Wednesday, 24 July 2013

On the Inside

High summer, astonishing heat – days of record temperatures which make being indoors a welcome relief even for sun-lovers like me.  There’s also a sense in which part of the life of a botanic garden goes on behind closed doors – or perhaps one propped half-open in the hope of a cool breeze – planning, running, development and outreach, learning – and of course the science which underpins the whole enterprise.  I find myself thinking of the garden’s creators, trying to imagine what they saw as they designed and planted, how far a vision of the beautiful space which today’s visitors enjoy encroached on the need to establish a centre for study and research, and a living plant record.

Nelson Street, Derby
Record-keeping holds little interest for most of us.  As a student, I worked a couple of summers in the ‘Shopping Bureau’ of the London Midland region’s offices next to Derby Station.  Less fun than it sounds: for ‘shopping’ read ‘send to the workshop for repairs’, though of course I was only responsible for paperwork, not the engines themselves; fortunately, since I made a name for myself by ‘losing’ a loco, a great joke as the boss’s daughter.  Both my dad and the ‘British Railways’ he loved are long gone, and the Nelson Street offices demolished, I think.  Now I recall only the cream cakes on birthdays, long hours tickled by hay fever, and the fusty smell of piles and piles of foolscap manila folders – though sometimes I wondered if it was the smell of all those men...

So I’m surprised by how fascinating non-live plant records can be.  I spent yesterday morning in the university’s herbarium, chatting to Christine Bartram and looking through folders of plant pressings.  Until recently I had never heard the word ‘herbarium’ so that my first encounter, in the Botanics’ own smaller version in Cory Lodge, reduced me to incoherent amazement: ‘Wow!’ I said, and ‘Wow!’ as door after door in the tall metal cabinets opened to reveal an extraordinary record: not living, of course, but ‘real’ specimens as opposed to a paper description.  There are
Lindley sheet with type specimen
comparisons: trays of minerals, for example – still being added to? – and butterflies, moths –perhaps not.  You couldn’t do this with railway engines, though – imagine the size of the folder!  And a museum of transport is only obliquely comparable: here you get the ‘original’ specimen, carefully pressed and mounted, either by the collector or perhaps sent back to England in a glass case by the plant hunter and pressed and labelled by the botanical expert here, with a note on when and where the specimen was found, and by whom.  And on the same sheet (I think originally samples were mounted on linen), later observers will have their say: perhaps a challenge to the initial identification, or some clarification of provenance.  It’s like opening a magic door to the past; not a dialogue, exactly – the first ‘speaker’ doesn’t have a chance to reply – but a kind of layering of voices.  As I hold in my hands a sheet which John Lindley has labelled, touch the stem of a plant gathered on the other side of the world over 150 years ago, I feel a bustle of stories clamouring to be told.

Bloody cranesbill: I.H.F.
Another term for herbarium is, I learn, hortus siccus, literally ‘dry garden’.  The phrase is also good for the book I hold in my hand.  It has a faded (or discoloured?) marbled cover.  On the frontispiece, carefully written in black italic pen, ‘HORTUS SICCUS’ and in smaller capitals ‘I.H.F’; underneath, ‘Edinburgh.  May 22nd.  1834’.   At first I think this is the only clue to the author.  Later, I discover in faded sloping writing on the inside cover, ‘I.H. Freeman’.  A quick internet search provides no clue.  For no good reason, I feel this is the work of a woman – and then I’m not so sure.   There are upwards of 150 pressings, organised mainly two or four to a page.  The samples are glued rather than taped.  Each is headed with Latin and common names and family: here 'Geranium sanguineum Bloody Cranesbill Monadelphia Decandria (Geraniacea)'.     Beneath all but the last few, there is a number, with a source and date (this is No. 16 ‘Salisbury Craigs May 26th’).  For the last twenty or so, annotations are sketchier, and one or two final specimens at the end are unlabelled.  Did this collector run out of time, or energy? At the end, I.F. has included an alphabetical index, although the system falters with later additions – No. 149, for example, Parnassia palustris, squeezes in out of order at the end of the Ps.  I hold the book up to my face and breathe in a sharp peppery scent, ancient, exotic, dusty.  And the pages carry their own ghosts, pale imprints of the sample on the opposite page, like a dream of a flower long forgotten.

