Mary Jane Epps (MJ) is a naturalist, biologist, entomologist, fungi-phile, old-timey music player, urban homesteader, self-proclaimed luddite, weaver and all around information gatherer. It’s fascinating to sit down with her and talk about any topic imaginable; by the end of the conversation you will come away with both new knowledge and a drive to research whatever you spoke about further, fueling future conversations. It actually doesn’t come as a surprise that MJ had such an incredible childhood – lots of time spent exploring and testing her survival skills outdoors with her siblings… and trying to start fires during recess.
Lea: Were you cool?
MJ: Definitely not!
Was anyone cool? Tell us what made you a cool student in your middle school.
As far as I could tell kids everyone else thought “cool” were the ones who picked on other kids the most. Other than that, coolness was definitely a black box from my perspective.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Definitely getting picked on, and losing friends to the cool kids.
“…I was obsessed with trying to learn how to start fires with flint and steel.”
What was lunchtime like for you and your friends?
Okay, this will really reveal how weird a kid I was! All through my early teenage years I was obsessed with trying to learn how to start fires with flint and steel. I remember countless lunches where I used to sit outside and practice my sparking techniques with my flint and steel set!
Did you get into trouble at school?
Never, unless another kid picked a fight.
Did you used to feel lonely? Did you know anyone like yourself?
Oh, I was definitely a pretty lonely kid in middle school. Middle school seems to be the time when kids can really get punished for anything that sets them apart from the herd, and I was never one to conform to things that were trendy. Once I got to high school it was completely different–most people had grown up enough to actually respect individuality in their peers, and I had a fantastic bunch of smart, quirky friends who had plenty of their own unusual interests.
“…I had a fantastic bunch of smart, quirky friends who had plenty of their own unusual interests.”
What were your favorite subjects in middle school?
English/Lit, Writing, Art
Why? What made those subjects so special?
I had an absolutely marvelous English teacher for 7th and 8th grades. English was one class that my school had sort of an honors section for, which meant that the material was much more interesting.
Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?
My English teacher placed a big emphasis on learning Latin and Greek word roots, which is something that I really value. Having that early foundation in word roots has actually really helped me remember scientific names now that I’m a biologist.
“I used to spend pretty much all of my free time running around in the woods on my parents’ farm and exploring.”
Did you play an instrument? Did your parents have to force you to practice or did you do it on your own?
I played violin from 3rd grade on, though I quit taking lessons after mid high school because I wanted to spend more time learning natural history (no joke!). My parents used to have to force me to practice all the time! I liked the violin okay, but I wasn’t particularly inspired by it until I started playing fiddle.
I used to spend pretty much all of my free time running around in the woods on my parents’ farm and exploring. I was always a fairly obsessive kid and during middle school I became perhaps a little too interested in learning wilderness survival techniques. I used to do all sorts of crazy things! One of my favorite activities was to build natural shelters way out in the woods and try to insulate them with leaves sufficiently enough to sleep in them without a sleeping bag. I remember a number of nights where I absolutely froze out there. I also got really interested in edible wild plants, and used to bring home and prepare all sorts of ghastly things that I would then feed to my parents. They were remarkably good sports about it. Some of the ‘edible’ plants I harvested were really pretty foul, though at the time I did a pretty good job of convincing myself that they were delicious.