Too Old to Learn New Plants?


Del tredici2 One of the most inspiring things I've read in years is this story about swimmer Diane Nyad's planned swim from Cuba to Key West.  Now, Nyad is no slouch.  She holds the world's record for the longest ocean swim.

But here's what's interesting about the story: She is now 61 years old.  The last time she attempted this swim, unsuccessfully, she was 28.  Listen to what she says about the difference: “Physically, I am much stronger than I was before, although I was faster in my 20s.”

This is exactly the way I feel at 51, though I am by no means an athlete.  I'm fascinated by my own sense of increasing strength, because this is not what we were told about aging. That as we grow wrinkled and ornery and opinionated and impatient and cussed…we may also be gaining physical toughness.  There is someting about having survived a certain amount of discomfort in life that helps you understand, you can survive a certain amount of discomfort. 

But no question, some things go in middle age.  I flatter myself that it's not my behind, though it's probably that, too.

What's really striking to me is the loss of an ability to learn easily, from books, things that involve labels and fine visual distinctions.  When I was in my early 30's, I visited an enchanted garden in the Hamptons owned by friends of friends that has been published many times.  The rose lover of the pair was amazed that I could identify every single rose in his garden, just from seeing photos and reading about them. 

But this week, I picked up Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici.  Now, I am fascinated by my local weeds. I've been eagerly reading the book before bed. 

Then I wake up in the morning and remember almost nothing and wander around looking at the weeds in my yard as ignorant as ever.  Alas, I am really not taking in those photos of distinct leaf and flower shapes and certainly not connecting them with a name.  I'd be no good now at that art history class in college where I had to identify the cathedral just by the shape of the interior arches, and I fear I will never become a bird watcher at this stage of life.

Whatever mental acuity I have now seems to run on another track.  Or maybe my brain is just too busy at the moment.


  1. Peter gave a really informative talk on this subject at the recent “Woody Plant Conference” at the Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore College. His book sold out before I could purchase a copy at the conference.

  2. Maybe your self-conscious is telling you not to remember these plants, because they’re atrocious weeds that don’t deserve your knowledge?

  3. Go read some material (if you can) 🙂 on “brain plasticity”. When you spend time on the computer, you rewire your brain from a text-based process to a graphic based process. Makes reading something complicated a ton harder but you’ll remember the pictures better. The entire brain study area is fascinating and great strides are being taken (like training brain injured or blind people to “see” with their tongue or hands). You’ve run into a small example of this -it has huge implications for learning (not to mention the entire publishing industry) If you stopped working on the computer and went back to reading, your brain would rewire itself again to a text-based dominance.

  4. Count yourself lucky, Michele. I’m 27 and have had this problem for years. It helps me if I see the plant and the name at the same time in person–for some reason photos don’t help that much. Also, talking with another person about the plant helps cement the info, too. (Maybe that’s why lecture format in college sometimes works.)

  5. I generally have to see a plant in person in it’s context, and then go look it up in a picture, in order to ID it. I find that if I study pictures first and then go look for the plant, I often pick out the wrong details for identification. Also, if I were planning a book or site for plant identification, I’d have 2 photos for each plant: one close-up for details, and one of the plant in it’s context with an object next to it to show it’s size.

  6. This memory loss is what we call the “bucket theory.” Your bucket is full to the brim. Childhood memories are safely sitting at the bottom, but any new info just splashes off the top because it’s full! One way to help remember plant IDs is to actually purchase the plant 🙂 This is why my yard looks like a horticultural explosion and it’s my excuse for buying yet more… but the names stick even if voles eat half the stuff.

  7. I thought this was notable:
    “I’ve been eagerly reading the book before bed.”
    Notable because I’ve been wondering lately if that is a particularly bad time, especially for someone with a job and dependent kids, to read anything worth remembering. And I’ve noted for years that the books I read during my annual beach week stay with me so much longer than anything I read at home. Timing is everything.

  8. One at a time. Start with the ones you know and love (or loathe).

    You WILL learn the names!

  9. Wow, I really want to read this one!
    And every one mentioned on the pages of this blog.
    Too bad the books are so darn expensive….

  10. Try reading it at some other time of day. You might just be too tired right at bedtime to retain anything. I’ve been having that problem the last few days. It happens when I’ve been working harder and am just pooped. (I’m 56)

  11. Oh, I feel your pain about remembering names!

    That’s a great book – I bought it too. It’s a nice companion to my Weeds of the West. Del Tradici’s really got me thinking differently about ‘weeds,’ the places they inhabit, and the future of our urban landscapes. But it’s also interesting to see others’ reactions to this book: swooning love or sneering, dismissive hatred.

  12. I recommend that you take the book outside with you and identify your weeds one by one–not all at once, but over a period of time. You didn’t learn your roses without repeatedly looking at their pictures, or directly viewing them. I find that I kind of block out weeds, not really looking at them, because I focus on the flower or veggie that is trying to grow!

  13. I’m SO glad to hear that someone else has this problem! I don’t absorb new information like I did in previous decades. Thanks, maybe it’s not pre-Alzheimer’s!

  14. I read a comment recently that said that liberals are obsessed with race. If my explanation of the phases of liberalism is correct, then it’s more accurate to state that liberals are obsessed with inequality, because that’s the raison d’être for egalitarian-liberalism which I think is the predominant form of liberalism today. Traditional liberalism has died out and most liberals only hew to the goals of traditional liberalism out of habit rather than because it’s something they are passionate about.

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