Sunday, October 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ed Miller!

Who could believe that this energetic guy, Ed Miller, just turned 90 years old?!   Field botanist extraordinaire, brilliant designer, innovative boat-builder, conquerer of rugged terrains in all weathers, inspiring father and grandfather and beloved friend to many,  Ed was celebrated by hordes of loving family members and friends at a birthday celebration on Saturday, October 25, and a grand time was had by all.  Including the guest of honor, to judge from his happy expression as he greets his friends Ruth and Kay.

During the course of the festivities, folks who have known Ed in many areas of his many-faceted life rose to honor this remarkable man with stories of his many amazing adventures.  Some told tales of him as an exceedingly creative engineer with GE, or as a Boy Scout leader skilled in all kinds of campcraft, or as a longtime and still active downhill skier, or as leader of many rigorous and challenging outdoor excursions.  I was just wondering who would speak of his encyclopedic botanical knowledge when Ed's son Scott thrust the microphone at me.  Ulp!  Oh dear!  I had not prepared any remarks in advance, but I was not going to pass up the chance to pay public tribute to my dear friend and mentor, so I managed to stutter out some general expressions of gratitude and celebration.  But oh, I could have related so many more telling things about this wonderful guy, if only I'd come prepared.  I'm just going to have to use my blog to do that now.

At Lester Park near Saratoga Springs, Ed stands atop an outcropping of stromatolites, the fossilized remains of 490-million-year-old sea creatures. 

I first met Ed maybe 15 years ago at a photo-lecture our mutual friend Evelyn Green was giving about the Ice Meadows, a remarkable botanical site on the Hudson River north of Warrensburg.  I was then still quite a neophyte among wildflower enthusiasts, but I managed to gain Ed's attention when I was the only one in the audience who could name a tiny yellow flower (Creeping Spearwort) that Evelyn had projected on the screen.  I guess that must have impressed him, because Ed introduced himself after the lecture, and we started talking and talking and talking about plants and more plants and more plants, while my husband waited patiently by the door.  That's how it goes when nature nuts find each other.

As time went on, we would meet each other by chance on this trail or that as we each went about botanizing on our own, but our relationship really became cemented about five years ago when Ed came along on a nature walk I led at Bog Meadow Trail near Saratoga Springs.  Long after all the other participants had gone their ways, Ed and I (and also our mutual pal, Sue Pierce), were still happily poking about among the flowers and the ferns and the fungi, our curiosity still unsated.

Since then, Ed and I have shared many other outdoor adventures, including exploring the shores of the Hudson River, especially below the Spier Falls Dam, where together we have found an impressive array of unusual riparian plants.  Ed showed me where to find Wild Senna shrubs, and I was able to take him to where the Great St. Johnswort grows. And on and on.

In the course of our explorations, we often enjoyed a picnic and the pleasure of each other's company amid these splendid surroundings.

In this photo, Ed is explaining to me how to distinguish a Quillwort from a Pipewort, while sitting in one of the innovative lightweight canoes that he and his sons designed and built themselves.  (And which were the envy, years ago, of his aluminum-canoe-toting fellow paddlers, who regaled us at Ed's birthday party with tales of exhausting portages trying to keep up with Ed and his lightweight boat.)

Through Ed, I have come to find many other friends and fellow nature enthusiasts, especially among the group that calls itself the Thursday Naturalists.  Each week, throughout the year, this group of both passionate amateur and professional botanists meets to explore nature preserves throughout the region.  Every single member brings a vast store of nature knowledge and lore, but Ed continues to be our go-to guy for distinguishing one plant from another, and he brings an almost childlike enthusiasm and winning delight to every one of our forays.

At Woodcock Preserve in Clifton Park:

At the Hundred-acre Wood in Malta:

At Woodlawn Preserve in Schenectady:

At Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park:

One of Ed's special friends is Nan Williams, an equally passionate botanizer and one of his ski buddies who lives in Massachusetts but often joins the Thursday Naturalists on our outings. Together, Ed and Nan have led us more than once on expeditions to old marble quarries on a mountain in Vermont, where we found a wondrous number of rare and beautiful lime-loving plants.

Ed and Nan know of many remarkable habitats where we can find the rarest of New York's native plants.  This photo was taken in a Warren County bog where Grass Pink and Fringed White orchids grow as abundantly as Dandelions on a suburban lawn.

At one time in my quest to identify all the wildflowers I came across, I learned to distinguish each of the dozens of aster species native to our region.  But then I set that knowledge aside, content to acknowledge all asters by genus but not bothering any more to parse out which species they may be. (Lord, there are so many! And so many lookalikes!)  But when I'm with Ed, that won't do at all, and he whips out his magnifier to demonstrate the characteristics of each species' bracts, stems, leaves, petals, etcetera.  He's made a very helpful crib sheet, too, that now I tuck into the pages of my Newcomb's Wildflower Guide.   He included the goldenrods, too.   So helpful!  Thanks, Ed.

I tend to stick pretty close to home in my wildflower explorations, hoping to find and document every plant that is native to Saratoga County.  But Ed is continually expanding my botanical horizons, carrying me off to many amazing sites I would never know about on my own.  One of these sites is a Nature Conservancy site at Joralemon Park, south of Albany, acknowledged to be "perhaps the richest wildflower site in all of New York" by state botanists, containing abundant numbers of some of the state's rarest plants.  It was Ed who recognized the amazing quality of this limestone-underlain site, and it was he who purchased this site with his own money to give it to the Nature Conservancy.  Ed is exceedingly familiar with the plants at this site, and here he is searching for the tiny spikemoss called Selaginella that he knows grows here, while the rest of his friends enjoy a picnic overlooking the pond.

