Growing up in Yosemite Valley, botanist Maynard Moe was robbed of that moment of slack-jawed wonder the rest of us have the first time we lay eyes on its geology-done-exceptionally-right beauty.
"I've never had that awesome experience," said the longtime Cal State Bakersfield professor. "I've seen people see it for the first time. They just die."
So Moe has spent a lifetime looking for his own moments of wonder. He's found many in Kern County, which he said boasts the most diverse flora of any region in a state known for its natural bounty. But his trips to the deserts of Africa and remote islands have come closest to affording him his own Yosemite-for-the-first-time awe.
Those visits, and the magnificent plants and trees he has studied there, are the focus of a presentation Moe will give to the California Native Plant Society on Thursday. The public is invited and admission is free.
"He has traveled worldwide and will show photos of the strange and wonderful plants from Yemen, Socotra, Namibia, South Africa and Madagascar," said Patty Gradek of the California Native Plant Society's local chapter.
It was only fairly recently -- in the last 20 years or so -- that Moe made his first plant pilgrimage, to South Africa. But the scientist has made many return visits to the region, drawn by his love of succulents, plants that grow in the desert, sustained in the arid environment by their fleshy tissues designed to conserve water. He travels with like-minded enthusiasts even more serious than he about tracking down interesting flora.
"I go with a group of guys that have a passion for these strange plants. They'll look for very particular species ... that one species in that one crevice in a mountain. That's my excuse for climbing the mountain and looking. My interest is seeing plants in their natural setting."
Take for instance the Baobab trees of Madagascar, otherworldly giants that make a striking first impression.
"We stopped immediately. I said, 'My God -- there they are.'"
Also known as the upside-down tree, the Baobab, endemic to the Indian Ocean island, is characterized by a huge trunk with a smattering of branches on top. Moe noted it's possible to get seeds and grow your own Baobabs, but "it takes hundreds of years to get that big" -- hence the importance of seeing them in the wild.
Moe also highlights in his presentation the "succulent heaven" of western South Africa and southern Namibia and Socatra, the largest in an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean.
"These are the holy grail of succulents," Moe said. "There are some strange plants on it because they're islands and remote. They're untouched by invasive species, except humans."
Though Moe offered the assurance that he will not get political in his upcoming presentation, he did note the threats facing his beloved plants, no match for human inventions like the plow and consumerism.
"The Baobabs are so huge the individual trees aren't threatened so much as their offspring," he said. "As soon as the seeds germinate and begin to grow, the cattle eat it.
"There's one aloe that's in South Africa whose remaining plants you can count on your fingers and toes. They have to put identity chips like the ones they put in pets inside the plant so that when people try to steal them, they can find it. It's unconscionable that our activities lead to their destruction."
Flora of Kern County
Though Moe's presentation focuses on more exotic locales, it's his own backyard that has been uppermost in his thoughts lately. The scientist has just updated his 1995 book on plant species in Kern County.
"I did a complete revision and it's at the press. I'm bugging the publishers to get it out by spring."
For his first effort -- "A Key to Vascular Plant Species of Kern County California and a Flora of Kern County California" -- Moe used as a starting point a book published decades ago by Ernest Twisselman, who presented a list of plant species. Moe provided pictures and, most helpfully, an identification key.
"It's the bible of Kern County flora at the moment. When I talk to the field botanists, everybody has it, all ragged, and it seems to be what they want."
And there are a lot of botanists in the county just now, Moe said. They're cataloging species "before they're destroyed."
"This is the most diverse county in the state in terms of flora. The reason, of course, is we have the desert, the Sierra Nevada, the San Joaquin Valley, a small amount of coast range, the Grapevine range. That's why I came here and why I'm still here."
As for Moe's bucket list, he said he might like to see Australia, for its eucalyptus, thorny plants and annuals, though he noted with regret that "nature's lottery never gave Australia succulents."
"That's why I haven't been there. I'd have to find friends who want to see things other than succulents."