Tag Archives: botany

Imperial Nature

Jim Endersby published the aptly titled Imperial Nature in 2008. The book is an absolute delight to read which is one of the reason it has taken so long to get a post up. It is a book that is so interesting that you simply cannot scan through for the high points. My penchant for word play heightens the enjoyment of the title. At first glance it may mean simply nature that belongs to the Empire, but deeper within you will find that this type of botanizing (and science methodology, actually) is part of the nature of the Empire as well.

Imperial Nature

The book’s subtitle Joseph Hooker and the Practice of Victorian Science reveal the hook on which an intriguing argument takes place. the younger Hooker’s (Joseph being the son of William) career path provide a case study in which to map the expansion of science as a profession, that is something “professed,” as Endersby points out, as well as the low side of the curve for gentlemanly pursuits of scientific inquiry for interests sake, or the gentleman hobbyist as it where. Having spent considerable time on this subject myself through the analysis of the Piltdown Affair it is refreshing to see that my own experience and thinking about that particular system are not idiosyncratic or singular.

Endersby separates the aspects of the new scientific climate into chapters on subjects like “collecting, “publishing,” “corresponding,” “seeing,” and other narrow bits of methodological shaping–all the while reminding readers that these are separated for clarity, and not because they acted independently of one another in practice.

The struggle for authority between the metropolitan scientist (Hooker) and his colonial collectors (Colenso in New Zealand and Gunn in Australia) is the best part of this book. Here is one of the finest examples of exploring the relationship not only between who gets to “do” science, but who also has the authority to create scientific knowledge. Hooker needs well trained collectors (especially ones he does not have to pay) but he also needs to remain aloof enough to exert his botanical knowledge over their “idiosyncratic” and often misinterpretations in naming separate species. He, after all, is poised on top of the world looking down on creation, as the song goes, with the largest herbarium collection at his disposal (no less than Kew Gardens) to make varied and broad conclusions where his local collectors could not. To twist an old cliche Colenso was missing the herbarium (the forest) for the flowers (trees).

William Colenso. Friend of Hooker, Missionary in New Zealand. Also only printer in NZ and ever sympathetic to Maori. He even printed the Treaty of Waitangi.
William Colenso. Friend of Hooker, Missionary in New Zealand. Also only printer in NZ and ever sympathetic to Maori. He even printed the Treaty of Waitangi.

The trade network revealed here should serve as a model for anyone studying scientific relationships between any central power and periphery. The colonial collectors required adequate tools to provide Hooker with adequate specimens, so the latter may send gift of books, collecting paper, or even a highly prized microscope in order to maintain congenial relationships. In return the gentleman Gunn and the missionary Colenso continued to work hard at their collecting.

Never working for pay, only "con amore" Gunn used botanical collecting to become a gentleman of the old style
Never working for pay, only “con amore” Gunn used botanical collecting to become a gentleman of the old style
A typical dried and pressed page of collected specimens that Gunn provided Hooker
A typical dried and pressed page of collected specimens that Gunn provided Hooker

 

Early tools of the trade. The Wardian Case hoped to be a little greenhouse of sorts to help colonial plants survive the trip back to the gardens. The vasculum was the Victorian precursor to a ziploc bag that you blew into (botanists will get it).
Early tools of the trade. The Wardian Case hoped to be a little greenhouse of sorts to help colonial plants survive the trip back to the gardens. The vasculum was the Victorian precursor to a ziploc bag that you blew into (botanists will get it).
A larger vasculum for more rigorous field collecting.
A larger vasculum for more rigorous field collecting.
Hooker's vasculum
Hooker’s vasculum
A dissecting microscope was one of the sought after tools for the field collectors but not easily obtained
A dissecting microscope was one of the sought after tools for the field collectors but not easily obtained
The highest of prizes, especially for those studying and collecting cryptograms (algae, moss, fungi). Almost impossible to get in the colonies.
The highest of prizes, especially for those studying and collecting cryptograms (algae, moss, fungi). Almost impossible to get in the colonies.

If there ever was a single book that provided a shining example of the relationship between science and art it is certainly this one. The discussions of drawing as a way to see should be part of any curricula not only at the university level, but down the the beginning of formal education, and would parents would not be remiss to utilize it before then. There is even a nice comparison between the painters of landscape vs. the botanist illustrators as well as a nuanced inclusion of the many (many) women who were involved in this particular aspect of the science. That itself should provide an avenue to explore gender in the historical context as it occurred and not just as a checkbox to make sure we are including the big three in every single thing we write. (That is, race, class, and gender–which in practice usually is only the big two of race and gender with class being ignored or, worse, broken down in terms of race).

