In May 2017, two young brothers, Ollie and Harry Ferguson, launched a plastic pirate ship named Adventure into the North Sea at Peterhead, Scotland. Following the practice of generations of seaside bottle tossers, their ship carried a message asking anyone who found it to record the vessel’s location before returning it to the sea.
Over the course of several months, the boys’ ship visited Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Eventually, the Fergusons were approached by the crew of the Norwegian full-rigged ship Christian Radich, who offered to make needed repairs before carrying Adventure out of the North Sea to explore new waters. After refurbishing the rigging and installing new sails, the Christian Radich headed south with the tiny ship on board; on November 8, Adventure was released a hundred miles off the coast of Mauritania with hopes that she would be carried westward across the Atlantic, to the Americas.
She nearly ran aground in the Cape Verde Islands, but the little ship carried on. In May, the voyage ended 18.6 miles off the coast of Barbados, where her GPS tracker died after recording 3,773.26 miles of watery travel.
Initially, the plan was to pick up Adventure, recharge the tracker battery, and send her back to sea. Instead, a second family became involved in the launch of a second ship, Adventure 2, from the offshore support vessel Normand Installation. On the day of launch north of Georgetown, Guyana, Adventure 2 was less than a hundred miles from Adventure’s original course. At the time, some thought that ocean currents would carry Adventure 2 into the Caribbean Sea, where the Gulf Stream might catch her and carry her back to the UK. Today that seems possible, since her tracker shows Adventure 2 now moving north along the east coast of Florida.
Pondering the tracks of both Adventures, I couldn’t help remembering an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of classroom experience. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”
It’s an apt metaphor: one that applies not only to teaching but also to various sorts of creative activity. Few of us send toy pirate ships to sea, but all of us have tossed tiny, message-filled bottles into the currents of today’s great cyber-sea, leaving them to bob, tumble, and drift about until they safely reach shore, are broken and destroyed on the rocks, or disappear over the horizon, never to return.
Regardless of outcome, the first step is an enthusiastic toss seaward. Whatever our bottles’ contents, the words or images they contain will have no opportunity to touch people, clear their vision, educate, or bring comfort until the bottles are set free to travel.
Beyond that, patience is imperative. It takes time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world. It takes time for someone to find them, and there are times when only pure luck allows the message to be plucked from the surf and acknowledged.
Over time, a few of my own metaphorical blog-bottles have reached shore with their contents intact, and I’ve been lucky enough to be contacted by the people who found them. At first, it happened only with words — poetry and prose from this blog — but, as I’ve learned, it can happen with photographs, too.
Only weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall — also in 2017 — the natural world began to recover. One of the first plants to bloom at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was Aquatic Milkweed; fresh and undamaged, the almost perfect specimens were a joy to photograph and to share on Lagniappe.
Imagine my surprise when, three years later, the Xerces Society contacted me, requesting permission to use one of my blog-published photos of the milkweed in their new publication titled 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch. After giving permission and signing releases, I moved on to other things and forgot about their inquiry, until a complimentary copy of the published book appeared in my mailbox this month. I was pleased, of course, and also amused. Thanks to the editors’ decision to arrange plants alphabetically, the section devoted to milkweeds begins with my pretty Aquatic Milkweed.
The request from the Xerces Society was the first of the year, but not the last. In late January, an intern for the group Indiana Phenology contacted me by email, requesting permission to use two of my favorite photos of Ohio Spiderwort in their educational materials. Part of the National Phenology Network, the Indiana group’s mission is the same:
[To bring together] citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States.
A third and more recent request came last month from Mark Egger, a University of Washington Research Associate and Burke Museum Specialist on Castilleja and related genera. While researching stem fasciation in Castilleja spp., he’d come across my photos of a delightfully odd Indian paintbrush, and asked if he might use them in a paper.
Now published in Phytoneuron, described as “a venue for digital publication of miscellaneous reports on taxonomy, floristics, and geographical distribution of vascular plants,” Egger’s paper is both understandable and interesting, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in its publication.
I was equally pleased to be introduced to Phytoneuron. Looking through other papers published on the site, I found more than a few names familiar to any Texan interested in native plants: Jason Singhurst, Bill Carr, and W.C. Holmes. There’s some good reading ahead.
Each of these requests reinforced one of my most firmly held beliefs: that not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. In a world dedicated to instant gratification and marked by the replacement of a 24/7 news cycle with instantaneous rumor, it’s become a decidedly old-fashioned view.
And yet, it’s only a willingness to take the longer, less demanding view of things that allows any of us to keep tossing our bottles or sending our boats into the vast, impersonal sea surrounding us: vessels filled with uniquely personal treasures that one day — some day –will wash onto a receptive shore.