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The Signature of All Things

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert weaves a narrative that follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a dedicated botanist driven by an insatiable curiosity for the world. The novel, encompassing elements of historical fiction, botanical exploration, and an unyielding pursuit of knowledge, immerses readers in Alma’s journey as she grapples with love, loss, and the intricate facets of the natural world.

Gilbert’s prose paints a picture of Alma’s experiences across continents and decades, capturing the essence of an era marked by scientific breakthroughs and societal transformations. I will note that the book incorporates outdated and offensive terms prevalent in the 19th century, particularly in describing Black and Indigenous people, as well as gay men. While I personally was hoping for a more critical examination of colonization and historical injustices, the narrative predominantly reflects Alma’s European-centric experiences. This focus may be regarded as both a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the time—where Eurocentrism was prominent—and a limitation that, unfortunately, neglects the exploration of other diverse perspectives that existed during that historical period.

I did love Gilbert’s portrayal of how Alma’s unwavering passion and devotion to the botanical world shapes her entire existence. Rather than remaining a mere backdrop, botany becomes the cornerstone of Alma’s life events, resulting in a narrative where nearly every moment is interwoven with her botanical pursuits. This centrality of botany offers a unique depth to the narrative.

I especially appreciated the contrast between Alma’s exploration of moss and the portrayal of glamorous tropical plants, like orchids. Moss, with its associations of resilience and understated beauty, provides a window into Alma’s character, revealing her preferring and embodying the overlooked and intricate. Meanwhile, the allure of orchids symbolizes exoticism and societal expectations, but also offers a reflection of cultural and historical values, adding depth to the broader context of the story.

In essence, the novel is an interesting blend of historical fiction and botanical fascination, offering a portrayal of Alma’s life while prompting reflection on the societal issues of the era.

Reviewed by Ashlyn Higareda in the Leaflet, Volume 11, Issue 4, April 2024

Enchanted Forests: The Poetic Construction of a World Before Time

Boria Sax owns a forest. About 80 acres in upstate New York, it’s twice the size of the 40-acre farm once thought enough to support a family. From his investigation of the history of his woods, Sax moves to consider the many ways humans have thought and written about forests over centuries.

“Enchanted” can mean either “bewitched” or “charmed.” As Sax points out, forests can instill terror. He cites mythic “figures of terror, which give tangible form to amorphous fears that the forest can inspire” (p. 50), such as the Windigo of Canada and the northern U.S. and the Nandi Bear of Kenya, both of which devour humans.

A forest, Sax reports, “has always been defined far more by its mythic character than by its vegetation” (p. 82). It’s the opposite of civilization, a wilderness, but not necessarily full of trees – often “a sort of indeterminate landscape, with rocks, caves, mountains and trees” (p. 82).

One theme running through this account is the gradual diminishing of forests worldwide. Sax’s own forest is a regrowth after previous use for farming. For most of the United States, no regrowth has occurred – the woods are just gone. Even in classical Greece and Rome timbering began the clearances which have left few wooded areas across Europe and the U.S.

Sax provides chapters on various ways of viewing forests: “The Classical Forest,” “The Forest and Death,” for instance. In “Law of the Jungle” he shows how the word “jungle” appeared first in late 18th century England, applied to forests in the southern hemisphere and associated with Empire: “The word suggested a place of primordial violence and disorder, which was only good for testing one’s manhood and making one’s fortune” (p. 201).

All in all, Enchanted Forests is an enchanting read.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 4, April 2024

Through the Woods

A wood should never be vast. The best woods are small, a few acres in extent, not much more than copses” (p. 82). H. E. Bates’s book is as paean of praise to these small woodlands in England. As the title suggests, the book takes the reader through the seasons, April to April. Bates describes changes in plants, animals, but also air and atmosphere.
“Children are never frightened in fields . . . But they are often frightened in woods, by the very mystery and seclusion of the place, by the sudden soft hushings of leaves, by the magnified echoes of feet, by the leaping up of rabbits, by the savage sudden screeching of unknown birds” (p. 42). Bates’s sentences are marvelous.
The few interruptions to the admiring descriptions of woodlands relate to people who misuse them. A favorite target is the keeper, the man (if there were any women, they were not mentioned) hired to prevent damage, especially poaching, to the pheasants needed for those riding to the hunt. Keepers suspect anyone walking in the woods of poaching, and this book centers on walking in woods. Unpleasant encounters ensue. Bates writes in 1936; I wonder if many keepers remain in 2024.
Particularly charming, the next-to-last chapter, “The Darling Buds of March,” describes with wonderful detail changes that occur in tree buds as spring is about to arrive. For example: “The first buds of elm are little fluffy French knots of dark pink wood securely sewn on the jagged branches. The gray-black buds of ash are like arrow heads of iron” (p. 137).
Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings, like the book’s prose, convey the feeling as well as the physical components of the woods. Presented without captions in the text, each is titled in the contents section in the front. They elegantly supplement the words to make a very worthy whole.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in The Leaflet, Volume 11, Issue 3, March 2024.

