Category Archives: Uncategorized

Clearwater FL: 11-15 Feb 2009.

Quick family visit.  It feels like the nursery and the lake are about the only green space left in the county not plowed up into condos.  A pelican, 4 ospreys (Father says dryly, ‘There are plenty to go around lately.’) A pair of huge white water birds – 3.5′ tall, black legs, straight stabbing beaks.  No idea what any of these things were, since the old family home is fitted out with binoculars but no field guides of any sort.  (My grandfather would roll over in his grave.)

Finished reading Robbing the Bees.  Overflowing with great factoids, but as a whole–never seduced me.  Couldn’t quite shake off being annoyed by the whiff of voyeurism on the part of its big city narrator.   Still–I’d be proud to have written anything so smart: a book about insects that is still on the shelf at a popular bookstore for more than 5 minutes.  Bravo.


Hives and Haiku

This is a placeholder for Honey Bees, Bee-hives, Holly Bishop’s book Robbing the Bees, and Kathleen Miller–who gave us a tour of her apiary on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in the first week of 2009.

Note: Ruby the dog ate the bee, my natural history sample; snarfed it right off the coffee table when I wasn’t looking. I’m taking this as a humorous sign that I’m on the right life path/career track. Between Ruby’s ‘I’m going to barf expression’ and Gloria saying, ‘Isn’t a naturalist one of the people who take off their clothes and run around naked?’

Sorry–Janet Browne and Darwin. Over winter break The Power of Place took a temporary back seat. Not the right metaphor is it?! I left Darwin having just gone through a whirlwind love affair with orchids and published a treatise on same. I will eventually copy out that page… I knew as I read it that I was searching for that feeling/ that activity/ that passion myself. “I want to feel like THAT,” I said wiping away little tears.

Tomato plants and a cicada

As of yesterday, the most interesting things going were the tiny yellow blooms on my six tomato plants, and the carcass of what I think is a cicada: a full three inches long, brown like the average roach, 6 legs, jointed curved antennae. Apparently he or she plopped out of the sky like a tiny jet fighter shot down behind enemy lines. Crash-landed and died. Haven’t researched it yet. But I have been successful finding information about tomatoes.

Tomatoes first grew and were cultivated in the Andes in the alpine regions where Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia come together. In what anthropologists describe as “relatively recent times”–~2000 years ago–humans carried them north spreading them around Central America and Mexico. When the Europeans began poking around “the New World,” they took samples home with them. By the end of the Italian Renaissance (~1500), the Italians had begun to grow and eat them. The Germans, French, British etc. still thought they were suspicious. Early plant fanatics grew them as curiosities, but the average farmer or layperson still believed they were poisonous. It would be another couple hundred years before Anglo-Saxon types overcame their prejudices and started serving slices of the juicy yellow or red fruit in toasted cheese sandwiches.

In North America, the tomato found even rougher going. To veer back into anthropological times for a moment, the tomato seems not to have ever made any inroads with the indigenous sorts in the northern hemisphere: too short a shelf life to fuss with, probably. As fate would have it, the tomato had to make an assault on the colonies via Europe–taking the long way around. Thomas Jefferson, who was a notorious yeomen farmer and plant buff , is reported to have grown and eaten them in the 1780s. Places like New Orleans, with its French and Spanish influence embraced them a few decades earlier.

Baby tomatoes -- my first!

Baby tomatoes -- my first!

Now, of course, they are a booming business. [Would be interesting to have some facts and figures to relate, but I don’t.] Well, booming until a few weeks ago with that Salmonella scare. (Gloria keeps squinting and saying, how do you get the Salmonella into the tomato?!)

(Okay, okay… I confess. I love to hear myself tell stories and sound all–like Wow–and everything. But what I posted above was all taken from one article (the 1949 National Geographic piece on Traveling Vegetables). I suspect that anthropologists (Paleobotanists?) have probably had things to say since then. And I didn’t Fact Check, even based on my initial reading.)

Pausing to reflect a moment…

Natural History/ History of Botany/ History of Science:
Yesterday I looked at the German history of Botany site – I’m still chewing on his terse, simplistic [dismissive?] treatment of the Middle Ages:

5 Plant Zones
Had coffee with Carolyn Dodson yesterday. (Mountain Wildflowers of the Southern Rockies: Revealing Their Natural History. Carolyn Dodson and Willian W. Dunmire.  University of New Mexico Press.  November 2007.) She brought me the western USA map of plant provinces, apropos of an earlier conversation we had about how fabulous it is to be a botanist in this area–at a point where 5 provinces meet. [Dot laughs: 6 Flags Over Georgia. Places where geopolitical boundaries intersect. Northwest Georgia. I said, I think there is a second place where that also happens. ]

Recent Reading
Night before last, I read the introductory chapter in Sandra Knapp’s sprawling, delectable coffee table book: Plant Discoveries. Go back — re-read & take some notes. Have been carrying around E. O. Wilson’s In Search of Nature in hopes of taking notes on Sharks and Ants.