One of the few botanical illustrations to contain location background information (more than a blank white page)
One of the few botanical illustrations to contain location background information (more than a blank white page)
Colored version of Walter Hood Fitch's Rhododendrons. Source
Colored version of Walter Hood Fitch’s Rhododendrons. Source

Many in the profession of science, and probably most people in general, will take the standardization of science for granted. Standardization is something so integral to modern science that it surely would have been the basis for all historical sciences, especially those that were created by exacting Victorians. Imperial Nature reveals that is not only the case in botany, but proves the general rule for most disciplines. Systematics, labeling, descriptions, and even the plants themselves were all up for debate with different players choosing different methods and fighting for the most disciples in order to claim superiority. That is all here as well.

Hooker tried to hurry along standardization to his method by providing labels to his collectors that would leave no room for excessive descriptions
Hooker tried to hurry along standardization to his method by providing labels to his collectors that would leave no room for excessive descriptions

The book is at once incredibly readable and thoughtfully heady. I venture to guess that this is in no small part by Endersby’s professional relationship with his former supervisor James Secord. It is, however much praise I can heap upon it, not without some (more than) slight annoyances. First and foremost is the constant self reference to what is coming up. “I shall explore further,” “in chapter x,”, “below”, “which I will explain later,” and similar asides are in there enough to break the readability enough to be annoying.

Secondly, for a book about Joseph Hooker making it on his own into a paid science position, it talks much about his father’s position and his friends which acted as patrons young Joeseph’s early (and even later) exploring career. While the premise is these relationships got the young man started, the reliance and continued influence of this old system all but cuts the legs from Hooker being a good type specimen for the “new” Victorian Scientist.

A final bit of recurrence that was enough to be evident (that I will include here to bother my professor) is the constant appearance of Darwin (sorry Piers). Now, before Darwinians get defensive here (too late, I know) I understand why this is part of the story. I am fully aware of the relationship, correspondence, and support Darwin received from Hooker, but to start a book subtitled about a particular man by recounting how that man first met Charles Darwin is a little grating. I don’t think it was disingenuous but it wasn’t where I was expecting it to go. As it developed from there the narrative went something along the lines of Joseph Hooker was making a way for himself and doing things on his own–here are the various and sundry ways that his father’s influenced helped him do those things. I started counting the number of times his father’s help was mentioned only to stop after the number of Darwin references began to outnumber them.

That being said, and losing any favor from the Darwinists, this book should be required reading in a general survey that covers any aspect of Victorian Science. As it also continuously compares the emerging professional botanists with the amateur flower lovers and casual gardenists I believe it also serves well to illustrate modern concerns between professional and amateur “science” and especially collecting. It may be my particular background in paleontology that keeps this dichotomy continuously in my view, but with Endersby’s work I can most definitely see the seeds (History of Botany never wants for bad puns) of collecting debates of the 1890s and throughout the 20th century. Not only that, but going a step beyond amateurs collecting for science and into the world of “professional” collectors for profit gives yet another solid base conversation starter regarding modern fossil collectors outside the establishment.

For fun, and really because Imperial plants, and it’s The Tick, here is an episode featuring one of the best villains ever: El Seed: “Army of corn, lend me your ears…”

Plants and Empire

Plants and Empire (and abortion) by Londa Schiebinger
Plants and Empire (and abortion) by Londa Schiebinger

This is a book about abortion. That is to say that this work is about plants used to induce an abortion in the early modern period. Deep in the heart of the book it is also about abortions as political economy against slave-owners. Thankfully for the publisher,  it is also a book about “indigenous knowledge” and the transfer of knowledge through trade routes and from colonies/territories to the imperial possessors. In fact, it is more about the nontransfer of knowledge in the case of a particular plant used as abortifacients (a word you will truly get sick of seeing in not because of its connotations, but simply for the repeated use).  You wouldn’t get the sense that “abortion as resistance” is a major theme in Schiebinger’s work from the title of the subtitle. I believe this is a calculated move on the part of Harvard University Press to allow this book to appeal to more than academics, which is should because Schiebinger is a fantastic author and the book can be easily taken up by non-specialists and it should be.

It is not only a book on abortion. On either side of that main theme is a wealth of information regarding trade networks for both goods and knowledge and the explosion of bioprospecting, scientific exploitation of new lands, and not a little bit of ego.

