Building brainpower on the cheap


It is not a nice day. The temperature is in the 50s and it is overcast and sprinkling.  Through the ponderosa pines I can see that the mountains to the west are sprinkled with white.  It will not be long before the rain turns into snow.

If I pass the field exams, it will lead to my becoming a native plant master.  But I am the onion in the zinnia patch of botanists and master gardeners around me, because I am totally ignorant about plants.  In addition, I have a black thumb that can kill a petunia at 10 paces.

Becoming a native plant master is yet another of the impractical chunks of knowledge I have pursued, areas of expertise that have no chance of converting themselves into money or prestige, but a good chance of turning me into one of those dotty but relatively harmless eccentrics that other folks avoid. It is bad enough that I chase butterflies with a net; I do not need to be carrying a big book and a magnifying glass while I jump up and down in ecstasy over a shriveled bunch of leaves.

There is actually an organization called the Colorado Native Plant Society that almost called itself the Dotty People Society, but they were afraid the name would attract the genuine polka-dot crazies.  (I'm lying, but it could have been true.) The Native Plant Society's purpose is to increase people's appreciation of native plants in the area and maim or obliterate the alien ones. The Native Plant Society probably has similar groups in all of the Western states because flammable cheatgrass, its sworn enemy, is everywhere.

Here in the mountains, we are freezing our buns.  Wearing all the clothes we brought with us, we are huddled over a clump of gumweed trying to memorize its scientific name, Grendelia squarrosa, knowing it will eventually be covered with snow and frozen to unrecognizability.  Gumweed is everywhere, along almost any path you walk, and has a small yellow flower with a prickly green bulge under it that is sticky when you touch it. In Mexico it is called cinchanna and is used to counteract spells thrown your way, a good thing if a brujo has you in his sights.  The Native Americans had a more practical use for it, using it to dye things yellow and smearing the gummy sap on poison ivy rashes. Modern medicine uses extracts of gumweed for asthma and bronchitis.

There are a lot of reasons why I'm doing this, but some of them are more honest than others.  I like to say I come here in the pure pursuit of knowledge -- simply because I was curious about the plants my boots had crushed over the years. Sometimes I remind myself how important it is for us to learn about the plants in our neighborhood and save them, not just because they are cute, but because they might contain a chemical we'll need in the future.  Like the endangered Western yew, Taxus brevifolia, from the West Coast, which has been found to contain Taxol, a weapon against ovarian and breast cancer. We don't have to go distant places to find these plants; they could as easily be in our backyard as in Madagascar.

But actually I was here cramming my brain full of information about plants for a far more selfish reason. Starting at the age of 60, I read, your brain starts to shrink, losing about 1 percent of its volume each year. The area of the brain where the shrinking occurs is in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for retaining working memory such as telephone numbers, addresses and the names of your closest friends, favorite dog and whether you zipped up after.

"You am doomed," the Chicken Little companies say, trying to sell me a brain-fitness program to turn the shrinking lump of fat perched on my neck into a muscular Albert Einstein.  "You need a brain gym to improve your memory and master declining skills," they say. "Just $169.95 delivered in a plain brown wrapper so your neighbors won't know."

My skeptical side says no. Exercise to pump blood and oxygen into your noggin is the single best thing you can do for your brain.  Eating fish and lots of fruits and vegetables wouldn't hurt either. (They say this about everything so I thought I'd throw it in.)

But just in case, I decided to try fact-gorging, too.  It can't hurt. It's nonfattening. It's cheap. Maybe I'll make a few more neurons. I figure if I lose 1 percent a year but add 5 percent packed with useless crap, I'll jump ahead of my race with Big Alzheimer by a bunch.  I don't need no stinkin' brain gym, just some plant people and a rainy mountainside. Gimme those obscure scientific names: Achelia lanulosa!  Taxus bevifolia!  I feel neurons starting to burn. Eat dirt, Big Al!

Do you think I'm doing this because I've already lost too many brain cells?

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes, draws editorial cartoons, chases butterflies and now, peers at plants in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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