Searching Tomb 105


I walked slowly around Tomb 105 at Monte Alban, a sacred, pre-Columbian site built by the Zapotec Indians near Oaxaca, Mexico.  Unlike others, who were inspecting the temples, temples that rival some of the best of the old world, I was intent on finding a small fern in the chinks of the walls.  The fern had been named for a former student of mine, hence my diligence.  As I searched, I recalled the thread of events that led me to these hallowed Mexican grounds.


        At Bellport High, on Long Island, in the late sixties, classes were crowded and classrooms were scarce.  After a few days of school, I was assigned another biology class that would meet in one of the home economics rooms.  My class would be composed of two or three students from each of the crowded classes.  Each teacher sent me the students he or she wished resulting in an eclectic array of skills and behaviors. One of those young teens would alter my life significantly. Erroneously, I assumed that he would be my student…and that I would be his teacher. 


        Joe was enthusiastic, outspoken, eager and clearly bright.  He was also, as I was to find out in the ensuing days, disruptive, rambunctious and questioning.  The latter I could handle, the others were less endearing.  But, we both survived and two years later he joined my ‘Topics in Biology’ class.  By that time, a group of students along with Dennis Puleston and Keith McKenna were visiting local nature areas, ostensibly, to look at birds.  But, Joe didn’t care for flying things.  Looking at the ground, Joe discovered plants and particularly ferns and lycopodiums.  It was, however, because of the ferns that I was searching the walls of Tomb 105.


        Teaching seniors in the spring semester after they have applied for college and, in some cases, received “early admissions” is a challenge that teachers know well.  The disease is called “seniortis” and, if you think that a 10th grade sophomore is rambunctious, disruptive and annoying, you haven’t tried teaching college bound seniors.  And, so it was that I was looking for something to grab the interest of this mostly senior class of biology students.  We began a discussion about what topic might be interesting but were soon interrupted by the fire alarm.  It was the first day warm enough for a fire drill after a long chilly winter.  When the students returned, the discussion continued, but soon Joe and fellow classmate, Helen Gelband, during the fire drill, had decided that we should study the Carmans River.  I was seduced immediately.  Wow, these kids want to study the ecology of the river, how cool.  What I suspect is that they really wanted a day off campus to canoe the river.  We did that.  I liked canoeing too.  And, we produced the first significant report on the ecology of the river…work and pleasure  That report led to a more thorough study which protected the river under the New York State Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System.  Joe’s education of the teacher had just begun…symbiosis at its best.


        After graduating from Cornell, Joe went to the University Michigan to begin his PhD.  He specialized in ferns and club mosses (lycopodiums) and his expertise in these areas led him far afield.  But one of his more startling discoveries was found locally in a salad bowl in a Michigan restaurant.  Out on a fern foray, (a foray is what people who study ferns call a field trip where they look for ferns), Joe had a salad with his lunch.  As his fork poised over the salad, he noticed a leaf that looked unfamiliar or at least “out of place.”  He asked the owner where that particular water cress, previously unknown in that area, came from.  The owner, surprised, said “from the stream across the road.”  He had found a rare plant in his salad.  His discerning eye missed nothing, and don’t we wish we could still collect wild greens from the local stream?


One expedition Joe joined went to the tepuis of south-eastern Venezuela, the land of Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world and the site where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his novel Lost World.  Fascinating choice…but the perfect place for Joe to practice “Caramba” biology, the Spanish word that can loosely be translated as ‘Holy Cow!’  Everything was new…well practically… the scientists who were dropped on top of Cerro Neblina, one of the tepuis, were elated with the thought of discovery and adventure.  What he expected to study were endemic ferns, those found nowhere else; he didn’t expect to practice nursing.  Bad weather stranded their expedition on the tepui for eight days and, as their food supply dwindled, some went foraging.  A botanist found some blueberries and many ate them.  Joe had read that one shouldn’t eat high elevation blueberries; sure enough, all who ate them were sick for many hours and unable to move.  One, colleague, Mike Nee, even went “blind” albeit temporarily.  After about eight hours all had recovered with Joe’s patient attention.  True to his scientific training, he took notes on their symptoms as the toxin ran its course.  He taught not only me but apparently his colleagues as well...albeit, a little late.


        As time went on, one expected Joe to find more rare plants…and to be aware of their by-products as used by scientists and pharmaceutical companies.  And, so it came as no shock, to find his letter in a scientific journal noting that some condom manufacturers used lycopodium powder to “prevent the latex from sticking.”  (Lycopodium spores provide the powder used in every high school chemistry lab to demonstrate that solids can explode, a “quality” they didn’t display on the condoms.)    Using these spores seemed like a good idea at the time, but some people are sensitive to the powder and break out in a rash.  While some concluded that this observation implied not to use condoms, Joe was quick to point out that all one needed to do was to “change brands;” others did not use lycopodium powder.  Joe’s scientific awareness and teaching reached into new arenas.


Joe’s career finally landed him a job at the New York Botanical Gardens where one of his colleagues was Dr. John Mickel.  Together they visited Oaxaca numerous times and finally published the Pteridophyte Flora of Oaxaca, Mexico. Their knowledge of Oaxacan ferns convinced the author, Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, to join them on a visit there.  He describes their trip in his wonderful book, Oaxaca Journal.  While Sacks was contemplating the huge complex of temples and tombs at Monte Alban and imagining how the Zapotec’s must have played ball (juego de pelota) in these hallowed arenas, he is interrupted, as he notes on page 133,

“…in these lofty thoughts by the sight of John Mickel swooping on Tomb 105.  ‘Astrolepis beitelii!’ he shouts in excitement (an Astrolepis not previously in our list).  The pteridological passion in him is in full force.  And, indeed, I see, as the rest of us are exploring Monte Alban…three tiny figures…far below…bent double, or crouching, or lying on their faces, examining the minute flora of the region with their hand lenses.” 


And, here I am in 2009 at Tomb 105 trying to recreate this scene, trying to see again Joe Beitel and his enthusiasm for ferns and clubmosses, indeed, to share again his enthusiasm for life.  To help do that, I searched Tomb 105 for Astrolepis beitelli.  By finding it I would strengthen that bond of teacher and student…even though it continues to be uncertain who was the student and who was the teacher; maybe we were just colleagues?  Joe died in 1991, but his enthusiasm and scholarship continue to inspire those, like me, who continue to learn from him.  As I stood next to Tomb 105, I recalled these events and pondered the meaning of these ancient ruins and the fact that a small, insignificant fern could be so important to me.  Thanks, Joe…your “Ay Carumba” spirit inspired a fabulous Monte Alban/Oaxacan adventure.  And, I want you to know, Joe Beitel, I’m still learning….       


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