Jennifer Ogle and Theo Witsell, co-authors of "Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Arkansas" courtesy of Central Arkansas Library System

An updated collection of comics that meditates on “occult economics” and “demographic demons,” all framed by world-bending architecture (“Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse”). A chapbook that puts itself in conversation with “The Wizard of Oz” (“A Homegrown Fairytale”). A community contest that asks young readers to create “edible books.” A conversation about desire and consent through the lens of science and the #MeToo movement (“Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again”), followed immediately by a look at the life of a Black woman who hid her identity to become J.P. Morgan’s librarian (“The Personal Librarian”). These are a few of the discussions happening at the 2021 Six Bridges Book Festival from the Central Arkansas Library System, which runs from Thursday, Oct. 21, to Sunday, Oct. 31.

This year, the fest is almost fully virtual, but no less ambitious in scope. If you’re venturing out, join the Arkansas Times for drinks at Stickyz Rock ’n’ Roll Chicken Shack for Pub or Perish at 7 p.m. Oct. 23, where host Chris James will lead a lineup of readings from local writers and poets. Otherwise, grab the printable schedule at cals.org/six-bridges-book-festival, make your picks, mark your calendars. Meanwhile, we’ve included some brief interviews conducted over email with a few of the Arkansas-connected authors featured on the Six Bridges lineup this year:

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Jennifer Ogle and Theo Witsell
Theo Witsell is an ecologist and chief of research for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, and Jennifer Ogle is a botany consultant and the collections manager at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s herbarium. Witsell and Ogle are co-authors of “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas.” Unless otherwise indicated, they answered questions jointly over email. Catch Witsell and Ogle at Central Arkansas Library System’s Six Bridges Book Festival 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30. 

What does a typical day in the life of a botanist look like?

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Ogle: I oversee the university’s collection of roughly 125,000 preserved plant specimens, some of which were collected in the 1850s. Most were collected in Arkansas, but a good number are from other states and even other countries. A typical day may involve many different types of activities, including the preparation and filing of specimens, managing the specimen database, conducting field work and collecting new specimens to help expand our understanding of the diversity and distribution of Arkansas’s flora, and writing grants to support the herbarium’s mission.

Witsell: I oversee a smaller collection (20,000-plus specimens) at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Herbarium, which focuses on inventory of the state’s rare and high-quality remnant natural habitats as part of the conservation mission of the ANHC. This collection is heavy on rare species and specimens from the unique and declining habitats where our agency works.

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OK, you’re charged with picking the most fascinating or unusual native plant
species in Arkansas. What are they and why?

Dutchman’s-pipe (Isotrema tomentosa) is a woody vine that grows in bottomland and
streamside forests throughout much of the state. Largely hidden under its large, heart-shaped leaves are beautiful, yellowish-green and maroon flowers that are shaped like a miniature tobacco smoking pipe. This unusual plant also makes aristolochic acid, a chemical that is toxic to humans but which can be eaten by pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) caterpillars. As they eat the leaves, they also ingest the chemical, which makes them revolting to most birds and protects them from being eaten.

American barberry (Berberis canadensis) is a native shrub that has not been seen in
Arkansas in more than 130 years. The only reason we know it once occurred here is
because Benjamin Franklin Bush collected it somewhere in the Arkansas Ozarks in 1888 and preserved a specimen that is now housed at the Smithsonian’s herbarium. A few years ago, Theo discovered that specimen while visiting the Smithsonian. This native species is fascinating because it was the subject of a prolonged and targeted eradication campaign by the U.S. government between 1918 and the 1970s due to its role in the life cycle of wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis), and today it is rare throughout most of its range. Although American barberry hasn’t been documented in Arkansas in well over 100 years, we believe it is still growing somewhere in North-Central Arkansas, likely on a bluff, bluff ledge, in a glade or in a rocky woodland.

Certain trees produce unusual structures that don’t seem necessary today, but which make perfect sense when you consider that during the Pleistocene epoch (about 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago), giant herbivores known as megafauna roamed this region. Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) trunks, stems and branches are armed with large, stout thorns. Ever wonder why a tree would need to produce such strong defensive structures? We believe it was a protection against browsing by giant ground sloths and other megafauna that are now extinct but were once common in North and South America. Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is another oddity today. It is uncommon in Arkansas’s forests today but was probably much more common when megafauna lived in the region. The ground sloth was able to eat and digest the tree’s thick, leathery fruits and its seeds would be softened as they passed through the animal’s digestive system. Once the seeds were deposited into the soil, they were ready for germination. None of today’s native herbivores can digest these large, tough fruits, which may help explain why the tree is now uncommon.

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Part of your work involves the protection of native plants. What are the foremost threats to native plant species in Arkansas?

1) Widespread land use changes (conversion of natural landscapes to human-centered uses) that destroy and fragment important native plant habitats,
2) The introduction and spread of invasive plants that successfully compete against and displace native plants,
3) Over-harvest by humans and sometimes domestic livestock,
4) Introduced pathogens, pests or predators that can cause widespread decline in native species, and
5) Changes or declines in natural ecosystem processes that many species depend on either for some part of their life cycle or for maintenance of their habitat. These processes, such as natural flooding, widespread fires and grazing and browsing by native herbivores like bison and elk, used to occur across large parts of the landscape but no longer play a widespread active role.