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Life with plants: Vermont state botanist retires after 33 years

Man sitting at top of ski lift in summer gazing out
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Bob Popp eating lunch at the top of Mad River ski lift in Waitsfield. Popp retired as the state botanist after over 30 years, but still goes out in the field a couple times a week.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Popp was the state botanist in Vermont for 33 years. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Department, finding and monitoring rare and endangered plants in the state, reviewing permits and development applications.

He retired in April, handing the reins to Vermont’s current state botanist, Grace Glynn, but Bob still does volunteer fieldwork a couple days a week.

Recently, he was up in the Lincoln Gap, checking on a plant population he hadn’t visited since 2007 — called Bootts (boots) rattlesnake root, a rare species endemic to the northeastern U.S. Reporter Erica Heilman tagged along to see if Bob could translate what it feels like to spend decades in the woods studying plants to someone who hasn’t.

Erica Heilman: We're looking for a particular thing, do you get excited? Are you excited?

Bob Popp: Yeah, I mean, the most exciting thing is finding something new, previously not found, or finding something that hasn't been seen in 20, 40 or 100 years. This I think I found, I saw in 2007. So it's been 15 years.

grasses hanging from damp rocky cliff
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
A beauty shot of Carex brunnescens, taken while Bob Popp was crawling in a dark cave looking for woodsia glabella, a rare fern that can be found in Vermont.

Erica Heilman: Even closer.

Bob Popp: So what are you seeing on the stem? Tiny little hairs?

Erica Heilman: Yeah, they're little.

Bob Popp: Tiny little hairs. White spruce would not have any hairs whatsoever. Black spruce, which we may see today, also has hairs. But the hairs on black spruce have little thickened tips on the end. I mean, it's one of the ways to tell them apart.

Erica Heilman: So much has happened since last you saw these plants. The world has become a disaster.

Bob Popp: (laughter) That's one way of looking at it. Yeah. You know, being so connected to nature. It's really hard not to get depressed sometimes.

I don’t mean to sound egotistical, but maybe more than most people. myself and people who are connected to nature, we can kind of see firsthand what's happening. Climate change with fires, with invasive species. It's just, you could just be depressed all the time. And I'm choosing not to. I tend to be optimistic by nature. And it's, it's a struggle sometimes to stay that way.

Erica Heilman: You have a different relationship to plants that is personal. So the impact is slightly different, or is perhaps profoundly different. Can you describe what it feels like to imagine the end of one of these plants that you've been monitoring for 30 years?

Bob Popp: We have a federally endangered plant called Jesup's milk-vetch that occurs in only three locations in the entire world. I mean, it's probably the rarest plant we have in Vermont. We've been studying them for years. I mean, there's actual federal funds for that. And we've been augmenting two of the populations because they declined after Tropical Storm Irene took them out. And I went out after the flood—

Man crawling into a tight cave
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Bob Popp squeezing into a tight spot looking for weft fern (Crepidomanes intricatum). Popp still goes out in the field a couple times a week despite his retirement. "This is the part of the job I loved the most," Popp said.

Erica Heilman: The flood this year?

Bob Popp: —Yeah, we would do monitoring every year, like in late May, early June. And the one site in Vermont probably had 70 or 80 plants, and we put out about 30 seedlings. So I went out after the July 11 flood, and all of the transplants were gone. Zero. I couldn't find any. I think I found four plants total out of the 70-something we found in May. I mean, I was really hit by that. It was like, ‘Oh my God’, you know? ‘We might lose this.’

Erica Heilman: Why does it matter? If that plant disappears?

Bob Popp: Yeah, no, that's, that's a valid question. I mean, it's almost egotistical of humans to say, ‘Oh, you know, it's just a mere plant, who cares if it survives? Or not?’ I mean, every organism has an intrinsic right to exist, I would think, you know. On another level, it's, it's actually a subspecies, a variety of another plant, and it's separate from all the other subspecies, and it's evolving into its own species. So it's like, we're seeing evolution in action, so to speak. If that gets cut off, it's like, OK, there's a species that in another few 1,000 years was going to happen and now it's not. We've created a dead end.

Erica Heilman: I mean, so here we are, OK. I fully admit that this plant doesn't interest me. So how do I get, help me think about it differently?

Bob Popp: Yeah, that's an aster. A white whorled aster. It's tends to be, you know, higher elevations. So it tells you something about where you are. Yeah, I mean, it's a common understory plant. It's like an old friend. It's always there. I mean, I do public walks and things like that. And, you know, inevitably you get people that are like, so excited and ask all these questions, want to know everything. And then you get some people that are obviously bored out of their mind and just, you know, just kind of there because, you know, their spouse wanted to be there or whatever. And I wish I knew how to loop them in and I guess I don't.

Man studying rockface and grasses up close
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Bob Popp considering whether to climb the cliff to look for more Boott's rattlesnake root (Nabalus boottii).

Oh! This is one of the rare ferns! This is woodsia glabella. Smooth woodsia, which is rare in the state. I'm seeing two clumps of it. Yeah, this is neat! So it'd be a new station for a new population.

Erica Heilman: Are you gonna miss it, do you think?

Bob Popp: I miss it already. Yeah, I'm out in the field once or twice a week on a voluntary basis. And I can't envision ever not doing that. This is the part of the job I loved the most.

Erica Heilman: What do you want Vermonters to know that they couldn't possibly know having not been the state botanist for 30 years?

Bob Popp: Just to be aware of what we have here. Even if you live in Burlington, you can drive 10 minutes or bike 15 minutes and you can be out in the country. And, you know, the rest of the world isn't necessarily like that. It's just a beautiful place and we should cherish it and protect what we have. You know, just driving on the interstate at 70 miles an hour, you're not really seeing anything. You just got to stop and look at things.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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