Elysium Britannicum

John Evelyn (1620-1706) was one of the great diarists of 17th century England. His observations written over 65 years give historians keen insights to turbulent times that included a civil war, the execution of a king (Charles I), an outbreak of plague, and the Great Fire of London.
Evelyn also wrote several books, including one on forestry in Britain, but his passion was for gardening. Short publications, including a gardening calendar, and another on making salads (he was a vegetarian), were small expressions of this passion.
However, he hoped to produce a comprehensive gardening book. He wrote and illustrated a manuscript of nearly 400 pages, which he continued to update over many years. He was unable to bring it to publication, but the work and its many notes and additions were kept after his death, and eventually came to be owned by the British Library.
In 2001, under the editorship of John E. Ingram, this manuscript was finally published as Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens. This is a working manuscript, filled with crossed-out words and sentences, inserted notes, and other changes made by Evelyn. It is also a fascinating look at the horticulture of the time. Much is still applicable today.
Since Gardining is one of the noblest and most refined parts of Agriculture, and hath, as all other Arts and Professions certaine Instruments and tooles properly belonging to it, and without which we can hope for little Successe in our Labours.
This is followed by descriptions of the spade, the rake, the hoe (spelled “haues”), and the fork (“forke”) and many more tools, a total of 70, all illustrated. I recommend this book for a glimpse of gardening from over 300 years ago and to appreciate that many of today’s cultural practices date back centuries.
Reviewed by Brian Thompson and published in the Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 3, March 2024.

Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science

When I was very small, my mother often called me “Little Miss Mischief.” It meant I had once again done something wrong, but not terribly wrong, and maybe a little bit cute. I was happy with the title. Elizabeth and Margaretta Morris, the sisters of the title of Catherine McNeur’s book, were not so fortunate. Their mischief was seen as serious; they were challenging the exclusive male 19th century science establishment as they sought opportunity and recognition for their work.
Not travelers, the two women conducted their efforts in botany (Elizabeth) and entomology (Margaretta) in the neighborhood of their Germantown, Pennsylvania home. Neither married, but the family wealth (some, alas, gained from the slave trade) allowed them comfortable single lives together. Their social status enabled them to connect with other scientists in this era when the distinction between professionals and amateurs was blurry.
Collecting plants and insects was central to both their fields of study. Elizabeth, for instance, sent many plant specimens to Asa Gray, the first professor of botany at Harvard, and received some from him in return. Though other scientists collected from the far corners of the earth, the Morrises did their work near home, often along nearby Wissahickon Creek.
Elizabeth resisted publicity for herself.  She wrote at least 77 articles about her studies, all anonymous, using initials or such names as “A Friend to Farmers.”  Margaretta was different. She studied insects that damaged crops in her neighborhood. In 1836 the Hessian fly, Cecidomyia destructor, was attacking wheat throughout the region. Through close observation, she determined that the current understanding of where on the wheat the flies laid their eggs was faulty. In the spirit of helpfulness she allowed her paper describing her discovery to be read aloud by a male cousin at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. McNeur’s description of the resulting uproar shows clearly the challenges faced by women scientists.
Margaretta did not back down. Her efforts to gain acceptance led in 1850 to her membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She and the astronomer Maria Mitchell were elected at the same meeting, the first two women members. Margaretta did not attend.
Mischievous Creatures shows in impressive detail how personal contacts, correspondence, and hard work allowed these two women to participate in the development of science in America in the generation after the Revolution.  The reader wanders along the creek with Elizabeth and Margaretta as they collect specimens and learns with admiration how they spread their discoveries across the country.
Review by Priscilla Grundy in the Leaflet, Volume 11 Issue 2, February 2024.

