Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers readers another in her series of essays on natural resource experts and their work in Northern Michigan. Here we meet Dr. Julie Hurd, an extraordinary volunteer with Grass River Natural Area. (Thanks to James Dake for the photos accompanying this essay.)
She is self-effacing, but the folks at the Grass River Natural Area (GRNA) prize Julie Hurd as one of their finest volunteers. That’s saying a lot, for the GRNA has dozens of extraordinarily loyal and overqualified people pitching in. The fifty-year old GRNA protects an alkaline wetland with exceptional floristic diversity, now a regional rarity. Its three miles of river run through bogs, sedge meadows, and cedar swamps. A decade-plus of volunteering there, said plant docent Hurd, has been “one of the best experiences of my life.” It’s a life of achievements from mastery of fiber art to a Ph.D.
Now in her late seventies, Hurd has long been an educator, having retired in 2005 from an academic career in teaching, research, and library administration. She won her doctorate in theoretical chemistry and master’s in library science from the University of Chicago. Her doctoral dissertation employed computer-based mathematics to predict details of molecular structure. That early experience with emerging technology ultimately led to a career-long research focus on the impact of computers and the internet on scientific communication.
She’d always had an interest in botany. Upon retiring she reinvented herself from being a physical to a biological scientist, completing a Master Gardener’s Program along the way. Hurd’s botanic interest extends to natural dye stuffs—fungi, lichens, and flowers. “I’m a fiber artist,” she says, and is fascinated with dying yarn and the perception of color. Her relationship with plants is scientific, aesthetic, functional and personal. Plants aren’t just specimens to list and catalogue, but beings with distinct properties and attributes; are members of communities.
Hurd and I met at the GRNA center on a misty, moisty day in June, a prime moment for seeing wildflowers in bloom. Petite and handsome with dark eyes and dark hair, Hurd sported colorful rainwear—rose-colored boots and slicker. We set out on the Fern Loop trail, a short but entrancing boardwalk laid through a rich conifer swamp. Thanks to the carefully constructed, accessible wooden walkway, your feet stay dry, thus it’s not an entirely natural experience of such watery terrain. By building boardwalks and affording educational swamp walks that aren’t soggily immersive, the GRNA builds a constituency for wetlands.
Most of the flora Hurd and I met on our walk amid the wet and ferny micro-realms aren’t gaudy, but have small and subtle blossoms. “This isn’t a power walk,” she said. “It’s contemplative.” The diversity of plants is what’s spectacular here, and the intricacy of their habitats within the meanders and hammocks of Finch Creek. This tributary of Grass River flows into Antrim County’s Chain of Lakes and ultimately, Lake Michigan. The sinuous creek’s water is utterly transparent and just now high. Recent heavy rain has cycled its way down through soils cloaked in natural vegetation and housing all the living processes that ordain water quality.
However, said Hurd, Grass River is a misnomer. “It should be called Sedge River.” Sedges populate the GRNA’s wetlands, giving its open reaches a meadowy aspect. Unlike grasses, writes Lauren Brown in Grasses “Sedges have mainly solid stems, often triangular. (You may have heard that ‘sedges have edges.’ This is true of many, though not all, members of the family.) Sedge stems have no joints. The flowers are arranged spirally on the stalk and have a slightly different structure from the grass flowers. Sedges tend to grow in wetter, colder areas than grasses.” Among over four hundred plant species harbored here are some fifty kinds of sedges.
Like many an ace naturalist, Hurd has a pocketful of mnemonics, rhymes, and similes to fix a plant’s identity in memory. For instance: “Solomon’s seal, to be real, must have flowers from the keel.” Curiously, False Solomon’s Seals, belonging to the genus Smilacina, outnumber the real. Their starry flowers grow at the tips of their stems while the flowers of the bona fide Solomon’s Seal (genus Polygonatum) dangle underneath. Making these distinctions, by lore or with a field guide, enriches seeing. It helps us know identities and individual characters rather than a generalized blur of vegetation. It’s a way to grasp what’s at stake in natural areas preservation.
