I recently moved house after 30 years and decided it was a good time to cull my books. Years ago I had read that Doris Grumbach, a writer, professor of literature, and professional book reviewer, tried to de-acquisition half her books every time she moved. I attempted to follow suit, no small task. I did pretty well, and one outcome of the exercise is that I was reminded of books I had read and loved in the past, but hadn’t considered in some time. In this series of blogs I want to share a couple of them because I think they are worth passing on. Also, I have to admit that since moving, I’ve bought a few more books. After all, any collection—of herbarium specimens or books—grows stagnant if not “curated” and nourished. So I’ll cover a couple of these, too.
One of the latter is Explorers’ Botanical Notebook (Thinard, 2016). When I leafed through it in the library, I decided I had to own it. It’s an obvious choice for this blog because it’s full of photos of herbarium specimens drawn from the collections of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in Britain and the University of Montpellier in France. As the title implies, the book is about exploration and is organized as two-page spreads, with the description of an expedition on the left, and the photo of a related herbarium specimen on the right. Many obvious voyages are included such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Charles Darwin on the Beagle.
For each voyage there is a relevant specimen. The problem is that the level of relevance varies, one reason being that the book includes very early travels dating back long before the development of herbaria—and I do mean very early. The first is the expedition Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt mounted around 1465 BCE to search for sources of myrrh and frankincense for embalming. This shows that plant hunting definitely has a long history, but the frankincense (Boswellia carterii) specimen pictured is from 1875. In this case, as for the discussion of Alexander the Great’s plant finds during his conquests (334-325 BCE) and Marco Polo’s travels on the Silk Road, there is obviously no physical botanical evidence to display. However, for other exploits there are, even relatively early ones such as the pirate William Dampier’s plants collected in Western Australia in 1699 and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s specimens from the Levant at about the same time. I assume that they are not pictured because there were no relevant specimens in the two collections used as source material. However, there is another disconnect that may or may not be related to availability of relevant sheets. For example, there is a four-page spread on David Livingstone and John Kirk’s exploits on the Zambezi River, but the plants pictured aren’t mentioned in the text. This is frustrating and makes the presence of the specimen much less compelling, even though they were collected by Kirk.
I know that I’ve been rather negative about this book, so why do I even bother to review it here? Well, it does provide an opportunity to look at some beautiful and historically important specimens. While the Kew and Montpellier collections have certain deficiencies, they also have remarkable strengths. After all, Kew is one of the most comprehensive herbaria in the world and some of its treasures are displayed here, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker. There are also wonderful stories such as that about the specimens of Jacques Julien La Billardière who traveled from France to the Pacific. Neither he nor his plants had an easy time of it. He was a French royalist and when word reached the ship in Java that Louis XVI had been guillotined, the republicans on board rebelled and handed La Billardière over to the Dutch who imprisoned him and confiscated his collections. The Dutch ship carrying his specimens was captured by the British, and the Frenchman’s specimens ended up with the British botanist Joseph Banks. In a noteworthy example of international solidarity among scientists, even when their countries were at war, Banks sent the crates back to France without even opening them.
I had read this story before, but it’s worth revisiting, and the same is true of many of the book’s entries. If you are well-versed in the history of botany, there isn’t much to learn in these brief treatments, but for those with an amateur interest in plants, there’s a great deal of good material here. Two other books I bought recently are related to this one. Explorers’ Sketchbooks (Lewis-Jones & Herbert, 2017) gives examples from a variety of fields. There are a number with botanical material included, some with which I wasn’t familiar such as Philip Georg von Reck’s (1711-1798) notebook. He went with James Oglethorpe to Georgia in 1734 on the latter’s second trip to develop the Georgia colony. Von Reck made some of the earliest records of plants and animals in the area. I found many of the geologists’ sketches equally fascinating; it’s interesting to see how they dealt with great differences in scale from massive geological formations to the texture of individuals pieces of rock. Botanical Sketchbooks (Bynum & Bynum, 2017) is also spectacular. This is a book I hope to keep, not matter how much I may have to pare my library in the future. Again, there is a mixture here of the usual suspects like Joseph Hooker and also Sydney Parkinson, Joseph Banks’ artist on Captain Cook’s first round the world voyage, in addition to the less well known such as Hellen and Margaret Shelley, sisters of the poet Percy Shelley, and Charles Maries who studied mangoes in India.
Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.
Lewis-Jones, H., & Herbert, K. (2017). Explorers’ Sketchbooks. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.
Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.