'Miss Sarah Anne Drake
Our morning in fact was peopled with women.  Marion Seward, daughter of a Hartlepool shipbuilder and wife of (!) Sir Albert Charles Seward, Professor of Botany for 30 years and master of Downing College, was in her own right an accomplished botanical artist, illustrating her husband’s books and papers as well as bringing up four daughters and engaging in various projects for refugees and war widows.   Much loved in Cambridge, she apparently died in 1924 of ‘overwork’.  Miss Sarah Anne (‘Ducky’) Drake is again known in relation to a man.  Family friend and nanny to the three children of John Lindley, Professor of Botany at University College London and ‘father of orchidology’, she lived in the family home and was his principal botanical illustrator, averaging 75 paintings a year.  She died supposedly of diabetes, then incurable, though one source suggests the toxic effects of a 15-year intensive painting career may have contributed.  Georgiana Molloy was a plant hunter and, whilst she is named on some of Lindley’s specimens, from Swan River in Australia, for example, often her contributions are attributed to Captain James Mangles, an impossibility as Mangles never left the UK.  In one of those weirdly unsettling but satisfying moments of serendipity, I discover that Georgiana was born to the Kennedy family of Crosby Lodge near Carlisle, a stone’s throw from our family home (albeit much more modest) in the Cumbrian-Scottish borders.  

I suppose the painting, or much of it, was done indoors, but none of these women fit the bill of little women working quietly away behind the scenes, while their men were out and about
Marion Seward: Centaurea Cyanus (detail)
getting on with the important stuff.  Marion Seward managed to fit at least one trip to Australia into her busy schedule and her beautiful paintings, presumably used as illustrative material for Professor Seward's classes, are startlingly vibrant.  Even 'Ducky' Drake flew the Lindley nest eventually to enjoy, I hope, five years of married bliss back in her native Norfolk.  The admirable Georgiana Molloy battled a family fall-out over religion and then endured the struggles of being a new settler in a strange land.  Apparently her diaries reveal her unhappiness.  By the end of her life she had taught herself botany, had gained a quiet reputation amongst a few for the high standard of her plant specimens, and had a school named after  her, in addition to bearing seven children.   Of all the ghosts I  have met so far in my new home, Georgiana is the one I most want to get to know, from the inside out.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Hard Stuff

Not that I’ve been turning to the bottle (though there have been moments in the last week or so when that welcome glass of Malbec at the end of a day just hasn’t been robust enough).  More that I’ve found myself (of my own choosing, of course) on several occasions recently in situations that seemed – just too difficult. 

The Barn Garden
Last weekend ought to have been one hundred per cent pleasure: two days in heavenly weather in one of the loveliest gardens (Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith’s Barn Garden near Kings Langley) I’ve ever encountered, in the company of experts in their field.   Organised by The Garden Museum, this was their first festival of garden writing.  I was charmed by Cleve West’s tales of life on his London allotment and entranced by Piet Oudolf’s emphasis on the narrative of the garden and the emotional response of those who visit.  Sunday began with a compelling address from Sue Stuart-Smith on ‘Gardens and the Mind’.  Drawing on her work as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, she explored ways in which the garden can be a source of renewal and regeneration, replacing the impotence which often accompanies depression with a sense of agency although, ‘like the good enough mother, Nature never fails to remind us of the limits to our powers’.  Most exciting, though, in my book were readings from the three finalists in the garden memoir competition, sponsored by Granta.  All three had turned to childhood memories to explore the significance of the garden and all packed an emotional punch – interesting as, according to a publisher I met at the event, our interest in the affective aspect of gardens is rarely reflected in the literature.  Despite all this, at the end of the second day I couldn’t wait to leave.  Partly this was simply physical fatigue after two days on my feet (there was only a handful of chairs outside of the actual venues, and I’m always afraid that, if I succumb to the temptation to flop down on a grassy slope, I’ll never get up again.)  I was wearied also, though, by a kind of loneliness: the event promised ‘a friend’ and there were plenty of people who knew each other, but what is it about the English upper middle classes en masse which feels like a rather exclusive club?  It’s not one I belong to, for sure.
John & Ellie

