Herbarium: From a Writer’s Viewpoint

Field Study, Helen Humphreys

The first two entries in this series of posts (1,2) on books about herbaria were oriented to the scientific side of herbaria:  for adults and then children.  This week’s book takes a broader perspective that made it particularly interesting to me.  The author of Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium is a novelist and poet, Helen Humphreys.  When I saw her name I recognized it right way because she wrote one of my favorite novels, The Lost Garden (2003), about young women sent to farm work on an old English estate during World War II.  There’s an overgrown garden that becomes a refuge for the narrator, and I remember feeling encircled by it as I read the book.  Humphreys has also written several other award-winning novels as well as books of poetry.  She brings depth to all her work, but she writes with a light touch, gently making the reader comfortable, in this case, with the herbarium.

Humphreys decided to write about her experiences over a year looking at all 140,000 specimens in the Fowler Herbarium at the Queens University Biological Station in Elgin, Ontario near where she lives.  From her other works, it’s clear that she is at home in the plant world, though perhaps more with the living rather than the dead.  But maybe the change was one of the attractions of the project:  “These libraries of dried plant specimens—some hundreds of years old—seem the perfect crucible in which to examine the intersection of human beings and the natural world through time” (p. 13).  She saw the herbarium as a place where “the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed” (p. 13).  That’s a bit different from a botanist’s viewpoint which is usually focused more on the plant than the collector.

Without going into anything about how the specimens are arranged, Humphreys clearly begins with the gymnosperms because she remarks on the strong scent from the cabinets holding pines.  She then moves on to the monocots, working her way through the flowering plant families.  She makes it clear that she is disappointed by the orchids.  The grasses please her much more because they seem to keep their form and color better, and don’t look that different in death than they did when alive.  As she proceeds, her dual perspective becomes clear:  she goes back and forth between plants and people throughout the book.  This is very refreshing, because she is interested in what the specimens and labels reveal about both the collected and the collectors.  She learns that when she sees the name of M.S. Bebb on a label that she is in for a treat.  He took great care in arranging a specimen so that each part was visible, and he often included pencil drawings of leaves or buds.  On the other hand, her favorite label writer was William Dore because he recorded information he gleaned from locals and gave the history of the collecting site. 

Among the oldest specimens in the Fowler Herbarium are those of the British botanist William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban who collected several hundred specimens in Quebec and Ontario in the mid-19th century, when many areas in these provinces were undeveloped.  Indigenous peoples taught him their names for the plants and an Algonquin chief helped with translations.  Here people and plants intertwine with language in a way that makes specimens particularly important.  Despite coming upon such labels with indigenous plant names, Humphreys writes near the end of the book:  “Often with writing, the very thing that is the bright idea at the beginning of a book is the thing that trips you up further in.  My idea for this project was to show the interaction between people and nature through time, but this becomes problematic when the people are mostly white colonial settlers.  Perhaps I should pay less attention to the collectors and more to the plants themselves?” (p. 190).  A year in a herbarium and botany begins to sneak into the psyche. 

While Humphreys finds the same collectors’ names recurring through the flowering plant families, different ones appear when she gets to the algae, where she also comes upon more women.  She cites Josephine Elizabeth Tilden from the University of Minnesota who collected along the Pacific Coast of British Columbia in 1900.  Tilden used her private wealth to build a field station there for summer research.  Like her, Humphreys is someone who is obviously at home in the natural world, and she describes spending hours in nature:  watching, walking, looking.  She found that her time in the herbarium made her more aware of the natural world around her and “observations have become honed and specific” (p. 218).  Humphreys’s work on this project helped her see that even with the grim changes in the living world, there needs to be a focus not only on what was lost but on what continues. 

This book changed my perspective on herbaria.  I still love looking at specimens and at labels, but it has made me step back and see the herbarium through the eyes of someone who is not accustomed to such spaces.  Humphreys sees the space as one where people and plants come together very intimately.  I have seen it more as a very ordered space, and maybe because I am a scientist, that is a comfort to me.  It is where I can easily find nature, or more correctly, a particular little piece of it.


Humphreys, H. (2003). The Lost Garden. New York: Norton.

Humphreys, H. (2021). Field Study: A Year in a Herbarium. Toronto: ECW.