By Lee Anna Sherman
What runs through the life of author Norman McLean is a river. In the life of Elliott Finn, it’s a plant.
Vegetation, wild and domestic, wends through every childhood memory: playing hide-and-seek among fruit trees in his parents’ sprawling Soap Creek garden near Corvallis. Dashing through botanical gardens and greenhouses with his little brother Ian. Scrambling up and down granite boulders and hidden canyons among the shadows of Joshua trees in Nevada. Witnessing, after a heavy rain, an eruption of desert sunflowers on the “barren, hardscrabble terrain” of Death Valley.
Even the internship he did with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley after his sophomore year at Oregon State had a plant component. Amidst the legislative hearings, policy briefings and phone calls from constituents in Washington, D.C., Finn got to do a “super-interesting, super-random” project about a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) on the U.S. Capitol grounds, a 1985 Arbor Day gift from Oregon’s longtime senator Mark Hatfield.
All of his recollections come with Latin names. “There are eight species of the pitcher plant genus, Sarracenia,” he says, referring to the fly-eating flower that was his special favorite as a kid. He and his dad, a plant geneticist, experimented with cross-breeding Sarracenia and growing the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), Oregon’s only native pitcher plant species. Finn rattles off a series of multisyllabic species names and then smiles a little sheepishly. “When both of your parents are horticulturalists, it’s normal to know those terms.”
Connecting People, Solving Problems
But plants are just the buds on Finn’s ambition. It’s the bigger picture — the intersection of ecosystems and human systems — where he hopes to make his mark on the world. His double major — biology and EEPM (Environmental Economics, Policy and Management) — is his attempt to wrap his arms around both nature and humanity for the protection of each. He’s tried lab research but finds it tedious. Instead, he leans toward negotiation, conflict resolution, communication, interaction. For this member of the University Honors College, it’s integrating a “broad range of topics and ideas” that interests him, rather than zeroing in on one “super-specialized area of study.” An inspiring winter abroad in Chile, for example, showed him how environmental policy and community-based fish-and-wildlife management have converged for effective conservation.
“I want to work with people to get everyone on the same page — get everyone to understand one another so we can create solutions that work,” says Finn, who will graduate in fall term. “I’m interested in constellations and connections, in human relationships with one another and the planet, and how science can be applied to solution-making.”
Earth’s future hinges on national concerns being incorporated into regional and local frameworks, he explains. Big federal laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts are, of course, critical. “The challenge now is to find points of collaboration for local and regional environmental decision-making,” he says. He cites the work of OSU political science professor Edward Weber, who argues for “grassroots ecosystem management” — local stakeholders plugging into global problems such as climate change and then tackling them on a smaller, more personal scale. “Blanket solutions aren’t the answer,” says Finn.
Still, it’s the Plant Kingdom that lights up Finn’s face most brightly. One spring afternoon, for instance, he’s simultaneously marveling at and worrying about something he just learned in his ecology class: How desert plants like Joshua trees were “classically dispersed” by mastodons and ground sloths, now extinct, and how the trees are in trouble because they depend on a single endangered species of moth for pollination.
“On one hand, it’s sad,” says Finn. “It’s definitely disappointing. But it’s a call for us to pay attention, to make sure it doesn’t occur.”
Editor’s note: Elliott Finn has received several student scholarships at Oregon State, including the Betty Jean Farmer-Stubbs Memorial Presidential Scholarship.