Early on Schiebinger outlines her overall plan writing that she would pay attention to the standard European players as she lacked adequate training to go deeply into anything involving the Spanish. She does not ignore the Spanish, in fact many (many) accounts involve Spanish territory in the new world, but not much on the analysis of what was coming out of Spain and into Europe or even back into the Americas. This is something that I have explored before with Jorge Conizares-Esguerra’s book Nature, Empire, and Nation. In fact Jorge’s works show up in Schiebinger’s notes, but not in the text as she is drops other scholar’s names and arguments. Spary and Utopia’s Garden are both present and cited especially during the heroic adventurer stage.

The idea that plants are directly involved in the making and sustaining of empires should be common knowledge and it makes sense when you think about it, but we never do think about it. It is always God, Guns, and Gold. This book goes a long way to prove that plants sustained commerce and money long after the finite bits of shiny things were exhausted from the colonies. “Green gold” which I understand in sentiment, but has to be one of the more ridiculous phrases I have ever seen, right up there with “black gold.” Which, when you think about it, is just metamorphosed decaying plant material from swamps of the carboniferous period. This means that in essence, or technically, “black gold” and “Green gold” are the same thing and that oil exploration is still a form of bioprospecting that began in the 17th century.

The root (ha!) of this research lies in Schiebinger’s discovery of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work on plants in Surinam, most specifically the Peacock Flower. Merian’s Peacock flower is the one that came with the accounts of use as the abortifacient of choice by slave women, both Amerindian and African. From this flower, little described by Merian as she was a lepidopterist and only interested in plants inasmuch as they were food and shelter for her chosen subjects.  Many of which she beautifully illustrated herself. You can find the one below and many others at ctgpublishing.com, which is fitting since Merian’s family was one of the largest publishing companies in Europe.

A nice colored version of Merian’s Peacock flower. (from ctgpublishing.com. link in text)

 

Schiebinger’s research into knowledge transfer (or the lack thereof) stems (ha! again) from the description of the plant’s use among the slave women as a means to end pregnancy. From here Shiebinger’s work gets incredibly interesting for anyone interested in the dispersal of ideas in general, and during the Early Modern period specifically. She follows the trail of other known abortifacients with Europe and those documented from elswhere, but continually finds no mention of the Peacock flower in any of the Pharmacopia  or  Materia  Medica (think of these as Early Modern Physician Desk References) as treating anything but fever and minor ailments.

Why would information such as this not make it into the established medical canon when other such plants had? She asks a lot of questions that are answered to the best of available resources (so far as I know) and here is where the involved and extensive analysis of abortive practices during the period really comes into play. The short answer (and perhaps an Occam’s Razor sort of thing) is that abortions became illegal and anything that could induce one should remain a secret. Now, we all know how making something illegal immediately ends the thing in question, right? Yes. Well it was the same for abortions. So, who knows if the Peacock Flower wasn’t put into the canon so it wouldn’t be banned from apothecary shelves later and was still available for women seeking to “purge their fruit.”

A for real and true life Peacock Flower from our good friends over at wikipedia commons
A for real and true life Peacock Flower from our good friends over at wikipedia commons

The book ends with an excellent discussion on medical experimentation and  the Linnean system of classification.  The “Linguistic Imperialism” chapter follows the establishment (through backlash) of the Latin/Greek based system of classification that we all know and love today. That arguments against a general “old world” style of classification was that it superficially presented relationship where no existed, removed any indication of a plant’s geography, and stripped away any particular uses for the plant. On the other hand, they were merely a symbolic named agreed upon by those using them (similar to money). This argument was strongest for plants from the Americas whose  Nahuatl (Aztec) names indicated the general essence of the plant and its uses (similar to Hebrew names for things but that is another post for another time.)

There is much to learn from Schiebinger’ book beyond the fact that abortions constituted resistance to slavery, and beyond even that some knowledge was actively or passively restricted between Non-Europeans and Europeans (and incidentally between Europeans living and working in places other than Europe or those born in the colonies to European parents (Creoles) and those comfortable armchair gentlemen explorers and botanical Europeans in Europe).

I will end, as I so often do, by giving you the brightest thing in my mind as I read this book. Sometimes they are humorous, sometimes odd, but they are the string of pearls that connect all my wide ranging thoughts into a discernible fashion. Discernible only to me perhaps, but perhaps not. As I read I kept drifting to, for my money, the most powerful scene in the entire movie Amistad. John Quincy Adams, portrayed so marvelously by Anthony Hopkins, is showing Cinque around his greenhouse where, among the botanical collection, the latter recognizes a piece of his home

The power of plants.