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208 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 14 color and 62 b&w illus., appends., notes, bibl., index

$30.00 cloth
ISBN 0-9721600-0-0

Published: Fall 2004

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Essays on William Chambers Coker, Passionate Botanist

by Mary Coker Joslin

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.




Preface

Affection and personal admiration are part of my irresistible impulse to write these essays about William Chambers Coker, my uncle. My earliest memories include him. During walks in the garden of our parents in Hartsville, South Carolina, Uncle Will would question us children about what we were seeing. "Children, how do you know an oak tree from other trees?" he would ask. Knowing his young companions incapable of giving anything like a reasonable response, and liking to be the teacher, he would supply a simple answer: "By its acorns." His interest was not confined to flora. He was alert to observe and communicate to us information about any denizen of the rich natural world. Once, after dinner on a hot summer night, he called my attention to a small insect meandering across the tablecloth and to the fact that the odds were that this particular creature had never been studied or classified. When our elders remarked quick wit and keen interest in nature in a member of the younger generation, one might hear the whispered comment, "We may just have another Will."

A few curious childhood observations about Uncle Will remain with me. For example, he had a curved little finger on his left hand, obviously a birth trait, as it is clearly visible in the childhood photograph of him with his brother David, my father. Along with my sister Carolyn, twelve months younger than myself, I was once struck by a curious phenomenon one could not ignore. Uncle Will kept a long, hard, and sharp fingernail on his smallest right hand finger. Once when he saw us staring at it rather rudely, he explained that this was convenient for him in examining certain seeds.

In addition to sight, his other senses served him well in his observation of nature. The sound of a bird alerted him to nearby plants. Smell, touch, and taste were all used. An unmistakable scent called attention to a woodland magnolia not yet in sight or to wax myrtles where one could expect to see the myrtle warbler feeding on its berries in winter. A slight pubescence on the underside of a leaf or fuzz on an acorn could determine the species of oak. Uncle Will encouraged others to identify by sight, scent, and sound. He said in his description of the parsley haw, Crataegus marshallii, his favorite plant in UNC's Arboretum, "In spring, it is covered with a cloud of small flowers which are very fragrant and full of bees." He would often taste a leaf, a piece of bark, or a seed to test a plant's identity, or simply to enjoy its properties.

Uncle Will died when I was twenty-eight years of age. We had taken our second child to seem him the previous spring. I have vivid memories of him, from my earliest childhood to graduate school at Chapel Hill in the mid-1940s and thereafter. The memories of others enrich my own. I was able to take advantage of the closing window of time when I could still record the experiences of students, relatives, and friends who knew him in person. Though these recollections help bring the subject alive for me, and I hope for the reader, they are necessarily filtered through many years of experience. It is in the study of the personal papers and published writings of William Chambers Coker that provide the more reliable substance of the remarks that follow. Through them, I have come to know him and his work from a different perspective and in greater depth than previously.

It seems appropriate to celebrate the life of the passionate botanist in conjunction with the centennial in 2003 of the Coker Arboretum, the garden on the central campus at Chapel Hill that he founded, planted, and tended for fifty years. At the present moment, when we are confronting the appalling loss of much of the floral opulence of the Carolinas and of our national and worldwide plant resources, it is timely to remember W. C. Coker's research in botany, his field studies, his contribution to our landscapes and gardens, and his passionate efforts to understand and preserve our precious areas of environmental value. His life work sounds a tocsin poignantly reminding us of the current crisis of our diminishing natural heritage. Above all, however, we remember his inestimable joy in the study of nature in all of its manifestations.…



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