FVCC botany teacher leads jungle excursion

Story by RYAN MURRAY/Daily Inter Lake, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

mirabai_mccarthyMirabai McCarthy likes ferns.

That isn’t a typical way to describe someone, but for the botany professor at Flathead Valley Community College, it’s fitting.

McCarthy, 39, got her master’s and doctoral degrees from Miami University in Ohio, specializing in tropical ferns.

Because of her background, she was the perfect choice to lead a recent two-week trip to Costa Rica with 17 students to study tropical plants.

“We had a huge diversity of students, with psych majors, English majors,” McCarthy said. “The range in ages, too. The youngest was 18, she had just turned 18 a few weeks before the trip. And it ranged up to almost 70. We had two women in their late 60s.”

Those differences in the students, some of whom had never left Montana before, were a concern for McCarthy. But the different generations, majors and personalities all seemed to mesh while in the jungle.

The trip, originally supposed to be two weeks, was shortened by a few days.

“There was a massive snow storm the day we were supposed to leave,” McCarthy said. “But then we bused down to Missoula a few days after and got on our flight.”

Costa Rica was markedly warmer, reaching the high 80s in the coastal areas, and in the 70s in the higher-elevation cloud forest.

“It was hot and 90 percent humidity,” McCarthy said. “It was strange to wake up and just be covered in sweat.”

The biggest culture shock for the students, particularly the younger ones, was living in a research station completely off the grid: No Internet, no cellphones, nothing but a generator and solar panels to help keep the lights on.

McCarthy had dealt with such situations before. It was as an undergraduate at Lyndon State College in Vermont she first made a tropical trek, traveling to Puerto Rico to work with plants. As an environmental science major, she knew she wanted to work outside. The love of botany came from that trip.

Her students might have been hit with the same realization.

“I warned them they would get the bug,” McCarthy said. “I had a psych major come to me and say she’s pretty sure she’s over people. She’s sold on plants.”

The specialization of ferns, a field of study called pteridology, spoke to McCarthy after one of her mentors espoused the virtues of the phylum Pteridophyta.

Her expertise in tropical ferns has paid dividends, and McCarthy was the co-discoverer of a new species of fern in Ecuador: Adiantum mariposatum. The name comes from the Adiantum genus of ferns, which are capable of shedding water without remaining wet. Mariposatum is what McCarthy named her species, as the spreading fronds reminded her of a butterfly’s wings (mariposa is butterfly in Spanish).

At Flathead Valley Community College, several botany classes keep her busy. The classes available include an introduction to botany course, a field botany course that focuses on local plants, a practical botany course focusing on the use of plants and a Rocky Mountain flora course.

“These courses are great for anybody who is in a field that is outdoor-focused,” McCarthy said, “whether than be guides, forestry students or whatever.”

When not leading trips to the tropics or teaching classes, she is an avid gardener, growing hot peppers as she can and skiing and snowshoing in the winter.

While many of the students in the Costa Rica trip were not in these outdoors-centric fields, they got more than a little experience in that regard.

To reach the research station in the jungle, they took a boat up a river, along the coast and to the station, seeing crocodiles, macaws, sea turtles and other wildlife along the way. Hardy rubber boots were a must for the jungle, not just for the thick mud but as an extra layer of protection from any snakes.

The cultural differences were welcomed by the students, to McCarthy’s pleasant surprise.

“They were raving about the food. It was mostly rice and beans, but supplemented with things like plantains,” she said. “And the children are raised so differently. They would be drawing or carving or going on hikes with us and the parents weren’t worried about where they were or what they were doing. These are some of the poorest people on the planet and they are some of the happiest.”

The students and McCarthy had an effect on the locals as well. One of the main guides, Mario, said he had a preconceived notion of Americans before he met them. They changed all that with just 11 days in the country.

Students were instructed to keep journals. Theoretically they were for grades. McCarthy made it a quarter of the grade for the trip, but truly, she said, it was for their benefit.

“It helps you relive the experience,” she said. “Sometimes you get caught up in the day-to-day things and forget what made you love the experience in the first place.”

She still has her journals, some reaching 15 years old, with ferns pasted to the page and detailed entries about excursions.

Not everyone can appreciate the leafy fern, but McCarthy said she is quite all right with that.

“It’s like a fine wine,” she said. “Everyone can appreciate a rose, or a lily, but it takes something else to appreciate ferns.”

McCarthy plans to lead another group of students to the tropics next winter.