The Writer’s Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett actually knew a tame robin in her garden, just like the one in The Secret Garden, her famous children’s book. In The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett, the reader discovers many such connections. The book offers short essays on authors and their gardens, accompanied by lavish photographs. Some authors were inspired by looking at their gardens, some supervised construction, and a few dug in themselves. 
This new volume is a second and heavily revised edition. The Miller Library has both books. In the 2014 first edition, the 19 authors are all British – the subtitle is “how gardens inspired our best-loved authors.” This new book presents 28 writers from several countries. I imagine Jackie Bennett enjoying visits to Germany (Hermann Hesse), Italy (Antonio Fogazzaro), and even the U.S. (William Faulkner). Besides adding non-British authors and gardens, Bennett also deleted some lesser-known British ones. Farewell, Rupert Brooke and Laurence Sterne. 
Bennett heavily re-edited the entries in the new edition. For Jane Austen, she reduced the number of pages from ten to eight. The new version has a different photo of the Wilderness that figures prominently in Pride and Prejudice and different illustrations for Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for several years. For Beatrix Potter, eight pages in the first edition became ten in the second. Many photos are the same in each volume but laid out in different designs. Editorial changes include eliminating a sentence that said Potter acquired plants, “shamelessly taking them from other people’s gardens,” and removing “slightly ill-timed” from the description of a gift plant. Maybe Bennett wanted a kinder effect.
Especially for a reader who combines love of gardens with love of literature, these are both charming and elegant volumes.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy, published in The Leaflet, Volume 11, Number 1, January 2024.

Braiding Sweetgrass

In Braiding Sweetgrass  Robin Wall Kimmerer unfolds a mesmerizing journey through the convergence of nature, Indigenous wisdom, and personal reflection. Kimmerer’s poetic prose beautifully weaves a tapestry of stories, imparting ecological wisdom that transcends its pages and provides a transformative experience for its readers.
In a world rushing with fast-paced living, the book serves as a gentle reminder to slow down, observe, and welcome nature’s wisdom. It goes beyond being a mere book, extending an invitation to explore our intricate ties with our surroundings, all while challenging the confines of Western science. Rather than outright dismissing ideologies rooted in Western science, it encourages a thoughtful reconsideration of alternative ways of knowing, inviting us to embrace a multiplicity of perspectives in our interaction with the world. 
As a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer guides readers to perceive the world through reciprocal relationships with the land, seamlessly weaving in the narratives and wisdom of her ancestors. Her narrative gracefully dances between scientific understanding and Indigenous perspectives, creating a harmonious blend that resonates deeply. Each chapter felt like a meditative stroll through nature, with Kimmerer as a wise companion, offering insights that inspired awe, reverence, and a profound love for the world and its non-human inhabitants.
Through such thoughtful and skilled storytelling, Kimmerer prompts reflection on our connection to the environment and fosters a sense of responsibility and gratitude.  Braiding Sweetgrass is such an enchanting, enlightening, and inspiring book—a must-read. These stories are not just tales but offerings, gifts that linger in memory, cherished and unforgettable.
Reviewed by Ashlyn Higareda in Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 10, Issue 12, December 2023.

Five Centuries of Women & Gardens

The National Portrait Gallery in London reopened this June after three years of closure due to Covid (and refurbishing). To celebrate, readers can pick up this excellent book from 2000, written to support an exhibition at the Gallery.
The women and gardens in the title of Sue Bennett’s Five Centuries of Women & Gardens are British women and British gardens, each account supported by elegant portraits and some fine garden views. Bennett manages to include in each brief text biographical information, clear descriptions of the gardens, and just enough social history to place everything in context. The reader learns how gardens changed over the centuries, as well as how women gradually gained legal and social control over their gardens and their lives.
The subjects begin with Queen Elizabeth I and end with Beth Chatto. The Elizabethan gardens were created for and about the Queen, not ordered by her. Nobles currying favor developed gardens symbolically worshipping her as the Virgin Queen, using topiary, fountains, and privet hedges. 
Queen Caroline, wife of George II, developed gardens at Hyde Park, Kensington, and especially Richmond Lodge. Each focused on supporting the legitimacy of the Hanoverian kings, recently imported from Germany and not very popular. At Richmond her garden included a hermitage with a live hermit and “Merlin’s Cave,” a thatched cottage and grotto meant to connect the royal family to Merlin’s prophecy. Alas, the public response was ridicule.
In the 20th century Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) turned very unlikely fields into meadows full of wildflowers, restoring medieval views. Rothschild, a scientist sometimes called “Queen of the fleas” because of her research into them, also decoded at Bletchley during World War II. In 1970, as a retirement project, she scattered wildflower seeds collected from a derelict airfield over the remnants of a tennis court on her property. In ten years her meadow had nearly 100 species of flowers and grasses  She then sent out her seeds for use in other areas of the country. The National Trust adopted some of her ideas, and Prince Charles (now Charles III) worked with her on a wildflower garden at his estate at Highgrove.
Five Centuries of Women and Gardens” gives surprisingly complete pictures of the connections women have had with their gardens. Each woman appears as a lively personality, accompanied by a dazzling portrait.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 10, Issue 11, November 2023.

