From Plant Press, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 2017.
By Laurence J. Dorr
January 1st is the day we all make our New Year’s Resolutions and I suspect January 2nd is the day that most of us break them. Whether or not we follow through with our resolve to do better, mid-winter is also a time for reflection. I am no different and while I am generally reluctant to share my personal resolutions (either those still in effect or already abandoned) I am more than happy to share some of my mid-winter reflections especially since I very recently passed something of a milestone; 25 years of service to the Smithsonian Institution. My reflections however also include a confession.
The first time I visited Washington, D.C. I did not visit the Smithsonian. Worse still, I do not think I even knew such a thing existed. One of my aunts was living in the District and about to go overseas so my parents took me and my siblings on a road trip from Boston to Washington. What do I remember? We stayed at a motel in Virginia in what then seemed to me to be the far hinterlands of Arlington. We visited the Lincoln Memorial, which impressed me then and still impresses me now; the apotheosis of Lincoln crucial for our national identity. We visited the yet unfinished Washington National Cathedral and we had a tour of the White House. This last was of course a pilgrimage for anyone born and raised in Boston because John F. Kennedy was president. What else do I remember? My father got a ticket for parking along the National Mall. Some mundane things never change.
The important role the Smithsonian Institution plays in natural history only began to become apparent to me many years later when I started graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although I was already keen on plant taxonomy and systematics, my advisor encouraged me to write a thesis focused on pollination ecology. Our department and university lacked systematic entomological expertise so we boxed up the insects that I had collected during my study and sent them off to the National Museum of Natural History to be identified by experts; Smithsonian and U.S Department of Agriculture entomologists. During this same period when I had the occasion over the winter holidays to travel between North Carolina and New England I visited Washington for the second time. This time I completely ignored the monuments, the executive mansion, and the cathedral, and headed straight to what had become for me the most inspiring of all the buildings in our nation’s capital, the National Museum of Natural History.
Not keen on writing an autobiography I will jump forward slightly more than a generation. On my daily commute from beyond the hinterlands in Virginia I pass the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I see the White House in the distance and the Jefferson Memorial. I drive the length of the National Mall (assiduously avoiding parking alongside it) and I see the National Gallery of Art and the Capitol Building as I walk from the National Air and Space Museum across the Mall to the Natural History building. I feel very privileged for many reasons and I know that all of us who work here feel equally privileged.
What are the New Year’s resolutions that I was reluctant to share? I continue to be resolved to help improve our department and the museum, and I am committed to making the U.S. National Herbarium the finest national herbarium in the world. Ironically for me, I better understand now President Kennedy’s exhortation “ask not what our country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and I hope his words also resonate with you. Even though I began this brief essay ambivalent about revealing my most significant and personal New Year’s resolution I will: I am resolved to be optimistic.