The last post was the first in a series on books I’ve encountered—both recently and in the past—and found interesting. This entry focuses on two books with intriguing titles. The first is Botanical Monkeys, published by E.J.H. Corner in 1992. The title is more literal than you might think. It deals with this British botanist’s use of southern pig-tailed macaques or beroks, Macaca nemestrina, to collect specimens in Malaya (now part of Malaysia) in the 1930s. In an earlier post, I dealt with the frustration of botanists whose specimens get destroyed by insects and mold in rainforest environments. Another cause of frustration in such areas is the difficulty of obtaining specimens of hard-to-reach species, particularly epiphytes living high up in the tree canopy. Today there are sophisticated rope and pulley systems that make the forest’s upper reaches more accessible, but when Corner was collecting there was no such technology. He found small trees scalable, it was in obtaining flowers and fruits from mid-sized and very tall trees that he needed help. He had to wait for foresters to fell large trees before he could obtain canopy plants.
As early as 1929, Corner had noted that a berok would climb a tall coconut tree and twist off the nuts. When he suggested using the monkeys for collecting, his colleagues discouraged him by noting that even if the animals could be taught to grab specimens, these would probably get caught in the lower tree limbs when they threw the plants down. But he remembered the idea. Later he saw a berok pull flowering twigs from a mango tree and select a bunch of fruit from a rambutan tree, related to the lychee. With its teeth it also tugged off a pigeon orchid from a branch and some mistletoe. When they were dropped, none got caught on the way down. While other monkeys also foraged in the trees, beroks seemed particularly good candidates to become collectors because they liked to hear material crashing down.
To put his plan into operation, Corner captured a few young beroks and taught them to twist off palm nuts. He would keep a collector on a rope and slap the trunk of the next tree to get it to move on, at the same time loosening the cord. He also gave verbal commands, and one monkey knew 24 Malay words. Merlah, the first one he trained, collected specimens from more than 300 species of trees. In appreciation, Corner named a species after him. Another collector, Putch, was so well-trained that he was allowed to go off on his own. Sometimes Putch would spend 15 minutes collecting, eating, and playing before reemerging. Corner would take notes and then shout and hit the next tree. Needless to say, there were sometimes problems. For example, the animals were trained to rip off branches with leaves, but they would ignore the flowers; it took time to get them to collect both.
This botanical and zoological experiment ended, as does Corner’s book, with the Japanese invasion of Malaya. However, this is where another oddly titled book gets interesting. A few years ago I read a review of My Father in His Suitcase by John K. Corner (2013), who is E.J.H. Corner’s son. It cost $100 at the time and I wasn’t that intrigued, but I kept checking its price on used book websites until it came down to about $30; then I was willing to satisfy my curiosity. There is a great and difficult story behind this odd title. Even though E.J.H. didn’t die until 1996, John Corner, who was called Kay, left home in 1960 at the age of 19 and never saw his father again. E.J.H. was divorced from Kay’s mother and his second wife did not relate well to Kay, who also had a difficult relationship with his father. Because of this deep estrangement, Kay was surprised when a cousin received a suitcase stuffed with papers shortly after E.J.H.’s death. It was labeled: “To Kay, wherever he might be.” That was the only message, and Kay was so bitter that it was years before he even opened the bag. Despite urging from his wife and other family members, he couldn’t bring himself to do it until he had retired and they had moved to Australia. In the case he discovered an odd combination of letters, school reports, scientific articles, and other memorabilia. He became intrigued by what he found, carefully studying the material and contacting relatives as well as those who had known his father to learn more about this man whom he had mentally attempted to bury for so long.
Kay’s book is hardly a conventional biography. It’s main sources came out of that suitcase and were the means through which he came to know his father better. The son writes of his father’s years working in Malaya, including his stormy marriage to Kay’s mother, his botanical research, and his work in Japanese-occupied Malaya. This last is a difficult subject because many consider the senior Corner a traitor for his collaboration with the Japanese who allowed him to maintain the botanical garden he headed. Kay defends E.J.H.’s work saving important Malay plant collections and then describes some of his father’s later contributions to botany including his years as a professor of tropical biology at Cambridge University, but it is the personal side that dominates. It’s a most affecting and unusual portrait of a botanist. In the end, it doesn’t seem that John Corner has come to like his father, but his views are much richer and more ambivalent than they were when he first undid the suitcase’s clasps.
Corner, E. J. H. (1992). Botanical Monkeys. Edinburgh, UK: Pentland Press.
Corner, J. K. (2013). My Father in His Suitcase. Singapore: Landmark.