens of one type had accumulated and I was to separate them, and a few more sporadic tasks, like organizing a group of specimens from a specific historic collector for a visitor to view. Curating overcrowded collections is more a task of problem solving than anything else. Handling such a multitude of specimens has allowed me to view a wide variety of species across many families and to compare their relative frequencies within geographic areas. Of course, this comparison must be approached with hesitation, as the collectors who form the collection influence it.
I meet with interns from other departments weekly for an internship enrichment program. The most recent intern enrichment program was to the research lab. A quiet building with walls of clear windows that filter through blue light and look out on the garden, the floor plan is open, with tables organized in the most logical progression of specimen processing, starting with the physical dissection and ending with the DNA analysis. In recent years, the tree of life, at least as far as it pertains to plants, has undergone a radical change. As DNA analysis allows botanists to see more clearly the relations between species, many families have been shifted dramatically. Often this is the work I do, relabeling and collating into the collection specimens who have been discovered to be very different from those they were thought to be closely linked to and very similar to those with which we previously saw little connection at all.
One morning my security card malfunctioned and I was locked out of the herbarium floor where I had been working. This ended up being a beneficial circumstance as it allowed me a morning to watch the mounters in process. I will begin training to mount new specimens myself on Monday, the seventh, and this opportunity made me feel much better prepared for my new task. I have worked mounting plant specimens in an herbarium before, but the method at the New York Botanical Garden is so entirely different from that which I have used before. Rather than pressing specimens on to a metal sheet of thinly spread glue, the mounters us slow-dispense bottles to pour the glue directly onto the specimens, and rather than using linen strips to secure thick stems and wobbly leaves, they sew the specimens onto the cardstock. The entire process is very clever and innovative. The mounting room has the benefit of overlooking the garden, where as the herbarium file rooms are windowless.
In addition to curation work, in the last week I have begun working on old field journals. Most botanists are experts in only one genus and only one geographically areas, so, when plant specimens arrive at the herbarium from Peru or Bolivia or Venezuela or wherever this particular scientist chooses to study, they are first pressed, separated into sheets, and a portion of the collection is sent to the expert in that genus who is then able to identify the specimen down to species. In return for identifying the specimen, the expert botanist is allowed to keep their portion of the collection. While this process is thorough, it is very slow, and often pressed specimens sit in the cold room for decades waiting to be identified before they can be mounted, labeled, and filed. My newest task has been to fill in new identifications into the field journals of a botanist who worked in South America from the nineteen sixties through the nineteen nineties.