We are so surrounded with paper today: printouts, books, packaging, etc., etc., that we tend to pay little attention to it. We can buy a ream of paper for a few dollars, and we throw a great deal of it into the recycling bin. But paper is an amazing material, and nowhere is it more essential than in plant collecting. Without paper, collecting grinds to a halt as it did for James Drummond, an early settler and plant collector in Western Australia. His paper supply usually came from Britain via Cape Town, South Africa, so shipments were spotty at best. He needed a great deal of paper because each year he made up ten sets of plant specimens, each with 500 species. In 1845, he had used up his paper stocks and had to end collecting until supplies arrived. He used newspapers in the field, when he could get them, but then needed plain paper for preparing specimens for shipment, plus more paper for packaging (Erickson, 1969).
When Joseph Banks left on his voyage around the world with Captain James Cook, he brought huge stacks of printers’ rejects, unbound copies of books that hadn’t made it into distribution. Some of his specimens are still set between the pages of a copy of Notes on the Twelve Books of Paradise Lost. John Torrey wrote to Asa Gray saying he had high hopes because a collector who was going out west because he had brought two tons of paper with him (McKelvey, 1955). This highlights the issue of paper weight and how to haul around large amounts of its, especially when traveling by horseback, perhaps with mules. There are limits to how much can be carried at one time, so the rest has to be stored, and it has to be stored along with already collected materials, in a dry place to prevent water and fungal damage.
One of the best treatments I’ve read of the use of paper for the various aspects of plant collection is Erik Mueggler’s (2011) The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. He writes of the 20th-century plant collectors George Forrest and Joseph Rock, who worked in the borderlands between China, Tibet, and Burma, in other words, close to the origins of paper. In the introduction, Mueggler writes that the process was all about paper. As he explains: “This book is about the way some wandering botanists put the earth onto or between sheets of paper: collecting, writing, and photographing. How are paper landscapes made? How does this making create, mobilize, and transform social relations?” (p. 16).
Mueggler’s story begins in 1906 when Forrest arrives in Yunnan in southwest China and ends in 1950 when Rock left China. Between these years two generations of local men did the work of exploring western China for alpine flora for Western gardens and scientific institutions. Mueggler makes it clear that there was shared expertise here and highlights that the bulk of the difficult travelling and transporting was done by locals, though Forrest sometimes travelled with his collectors and Rock often did. While the Chinese played a vital role, the enterprise could not have been possible without the Westerners who provided the financing and tools to support the endeavor. They also had the Western botanical expertise to translate the Chinese knowledge and experience into a form that could be communicated to the larger botanical community.
Each time Forrest’s collector Zhao Chengzhang “walked out the city gate, one of his mules carried a full load of paper, textured and absorbent, made of a dwarf bamboo that grew in thickets on the lower mountainsides. When he reentered the city after weeks or months of rough travel, he led a string of mules carrying stacks of paper neatly bundled and pressed between boards. Folded into each sheet was a plant specimen. Over the next few days he would unfold each rough sheet, rearrange the specimen in accord with his exacting sense of space and proportion, and refold it into smooth writing paper” (p. 1).
It’s noteworthy that Zhao spoke no English, and Forrest no Chinese. They used a sign language and sketches to communicate, to turn the collectors’ finds into specimens and accompanying documentation. At this point in the process, Forrest worked on the plants with Zhao as they pooled their expertise and Forrest took notes and wrote up plant descriptions. In between expeditions, of which there were seven, Forrest would return to Edinburgh to work on his collections and direct efforts to naturalize some of the more promising horticultural finds. He also consulted the RBGE herbarium, to sharpen his expertise in preparation for returning to China. Mueggler makes it clear that all of Forrest’s work was closely tied literally to the hands and minds that collected the plant. These men knew where to look for rare species and came to understand what the western collectors were looking for. There was a mutuality that Mueggler argues was linked through the paper used in collecting and documenting the plants.
Much of the paper couldn’t be sourced locally and had to be imported from Rangoon. The tags with Forrest’s name and specimen number came from Edinburgh. Eventually, the plants would be rewrapped in paper and crates and sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Forrest also used paper for photography, repeatedly asking for more to be sent. Rock took his photography so seriously that he hauled glass plates around with him as well as a camera to accommodate them. So collecting wasn’t all about paper, but Mueggler’s book is a good reminder of a product that we take for granted, not just in plant collecting but in daily life generally.
Erickson, R. (1969). The Drummonds of Hawthornden. Osborne Park, Aus: Lamb Paterson.
McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Jamaica Plains, MA: Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
Mueggler, E. (2011). The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.