Botany exam

by Robert Benchley

from No Poems

How many of my little readers, on walking (with an occasional hop, skip, and jump, no doubt) through Central Park have ever been confronted suddenly by what I call "Examination Grove"? . . . I am afraid that I haven't made myself clear.

South of the Resevoir, on the west side of the Park, just before you begin to wonder if it wouldn't be better if you took a cab for the rest of the way, is a little path which wanders with no valid excuse between a line of trees and shrubs in direction south-by-southeast from that in which you want to be going.

Thse trees and shrubs have all been labelled in the customary flip manner by the horticulturalists, to whom a tree is not so much a tree as a third-declension Latin noun with its modifying adjective, but they have not stopped at this impertinence. Each tree and shrub is hung with a little tag bearing a question, presumably adressed to the hitherto carefree stroller. Thus, the tender sapling on your right not only has to bear its foliage and perhaps a great hulking bird in its branches, but also a sign reading: "How can the leaves of the pink oak be recognized?" Yonder rock which beckons so temptingly to the weary wanderer (known as "Beckoning Rock" among the natives) is made impossible for resting purposes by a tag which demands peremptorily to know: "What kind of moss is found growing on this kind of rock?" The City of New York in its paternalism, not content with Nature's supply of books in the running brooks and sermons in stones, has taken on itself the task of making examinaion papers of its trees and shrubs. Could the preceptorial spirit go farther? (Take three minutes to answer this question.)

The first time I ran upon these posers I was naturally thrown into something of a panic. Being conscientious to a fault in matters of civic duty, I had a feeling that I ought to answer them all before I could pass through the reservation. For years I had been a beneficiary of the City of New York, accepting its police-protection (no tittering, please), its street-lighting and its playgrounds. The least that I could do now was to answer a few simple questions in return.

[graphic: untitled illustration]

But the very first one which had caught my attention, attached to a small shrub and reading: "Where is another shrub similar to this, and what is its name?" gave me a guilty feeling of being under suspicion of having hidden the other shrub myself, when, as a matter of fact, this was the first I had known of the whole affair. I retraced my steps, looking for something which might resemble the shrub in question, but there was nothing. I had failed miserably on my very first question, so there was nothing for me to do but take my pencil and write "Sorry" on the tag and go back to the main pathway. All the way home in the cab (I really didn't feel like walking anymore after that) I sobbed as if my little heart would break.

Since then I have grown hardened and often walk through "Examination Grove," trying not to look at the questions. But the place is spoiled for me. I cannot pass that rock without thinking: "You don't know what kind of moss is found on that rock. You don't know anything and you never will. Exeter, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Heidelberg - what good did they do you? You don't even know how to recognize the leaves of the pink oak." Often I rush from there to the lake and frown furiously about in a boat, trying to relieve my inferiority by an excess of physical exertion, but in my heart I know that Mayor Walker would be just as disappointed in me as he could be, were he to find out how I had failed him.

My nightmare now is that the City of New York, crazed with its success in botany quizzing, will take to popping questions at me about other items of its equipment. Suppose one day I were to come across a hydrant bearing a tag reading: "What pressure would be necessary to project this stream fifty feet through this opening (6 in. diameter)?" or an iron lamp-post asking:"What is the coefficient of linear expansion of this metal?" Imagine my embarrassment! Imagine your own, for you, too, are involved in the menace of this teacher-complex on the part of the City Fathers.

The only way in which we, as citizens, can get back at our tormentors is to ask them questions in return. We may not be erudite in our questions, but we can be embarrasing. We can put a sign over that hole in Forty-fourth Street asking "How much macadam would it take to fill up this hole, and why the hell isn't it done?" On every street corner we could stick up little signs reading: "What belongs here for the reception of waste-paper?" and on the backs of some policeman we could pin signs: "What has this policeman been drinking, where did he get it, and did it conform with the Municipal Bureau of Standards' test for 'legal' liquor?" And, of course, if we were mean enough, we could string a banner across Seventh Avenue at the Park Central Hotel asking, in red letters, "Let's see - who was it killed Arnold Rothstein?"

Oh, there are plenty of questions that we could ask if once we started. We may not know what kind of moss grows on what kind of rock, but we are no fools.