William and her husband debated what to name their daughter. They finally settled on Ryerson, which was William’s grandfather’s and sister’s middle name. Ryerson grew up to look remarkably like her mom. In fact, if you were to examine photographs of both women when they were in their 20s, you might not be able to tell them apart.
In addition to their appearance, William and Ryerson had another thing in common: an unusual first name. But Ryerson’s friends found a simple way around that. They called her Rye.
Rye Pamplin loved just about everything the outdoors had to offer. She grew up in Easley and attended Easley High during the same time that her mom was a teacher there. This had its plusses and minuses. William often knew Rye’s grades before she did.
Though Rye loved science and biology, she ended up pursuing a career in law enforcement, earning a bachelor of science in criminal justice at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg. After graduation, she became a police officer for a short while and then a forensic crime-scene investigator.
Rye soon discovered that she was hyper-sensitive to the chemicals used by forensic officers. Too much exposure made her violently ill. “After a couple of jobs in the field, I had to quit and find a Plan B,” Rye said.
Plan B turned out to be a return to her outdoorsy roots. Now in her mid-30s, Rye would replace chemicals with fresh air, fingerprints with paw prints, blood with soil. In 2010, she was accepted into the graduate program in Clemson’s department of forest resources.
In late summer of 2011, the revelation that would lead to Rye’s master’s thesis — and the eventual 2016 publication of a research paper titled “Multitemporal phenological floristic analysis of the shores of Lake Issaqueena, South Carolina” — convinced Rye that this time she had made the right decision. When she told her mom that she would be following in her footsteps, the entire family celebrated. William even admitted afterward that she had been silently hoping this might happen all along.
“Once she went to Clemson, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t thinking about it,” William said. “But I wanted Ryerson to make her own way in life, so I kept my lips zipped. And in the end, it all worked out.”
Though their research would be nearly identical in many ways, there were some dissimilarities. More than 40 years had passed since William had studied and collected specimens in the forests near the lake. Not only were the trees, plants and flowers different — either in variety or maturity — but the methods used by botanists to study plants had become more structured, complex and spatially oriented.
With the expert guidance of Mikhailova and additional assistance from Clemson advisers Patrick McMillan, Christopher Post and Julia Sharp, Rye was taught how to use a natural community sampling method called the Carolina Vegetative Survey. While William basically walked around a large research area and noted what she found, Rye mapped out more than two dozen 20-by-50 meter plots and focused her research on them.
“I went out there at least four times a week, which was difficult because I was a student taking classes and also had a teaching assistantship for Dr. Mikhailova,” Rye said. “So I did a lot of work on weekends. I’d cover my entire research area at least once every month. And then I would do it all over again the next month. But even though I marked out a lot of large plots, I was still covering a much smaller overall area than my mom did.”
Rye used a GPS-enabled camera to record blooming plants, and her photographs were meticulously labeled and then stored on a Google website developed by Mikhailova. The photos still exist on this site and are frequently accessed and examined by Rye’s successors at Clemson.
However, no matter how sophisticated the techniques, field research always involves plenty of legwork. Determining, measuring and marking the plots was tiresome in and of itself, much less studying and cataloging their contents. It took Rye from the fall of 2011 until the end of 2012 to finish her on-site studies.
During her long hours spent in the forest, Rye would occasionally feel a sudden urge to halt in her tracks and examine her surroundings — not as a scientist but as a lover of nature. She would stand beneath the trees and take a series of deep breaths, her mind and body growing exceptionally peaceful.
“My mother was always there with me — not in person, but in my heart. I brought a copy of her thesis with me to the lake every time I went there, and I’d refer to it constantly. I would whisper, ‘Mom, you did great things here. And it’s an honor to be your daughter and to follow up on your work.’ It felt like the trees were listening.”
Though Rye spent most of her time in the forest, she also endured many evenings huddled in her office or at the herbarium.
“After a long day in the woods, I would bring the specimens back to the University to identify them,” Rye said. “And I’d have layers and layers of books all over my desk. When I found something that baffled me, I would go to the herbarium and bug Dixie Damrel. She and I would be trying to identify a certain plant by poring through old records. And lo and behold, we would find specimens by William Pamplin … William Pamplin … William Pamplin. How cool is that?”
In retrospect, Rye had only one regret about her time spent at Lake Issaqueena. In reinvestigating her mom’s research, Rye had hoped to also replicate — in the exact location — the line transect that William and John Fairey had worked so hard to establish and complete. Amazingly, she and Knight Cox were able to find the piece of metal farm equipment that Fairey had pounded into the ground back in 1970. And using fiberglass tape, Rye restrung the line. But when she returned the next day to begin recording the plant species that now grew there, she sank to her knees in disbelief. Overnight, a host of feral hogs had ravaged the entire area.
“Those bastards messed up everything. They even ate my tape,” Rye said. “And they also ruined just about all the plants along the entire line, which was more than 600 feet long. To this day, it upsets me to think about it. That was one part of the dream that didn’t come true.”
Despite this setback, Rye finished her thesis and received her master’s from Clemson in 2013. In the end, she had identified 203 blooming plants as compared to William’s 269. This could be attributed to Rye’s smaller research area as compared to her mom’s. There were 149 common plant species blooming in both study periods, indicating that some were new and some were not found. The majority of plants bloomed earlier and longer in 2011-12 than in 1969-70. But it was unclear whether this was due to climactic variations, environmental changes or the differences in their data collection methods. Overall, Rye documented 208 species and hundreds and hundreds of specimens.
For a variety of reasons, both natural and otherwise, plant species come and go. Some are driven into extinction by human intervention, never to be seen again. But both William’s and Rye’s projects resulted in comprehensive lists of flora that future scientists at Clemson can refer to when conducting their own research about the health and well-being of our plant communities. This, more than anything else, is their most valuable scientific legacy. And it’s a legacy that will stand the test of time.
After leaving Clemson, Rye moved across the country and went on to work as a botanical biological science technician in New Mexico and California. However, she has recently returned closer to her roots, settling in Asheville, North Carolina, to be nearer to her mom and dad, who still live in Easley. Rye’s experiences at Lake Issaqueena remain fresh in her memory.
“That time in my life still means a lot to me. When I was growing up, I would listen to mom’s stories about going to Lake Issaqueena with John Fairey,” Rye said. “I remember her saying, ‘He even bought me a proper pair of boots.’ My mom has always loved plants, and she would teach me their taxonomic names when I was just a little girl. To this day, she still does it.”