I took a field botany course a few years back with a professor that I adored. He was 82 years old, but that didn’t slow him down in the slightest. We’d go rambling about in the woods, chasing after him as he leapt over logs and dashed through creeks, all the while pointing left and right and shouting out common and scientific names. All of us students scrambled to write down our spellings as he shouted them, also struggling to stay on our feet on slick trails.
Professor Benzing had bright, mischievous eyes and a soft voice. He was always very kind to me, even when he caught me hiding in his greenhouse (among the tropical plants) after a particularly stressful exam. I was his most eager student, and also his most gullible. Sometimes he would stop us in the field, dig up a root, slice it in half and say something to the effect of, “I need a volunteer to lick this root.”
I would always volunteer, of course. I never knew what I would get. Sometimes it would be a delicious treat. Other times the root would be full of silica needles that injected my tongue with a poison that made it go numb for thirty minutes. (NOT funny, profethor benthing!)
The last day of the botany course was the final, which was a field exam. Our job was to identify fifty species that he pointed out as we were hiking.
He had taught the course for over 40 years, but that didn’t stop him from getting us lost. It was pouring rain, of course.
We climbed up and down a shale cliff three times looking for the trail, notebooks and pencils in our teeth and hands scrabbling as the shale came loose in pieces.
Finally, we all huddled miserably under an overhang next to a river. Rain poured outside the cliff and we were all covered in mud and leaves. There was only one species yet to find on our list.
Professor Benzing looked at us, then looked around for the final candidate. He pointed at a pathetic looking plant a few meters away. “That’s your last species,” he said, with a little grin.
I groaned. I knew that it was Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), but there was one sure way to find out, and I couldn’t risk being wrong. I reached out and stroked a leaf, instantly wincing and recoiling. Yep, stinging nettle.