By Rusty Russell, Co-Investigator, Field Book Project
Two of the most dynamic words in the history of science are “explore” and “discover”. Whether in the field or in the lab, exploration begets discovery, both of which feed the powerful drive of scientists to learn. So it was with Cleofé E. Calderon.
In 1851, the French botanist Adolphe- Théodore Brongniart described a new genus and species of bambusoid grass, Anomochloa marantoidea, from a specimen being grown in a Paris garden. The seeds from which this plant was raised had an uncertain origin, but were believed to have been collected in coastal Brazil. Although additional plants were cultivated from the original, this species was never again seen in the wild for 125 years. However in 1976, after an earlier but fruitless attempt to relocate this rarity, Smithsonian botanist Cleo Calderon and her Brazilian colleague Talmon S. dos Santos were foraging the understory of cacao plants in the eastern state of Bahia when they encountered the elusive Anomochloa. I am intimately familiar with this story for reasons I’ll explain shortly so, in honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to tell this tale.
In the months preceding the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, Tom Soderstrom, Cleo Calderon and I set out on a ten-week journey to study and collect bamboo in the mata Atlantica of eastern Brazil, an historic refugium and, therefore, a rich and diverse region for bamboo species. Operating out of CEPEC, a cacao research center between the towns of Ilheus and Itabuna, it was decided to form two teams in order to maximize our coverage of the area. Tom, I and two CEPEC assistants would go one way, while Cleo, Talmon and two others would proceed elsewhere. The makeup of these teams was not a surprise to me because, upon beginning my career at the Smithsonian a year earlier, I immediately found myself in Cleo’s bad graces for assuming that her role was more clerical than scientific. Suffice to say that I paid for this error. It was an unforgiveable mistake, so … she never forgave me (sigh). But we maintained a cordial relationship involving minimal conversation. However, I came to greatly respect her research diligence, her work ethic, and her tremendous contribution to Botany through her collecting and publication record. The grass genus Calderonella and many grass species are named in her honor.
Back in Brazil, each foray lasted about ten days after which we would reconvene at CEPEC to share our bounty, and return to our hotel in Itabuna to share our stories. Anomochloa was always in the back of our mind as we searched for and collected hundreds of bamboos and smaller bambusoid grasses. On this trip, Cleo was inexaustible according to Talmon, himself a big strapping field veteran. Cleo had stopped smoking the year before and commented often about her improved ability to tromp through the field and climb hills without losing her breath. Then, at the end of our penultimate trip, Tom and I were relaxing at the hotel having returned a day early (I’m sure there was cerveza nearby), when we recognized the beat up black jeep roaring into town with horns blaring. Tom understood immediately.
When I learned that Ana Tkabladze, an intern on the Field Book Project, was digitizing Cleo’s field books, I got curious about her record of that trip and, specifically, that historic discovery. First of all, Cleo was fluent in Spanish, her native language as a full-bred, soccer-loving Argentinian, as well as English and Portuguese. Most Brazilians did not even recognize her accent. So, as I began to read her 1976 journal, I was struck with how seamlessly she moved through all three languages, sometimes in the same daily entry. Navigating her field book is, therefore, a bit of a challenge. I thumbed ahead to April 21st, anxious to read her account of the rediscovery of Anomochloa, expecting to find multiple exclamation marks, asterisks or smiley faces. Nope. Collector No. 2381, date, location, distances from landmarks, elevation, and photo numbers, all faithfully recorded per usual. Only one thing distinguished this record. Cleo indicated (n.sp.?) the possibility of this being a new species. Ha! She didn’t assume that she had rediscovered A. marantoidea, but considered the possibility that it was a second, unknown species. She had kept an open mind.
Cleo passed away in 2007. Her research relationship with Tom Soderstrom was such that, shortly before he died in 1987, she had left the Smithsonian, never to collect or publish again. But like so many other stories of exploration and discovery, Cleo Calderon’s exploits live on through her collections and field notes. And in our memory.
For a picture of Cleofe Calderon, see her obituary in this issue of Bamboo Science & Culture: https://www.bamboo.org/publications/e107_files/downloads/ABSJournal-vol21.pdf