Here's Ed again, in that familiar eyes-to-the-ground searching posture, seeking for rarities among the rocks that line the shore of the Hudson River at another Nature Conservancy site along the Ice Meadows in Warren County. In the winter, these shores are heaped with masses of frazil ice up to 12-feet thick or more, creating a frigid habitat that discourages the encroachment of trees and ensures that the rare sub-boreal plants that thrive here will continue to do so.

This remarkable site attracts botanists from many surrounding regions, including those who attended last year's regional meeting of the American Botanical Society, hosted by none other than Ed Miller himself. In this photo, Ed is joined by his longtime dear friend Ruth Schottman, another exceedingly expert botanist, teacher, author, and one of the founders of our Thursday Naturalists group.

The Thursday Naturalists always enjoy an annual foray to the Ice Meadows, as well as the pleasure of each others' company on a picnic in the shade.  I'm so glad I found this particular photo in my files, because it shows the laughing (bearded) face of our friend Win Bigelow, a valued fount of woodland knowledge and treasured companion who died last year while wintering in Florida.  So many good times together, Win!  We sure miss you.

Here's another photo with Win's dear face among the group, taken during the summer of 2013 when Ed led the Thursday Naturalists on a tour of the collection of native woody plants he has personally established at Landis Arboretum, near Esperance.

Landis Arboretum was originally established to showcase exotic species of trees from all over the world, but Ed convinced the directors there that he should create exhibits showcasing the trees and other woody plants that are native to New York.  That was back in 2001, and in the years since then Ed has almost single-handedly designed, planted, weeded, fed, and watered the extensive collection, arranged in ways that facilitate easy identification and comparison between species. (To see my 2010  account describing some exhibits, click here.)

Among the more fascinating exhibits Ed has established at Landis is a collection of bog plants, growing on a raft in a tub of acidified water that is carpeted with sphagnum moss to approximate the habitat of a natural bog.

 Ed regularly visits his collection at the arboretum, carting water, fertilizer, and gardening tools to each site to tend to all the plants' needs.

This past summer Ed has been working on a new exhibit showcasing New York's native ferns, with most of the plants provided by his friend Nan Williams from the ferns growing on her own property. To honor her contribution, Ed plans to name this exhibit "Nan's Ferns."  The site for this exhibit was not exactly plant-ready when I visited there with Ed this summer,  but he was undaunted.  After quite some effort breaking up tree roots and dislodging rocks with his mattock, Ed proceeded to use his bare hands to tuck some new plantings into their prepared beds.

After all that effort, Ed deserved to rest on one of the benches his sons have built and inscribed to acknowledge his work at the arboretum.  Ed, what a legacy you have left to native plant lovers!

I don't downhill ski, but Ed sure does, still hitting the slopes every week in the winter months, and now I hope he gets a special lift-ticket discount reserved for nonagenarians.  My preferred winter sport is snow-shoeing,  and I felt truly privileged that Ed deigned to slow his pace to mine when we explored the old canal towpaths along the Mohawk River at Vischer Ferry, a marvelous historic site I had never visited before, until Ed took me there.

Another very special adventure with Ed was attending an American Botanical Society annual meeting in Ithaca during the summer of 2011. Ed invited me to join his friends Ruth Schottman, Frank Knight, Nan Williams, and himself on a four-day marathon of botanical forays into the fields, forests, swamps and streams of this spectacular area of central New York State.  Of course, the botanizing was fantastic, but the best part was spending whole days (and long car rides) in the delightful company of these wonderful people.  I think there must be some special gene unique to plant lovers that makes them so cheerful, patient, smart, and just so much fun to be with.

So Happy Birthday to you, dear Ed!  I can't thank you enough for all you have taught me, all the places you've shown me, all the friends I have made because of you, all the joys we have shared together in the woods and on the waterways.  I celebrate your friendship and look forward to many more adventures together.    I am so very, very proud to call you my friend.

Ed pauses to enjoy the sound of a waterfall plunging through a gorge at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.


June said...

Anybody who crawls around on the ground the same as he did when he was four, examining the tiniest details of the natural world . . . remains ageless.
Happy Birthday, Ed.

The Furry Gnome said...

Well I'm vEry impressed with your stories of Ed, but I also think how lucky you are to have such naturalist friends with whom you can learn and share.

Andrew Lane Gibson said...

What a wonderful tribute and look at one treasurable human being! It brings me a lot of joy to see him doing well and still out and about. It was a real treat and honor to meet him in person and get to explore some of your areas many botanical treasures. I certainly hope to get out with you and Ed again sometime in the near future. Until then I have my past experiences and this blog to reminisce on :)

Ron Gamble said...

Wow! What a nice tribute! Thanks for sharing. Although work would currently interfere, I'm jealous of your Thursday Naturalists group.

Anonymous said...

You are lucky. Your friends are lucky to have you too!

suep said...

Not only your wonderful photos but your loving words speak for all of us who have been fortunate enough to ramble with Ed ... yes that party was somethin' else ! As I mentioned to Ed that evening, it seemed so strange to see him INDOORS -

Barbara said...

Wonderful & well-deserved! As a newbie to the Thursday Naturalists, I really enjoyed reading this! Happy Birthday, Ed!

George Moskoff Consultant said...

Sounds like you had a pretty special relationship with him and you are appropriately grateful