I’m not really one for clubs anyway, but the day before I’d been with John and Ellie from Camtango to give a talk and demo on our experience of Argentine tango and Parkinson’s to the local Parkinson’s society.  This felt like quite an ordeal: for years I kept my ‘condition’ (better than ‘disease’, though not much) as quiet as possible and until now I’ve avoided situations where I might be defined by Parkinson’s.  So it was a surprise to find I enjoyed the morning.  We were warmly welcomed and what we said and did seemed to go down well.  In the car on the way home, I remember thinking what I thought I already knew: accepting that I have Parkinson’s is not the same as letting the illness define who I am.  A hard lesson, but one worth learning.  Maybe I’ll go along to another meeting sometime.

Um...a not very scientific arrangement of some of
the leguminosae (pea) family
‘Flowering Plant Families’, a five-day full-time course at the Botanics last week, was the hardest stuff by a mile.  I expected it to be difficult.  It’s almost 50 years since I day-dreamed my way through compulsory science lessons, longer since I’ve handled a microscope.  For the first hour or so I concentrated on the pronunciation of the Latin family names, marking the main stress on each in case I was called on to say it out loud.  In fact I quickly came to love examining plant parts through the microscope or even the hand lens although dexterity, one of the first casualties of Parkinson’s for me, made working with such fine detail a struggle, and every visit to the systematic beds a juggling act of lens, camera, secateurs, pencil.  I learnt a whole new vocabulary – don’t say flower, say inflorescence.  These aren’t petals, they’re sepals or even tepals – honestly!  I’m distracted by a fleeting memory of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’.  ‘Are we allowed to call it a – pod?’ Rose asks archly.  I make notes, determine to stay focused.  Just as I feel I am beginning to make some progress, the afternoon session begins with an emphasis on how the old categories (sorry, families) can no longer be taken for granted; DNA has changed all that.  Still, I was thrilled to be learning – glad to be part of such a varied and friendly group, and the buzz of being encouraged to pick the flowers (well, examples) never quite left me.  The first day ended with dinner – good food, nice wine, a chance to get to know the other 16 – and I left full of optimism.  

The next morning I woke feeling that I’d climbed a small mountain – no, a large one.  Everything ached; I felt exhausted even before I dragged my good old Hudson onto the road and pedalled off.  I thought I knew neurological fatigue.  I do now.  It got worse as the week progressed, until I began to wonder if I’d make it to Friday.  Don’t get me wrong: I loved, really loved, almost every tough minute.  Fortunately, too, I met a friend also familiar with chronic illness, so we grumbled quietly to each other and that felt like a big support – I hope it was mutual.  But I’m glad I pushed myself, far beyond what normally feels like the limit. Apart from anything else, all that sex going on under my nose and I’d never noticed!

Sunday evening now and after two days recovering I’m feeling more like myself, trying to sort what I’ve learnt into some sort of order and work out how my new knowledge, such as it is, will inform the writing I hope to do during the residency.  Rose sent me back to Alice Oswald’s extraordinary ‘Dart’, where the voices of all she met along its course emerge as the ‘mutterings’ of the river.  Stephanie reminded me of The Morville Hours, in which Katherine Swift uses the
Hours of the Divine Office as a format for her garden story.  And I recall our visit to the university herbarium in the wonderful Sainsbury building on our last evening.  Amongst all that was astonishing – over a million specimens preserved over hundreds of years, treasures from Darwin’s Beagle voyage – the story of Mrs Meredith, a collector whose samples sent back to England from Australia went largely uncredited.  Some of her illustrations are there.  I find out she was also a published poet.  I’m excited by possibilities but rather overfaced by the size of the task.  I check my latest email from my mentor: ‘My first thing to say is I’m going to pressurise you about the journal form...’  Maybe the hard stuff is just beginning.  Where’s the Malbec?