The Grass River Natural Area’s Field Guide to Northwest Michigan: Its Flora, Fauna, Geology and History by GRNA’s Education Director James Dake can launch anyone in our bioregion on the docent trail. Dake, an accomplished photographer, was at the GRNA Center when I arrived. Calm and modest, he chatted with some visitors who’d brought in a plant for him to identify. Right-sized and comprehensive, Dake’s Field Guide is a fine introduction to hundreds of the fungi, plants, insects, herps, birds, and mammals making up our region’s biotic community. With a solid bibliography including websites, it’s a handy key to learning our place.
As Hurd and I slowly ambled along the boardwalk, we saw wild and intricate beauty everywhere: The swooping curve of a white cedar’s trunk, the delicate spangles of new tamarack needles, and an array of ferns. These can be devilish hard to identify. Hurd had a mnemonic for two of them: Like royalty, the pinnae of the Royal Fern stand apart while those of the Sensitive Fern “are in touch with each other,” grow continuously from the stalk.
The magenta petals of Polygala flared vividly against a lush green pelt of sphagnum moss; nearby were striking white bunchberry flowers, ground-hugging members of the dogwood tribe. There was the medicinal gold thread, no longer flowering, which Hurd adeptly identified by its foliage, explaining that its fine golden root hairs give it its name. There was an Equisetum, a horse-tail moss, commonly known as Scouring Rush. Dried, its silica-rich stems were handy for cleaning out woodwind instruments, said Hurd.
The unevenness of the ground and the fact that “it’s a balanced ecosystem,” with fallen logs left to nurse new tree generations and native abundance rising out of natural decay means that “populations don’t get out of control” as they do in disturbed landscapes short on biodiversity. In an age of extinctions, learning natural history and having a knowledge of place are vitally important. As Hurd remarked early on our walk, given the fact that some nurseries are still selling some ruinously invasive plants, like the wetland-threatening purple loosestrife, as well as vinca (a.k.a. myrtle) and Japanese barberry, “There’s a lot of education needed.”
For most of human history, our knowledge of wild plants was immediate, concerning their special roles and qualities. They were magic and medicine, food and embellishment. “Wildflowers have uses across many cultures,” said Hurd.
Both scientist and artist, Hurd teaches gardening, weaving, and natural dyeing classes. She is as conversant with the history and lore of producing vivid colors for yarns, fabrics, and tapestries from sedate organisms like lichens as she is with the natural history of the trails she’s interpreting.
Here and there we met Jacks—or Jills—in the Pulpit, familiar woodland plants whose recondite flowers can be pollinating male or seed-producing female or ambigender. “It’s a complex enough plant that it takes a lot of energy to produce a flower,” said Hurd. Gardeners used to the hurrying ways of annual varieties might be surprised to learn that some wildflowers require years to reach reproductive maturity and bloom. These curling pulpits belong in this bosky sanctuary for to Hurd, “This is church. We work here for the sheer pleasure of it and feel fortunate to do so.”
In one glance, Hurd and I noticed Purple Avens, Golden Ragwort, the alas potentially invasive Great Water Dock, Swamp Buttercup, Swamp Currant, Dwarf Raspberry, and Labrador Tea. Steeped, the leaves of this latter, a member of the Heath family, have stimulant properties.
“We used it in college instead of NoDoz,” a visitor told Hurd. Alertness isn’t all this omnicompetent plant could help with. Indigenous people, says the Peterson Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, used it for “asthma, colds, stomachaches, kidney ailments, scurvy, fevers, rheumatism,” and externally “as a wash for burns, ulcers, stings, chafing, poison ivy rash.” Labrador Tea was a “folk remedy for coughs … dysentery … leprosy, itching, and to kill lice.”
As we wound our way back Hurd reveled in her love of this wetland – “the sound of it, the smell of it.” Docent means guide, one who shows the way.
“There’s so much to be curious about,” said Hurd. She understands that a teacher doesn’t have to know everything. But she said “You may be able to teach others to find answers, and that’s a powerful skill.”
Whether with one or twenty people for company, she comes rapt to every meeting at Grass River. “Being here is one of the best of times,” she declared. “The whole place is filled with wonderful plants.”