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Sunday, May 30, 2010
UNM Gets Historical Collection
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
A Smithsonian scientist eight decades ago joked that the mosses and lichens of northern New Mexico were sure to suffer before the determined onslaught of Brother Gerfroy Arsène Brouard.
A botanical collector of prodigious energy and meticulous habits, "Brother Arsène" was in fact more of a benefit to the science of botany in New Mexico than he was a threat to the region's plants. But he did collect an awful lot of them.
Now, thanks to a series of accidents, some happy and some sad, a scientifically rich collection of nearly 2,000 plants gathered and catalogued by Arsène from 1916 to 1938 has found a home at the University of New Mexico.
Tim Lowrey and his colleagues at the University of New Mexico's Museum of Southwestern Biology took possession of the Arsène specimens earlier this month from the College of Santa Fe, rescuing the "orphan collection" from the financial collapse of that northern New Mexico institution.
That the collection has been preserved at all is thanks to the work of former College of Santa Fe biology professor David Johnson, who got a call a decade ago when a colleague in the facilities department found boxed-up plant specimens in an old storage area.
"Here was this box with beautiful, professionally pressed and mounted specimens," Johnson recalled of what he saw when he opened the first one. Johnson immediately realized the importance of what they had found. Arsène was one of the first botanists to systematically work on the flora of New Mexico. For scientists who study the state's plants, it was a mother lode.
For many years, state government botanist Bob Sivinski had seen Arsène's name in the scientific literature, attached to important early 20th-century scientific discoveries in New Mexico. But to a botanist, seeing the plant itself is critical. "Now I have specimens to look at," Sivinski said in an interview.
Arsène was very much a product of the Victorian era in which he first practiced the science of botany, a time when naturalists wandered far and wide collecting specimens.
Arsène collected all sorts of plants, but he made a specialty of mosses and, especially, the modest, crusty little fungal growths frequently found on rocks known as lichens.
According to a biographical monograph written by Johnson, Arsène was born in France in 1867 and began his botanical apprenticeship at the age of 17. After a brief period as a salesman and a military career in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant, Arsène joined the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
The order sent him to Mexico to teach math and science. When the Christian Brothers were driven out by the Mexican Revolution, Arsène fled to the United States via Cuba (where, characteristically, Arsène discovered several new species of lichens while passing through, according to Johnson).
He eventually arrived in Santa Fe in 1926.
Despite his age, Arsène took the other Christian Brothers and the students on regular 20-mile hikes to collect plants in the high country around Santa Fe, according to Johnson.
Original specimens, including the first known samples of some 200 species of lichen discovered by Arsène, were sent to other researchers and are in collections around the world, including the Smithsonian.
But when Johnson began going through the discovery at the College of Santa Fe, he realized that Arsène had kept a second specimen of his key finds in his own collection.
To scientists, especially those who study lichen, that has proven invaluable. Many of the original lichens discovered by Arsène were destroyed during the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II. The College of Santa Fe collection, to the delight of lichen experts, allowed scientists to go back and study Arsène's originals, Johnson said.
As the College of Santa Fe slipped into financial trouble in recent years, Johnson realized the collection needed to find a new home, where the plants could be properly cared for and made available to researchers. He turned to UNM's Museum of Southwestern Biology, which manages a large research museum collection.
The collection contains more than 120,000 plants alone, so the addition of Arsène's plants is small. But in critical areas of early New Mexico botany, its importance is vastly greater, said UNM's Lowrey.
"In the scheme of things, it's a pretty small collection," Lowrey said as he picked his way through the collection last week. "What's neat about it is its historical importance."