History of field trips

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Daniel L. Mahr, CSSA Field Trips Committee

l joined CSSA in the early 1970s, and, from the beginning, the Journal articles that I most enjoyed were those regarding plants in their native habitats. While writing this, I went back to my journals for the 3-year period 1973-75 and found articles on field explorations from such giants of our hobby as Bally, Buining, Foster, Glass, Herre, Horwood, Kimnach, Lavranos, Newton, and Rauh. Those articles, with the accompanying photos of amazing plants in exotic locales, stimulated a desire to personally view plants in habitat. This longing was probably nurtured by my own enjoyable youthful experiences roaming the near-by deserts of my southern California home. But the lure of South Africa, Madagascar, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Kenya, Brazil, and other succulent-rich outposts of the world became stronger with each new issue of the Journal received.

In speaking with other CSSA members, it was clear that others had similar yearnings. But most of us are not experienced travelers, especially to exotic, out-of-the-way destinations that are the natural homes of many of the plants we grow and love. The idea of planning and carrying out a lengthy and rigorous trip can certainly suppress the casual desire of wanderlust. But… what if someone else did the planning and legwork?

Participants of the first field trip in the CSSA program, Tour 2000 – Big Bend, with spectacular Santa Elena Canyon as the backdrop. Photo D. Mahr.

Participants of the first field trip in the CSSA program, Tour 2000 – Big Bend, with spectacular Santa Elena Canyon as the backdrop. Photo D. Mahr.

I joined the CSSA Board of Directors in 1997. ln 1998, I proposed to the Board that CSSA could develop a Field Trips Program for its members. Although my idea met with considerable skepticism, the Board agreed that I should develop a more thorough proposal. As I had no personal experience in organizing tours, I thought we should start easy, meaning a short trip, close to home, but also to a location with appealing plants. So I picked the Big Bend region of southwest Texas and scheduled it for April 2000. As it was the beginning of the new millennium, I dubbed the travel series with the somewhat alliterative name “CSSA Tour 2000”. I asked Rick and Lynn Taylor of Borderland Tours in Tucson to be our tour operators, and I asked Matt Johnson of the University of Arizona to be one of our botanical guides. CSSA Director Dr. Bob Barth also recommended Jackie Poole, an endangered species botanist with the state of Texas, as a second botanical guide. We ended up with 19 paying participants, from nine states and England. The trip went well, and provided the impetus to continue the program.

During early Board discussions regarding the field trips program, Myron Kimnach suggested that we should go to Madagascar, famous home to so many stunning succulents, because the natural environment there was being so rapidly degraded. During this period I requested assistance with the trips, as I had found that organizing a trip took literally hundreds of hours. Bob Barth and Lee Miller, both experienced travelers, volunteered, and the CSSA Field Trips Committee was formed. With our eyes set on Madagascar, we added Gary James to the committee, as Gary had taken three previous trips to Madagascar, and also had other extensive travel experience. So, planning began for CSSA Tour 2002 – Madagascar, with Gary and I sharing planning duties. The legendary John Lavranos had agreed to be our guide. Plans developed nicely and our departure date was just a few months away – some of us had even made airline reservations – when a funny thing happened. The normally very peaceful people of Madagascar held a presidential election and both candidates claimed victory. They divided up the military, the two sides started shooting at each other, seaports were blockaded (all petroleum fuels, including jet fuel, arrive by tanker ships), highway bridges were blown up, and, overall, Madagascar was suddenly a less-than-appealing destination. What is a Field Trips Committee to do? How CSSA Tour 2002 – Madagascar quickly turned into CSSA deTour 2002 – Namibia and the Richtersveld is a story unto itself, but we did have a successful trip, and we were able to reschedule Madagascar for 2004, a double-header year with a trip to Chile as well.

It was originally our intent to have trips only during even-numbered years, so that they would not conflict with attendance at our biennial conventions. But in 2000, soon after the successful completion of our Big Bend trip, the Board asked the Field Trips Committee to plan a tour to be held in conjunction with the 2001 Los Angeles Convention. Lee and Bob took leadership on this and actually planned two trips, one pre-convention and one post-convention. One trip was “The Coastal Californias” with an itinerary starting on the coast of central California and concluding at Cataviña in northern Baja California. Regrettably, we did not have sufficient interest to conduct this trip, but the second, into the southern California desert was a success.

As of 2014 we have planned and conducted nine trips in the Tour 2000 Series and five trips in the convention series. Three additional convention trips were planned but cancelled because of insufficient registrations (Coastal Californias – 2001, Four Corners – 2003, Baja California – 2011). The total participant count has been over 170, though the actual number of members is somewhat less because several people have taken multiple trips. Thus far we have had participants from 16 states and the District of Columbia and five foreign countries.

The benefits to CSSA of the Field Trips Program go well beyond the immediate experiences of the travelers themselves. Three entire special issues of our Cactus and Succulent Journal have been devoted to in-depth discussions of the areas explored and the plants that occur there: Brazil, Oaxaca, and northwest Argentina. Most of the articles in these issues were written by the participants. And in all three cases we received more articles than would fit in a single issue and these were published in subsequent issues. Beyond this, field trip participants have given lectures to their local clubs and other groups, have written articles for various publications, and have shared their photographs by posting them on websites and through social media. All of these activities have allowed the entire CSSA membership, as well as other organizations and individuals, to vicariously experience the natural homes of the amazing plants we all enjoy.

1Parts of this article were extracted and modified from: Mahr, D. L. 2009. The CSSA Field Trips Program – Celebrating Its 10th Anniversary. To the Point 81(3):68-71.

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