Brave the Wild River

Today raft trips through the Grand Canyon are common. Several companies offer choices of a few or many days. One specifies that the client must be at least nine years old. These trips differ greatly from the one Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter took in 1938. One difference is the Hoover Dam. Before the dam, the Colorado River challenged travelers with extreme rapids, rapids now slowed and sometimes covered by the water that rose behind the dam.
Brave the Wild River by Melissa Sevigny recounts how these two women, both affiliated with the University of Michigan botany department, overcame multiple challenges in addition to the river, to map and collect plants in the canyon before many of them were submerged.
Clover, an instructor at the university, was a generation older than Jotter, a graduate student. The trip was Clover’s passion. Opposition came from a chorus of voices proclaiming that the Grand Canyon was “no place for a woman.” She overcame reluctance in the Michigan botany department to approve the project and hesitation by Norman Nevills to guide the trip. He hoped to set up a business floating adventurers through the canyon but was reluctant to take women.
Sevigny takes the reader through the hair-raising trip in boats designed by Nevills, a national media frenzy accompanying the travelers, and Clover’s frustration that no one seemed interested in the plant collecting. She had to harass Nevills to make stops so the women could collect, and the media mostly failed to mention plants as the purpose of the trip.
Sevigny includes the history of the countryside the group passed, as well as biographies of those involved. The book is full of lovely details, like the women’s selection of brown overalls to wear, because Clover thought jeans too masculine. Or the gyrations required to maintain modesty while bathing in the river. (Four men accompanied the women in three boats. The women did the cooking.)
By the end the reader is amazed that any of the collected plants made it back to Michigan and a few to the Smithsonian. Those plants and the carefully detailed descriptions Clovis and Jotter wrote became useful botanic history as scholars have tried to create a picture of flora in the canyon before the dam.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy and published in the Leaflet, November 2023, Volume 10, Issue 11.

Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest

What would it be like to decide one day to visit all the biggest trees in your state, or, in this case, the province of British Columbia? Amanda Lewis takes us with her on this adventure. Tracking Giants blends humorous takes on her own incompetence, lots of information about Big Trees, quotations from multiple nature writers, and thoughtful consideration of personal growth.

The trees she sought are Champions, listed online by the province’s Big Tree Committee. To make the list, a tree must have the highest score for its species in a calculation that combines measurements of its crown, its height, and its diameter at breast height. As Lewis, notes, searching for Champions is like squeezing Jello – trees grow; trees die by natural and human actions. They can be chopped down or simply demoted by discovery of a bigger tree. A Champion one day may be replaced the next.

Lewis is a book editor, but when she told a Big Tree Committee member her search plans, she was asked to report her measurements of each Big Tree she found. She had a lot to learn. At first she measured the diameter by hugging the tree. Later she became more adept.

Interspersed with narratives of the search are quotations from many nature writers, some recent, such as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses. These, like many other of her sources, are part of the Miller Library collection.

Finding a tree, looking at it, and measuring it became over time insufficient for Lewis. She records how she learned to consider the tree’s environment, the history of the surrounding forest, the plants and animals nearby. Eventually she broadened her whole concept of the search itself.

All this is worth reading about. The writing is lively and clear. The parts are well integrated. Champions turn out to be a winning subject.

Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in the Leaflet, Volume 10, Issue 10, October 2023.