On Harper's Trail: Roland McMillan Harper, Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Frontier

May 11, 2009

He was an odd duck all right, but this book, with its many, many lists of the specimens, including their Latin names, Harper saw on his many, many outings, will be of interest mainly to botanists.

The author, Elizabeth Findley Shores, was mostly raised in Birmingham, but has fond memories of the family place at 329 University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, where her mother, Anne, and her uncle Lyman had been children and where the Findleys rented a spare room to an eccentric botanist, Dr. Roland Harper.

Roland Harper was born in Farmington, Maine, on August 11, 1878, the son of a science teacher. The family moved to Georgia and Roland began studies at UGA in 1894, and received his PhD from Columbia in 1905.

Before he even received his degree, Harper had been on a number of observing and collecting expeditions in the Southern Coastal Plain, which would be his area of study for 50 years.

Right from the start, he was a singular creature. He couldn't just ride the train or later an automobile and relax. He would look intently at the wayside and make notes, constantly, on the flora he observed. Harper claimed to be able to make accurate lists of plants along the way. Many colleagues scoffed, but it later was agreed he was remarkably accurate. Harper also declined to learn to drive, so, over the course of his career, he probably hiked a hundred thousand miles, on the ground, camping out, which was rather brave of him since he had a phobia of snakes as well as driving.

Roland Harper was a particular kind of botanist. He was a field worker, a collector. The laboratory and plant life at the molecular level held no real charm for him. He wanted to be finding rare or even never-before-seen plants, noting especially the geologic conditions of their habitat, and he loved finding plants in places they were not expected to be in at all.

This relentless searching and collecting yielded, over time, hundreds and hundreds of publications, and augmented hugely the holdings of many collections in herbariums around the country. Harper became rather well known for his efforts, but not truly a giant in his field. He was never able to write his magnum opus, the grand summary and synthesis of his life's work that would have given him the immortality which, make no mistake, he sincerely wanted.

Harper developed a passionate interest in the Longleaf pine forests, which were largely being destroyed at the time of his early studies. He may be given credit for realizing that the Longleaf stands not only can withstand fire, they positively need it to keep down undergrowth, discourage hardwoods and germinate their seeds. The U.S. Forestry people mocked him. Total fire suppression in forests was the doctrine of the day.

For 35 years Harper worked here in Tuscaloosa at the Alabama Geological Survey, had an office in Smith Hall, but did not and would not teach. No one understood. His mother, who was herself quite a piece of work, wrote at one point, "I cannot understand you?You must be crazy." Refusing to teach, or leaving teaching, is regarded by many as spurning or returning holy orders. Harper wanted none of it. "Harper loathed teaching," Shores says. He took a lower salary, and did his work.

He would have done more had he not suffered from what Shores believes to have been Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Harper was a compulsive list-maker, journal- and diary-keeper and plant collector, all of which helped his career. Unfortunately he also kept every railroad timetable he ever possessed, and all newspapers, new and old, which he read and from which he clipped thousands of articles to mail to friends. Harper, for several possible reasons, did not marry until his sixties and died in 1966. He was an odd duck all right, but this book, with its many, many lists of the specimens, including their Latin names, Harper saw on his many, many outings, will be of interest mainly to botanists.