Finish reading the reams of material on Barn Swallows from the Cornell site. (How long do they live? Do parents improve & hone their skills over a couple of years? Do they come back to the same nest, or to the same general area?)

Science Went into Decline
Like the intellectual equivalent of a re-encroaching ice age. Is that really possible? Or did the prevalence of oral culture mean we’ve just lost track of what they knew?
Gloria: When I said I was frustrated with the short treatment of the “Dark Ages” by the German history of Botany site, said… so what was the tipping point from “The Dark Ages” to the Renaissance? This vexed me, since I took so much European history in college (1978, 78, 80…) I fumbled around: increasing trade, Italy, the rise of the city state [the rise of the middle class, the Crusades, the Arabs & Constantinople, the zero, movable type, the Protestant Reformation ?!] We got out James Burke’s Connections. And read about water clocks, monks, the midnight bells and sundials not working so well in cloudy northern Europe. But while that was all great stuff, it didn’t answer the question. Google: Richard Hooker’s Backgrounds to the Italian Renaissance.

Also his page on Humanism. Was quite interested in his NeoPlatonism, but the printer died so I didn’t get that one.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla MerianHoly smokes. For reasons I can’t really explain, I wanted to see if the engraving of her from Amazing Rare Things was floating around anywhere. In that image, she is disconcerting. Very homely. (Right… of all the things to pursue.)

Google comes through!
Well duh. She’s in Wikipedia, with a much more flattering image.
And there is a page dedicated to her somewhere else.

Natural History Exhibit Chronological Tour.

(Holy smokes!) She’s there. (Posted in 2000. Along with Hooke, Linneaus, [Merian] Catesby Trembley Curtis Humboldt Bonaparte Audubon & Gould.)

Ah. “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: Natural History Books by Ten Authors.” Special Collections/ Sheridan Libraries at The Johns Hopkins University (March-July 2000)

Overview of the exhibit:


The ten authors, whose works are shown in this exhibit, were intensely curious about the natural world, and determined to communicate their observations. Their books are among the treasures of the natural history collections in the Sheridan Libraries and are on display at the George Peabody Library from March through July 20, 2000.

With intellectual curiosity and purpose in common, the ten naturalists were very different in their interests, backgrounds and styles of working. Robert Hooke (1655-1703 ) was a restless researcher who moved from one project to another. The striking illustrations in his Micrographia of magnified leaves, stones, and insects came from his study of the microscope. Abraham Trembley (1710-1784) became aware of hydra almost by accident, then concentrated on studying them as thoroughly as possible, planning every step in his groundbreaking work. Linneaus (1707-1778 ) had the same need for organization but applied it to creating a classification system of all three kingdoms of nature.

Illustration by Curtis.Trembley, Hooke and the horticulturist William Curtis (1746-1799) made their careers close to home, studying things which others did not notice, or considered ordinary, while Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), Mark Catesby (1679?-1749), and especially Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) traveled to study plants and animals and geology unknown in Europe. Humboldt’s six-year journey in Central and South America has been called the “scientific discovery of America.” (The plant – left – is by Curtis)

John Gould (1804-1881), the son of a gardener at Windsor Castle, was a taxidermist for the Zoological Society of London while teaching himself to be an ornithologist. Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), Napoleon’s nephew, had a university education before becoming an outstanding zoologist. He depended on professional artists to illustrate his books, like all the naturalists except Merian, Catesby and Audubon (1785-1851), who were artists in their own right.

The illustrations are engravings, most colored by hand, in the earliest books and lithographs in those by Audubon and Gould. To protect them from the light levels in the Peabody Library, the pages of exhibited volumes were turned periodically through the duration of the original library exhibit. This on-line exhibit features all of the exhibited pages, as well as some detail images and images not shown in the original library exhibit.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), inventor and wide-ranging researcher, was curator of experiments of the Royal Society, professor of geometry at Gresham College, and Surveyor of the City of London after the Fire of 1666. He is best known for his accomplishments in physics and mechanics, but his Micrographia is important for its observations through a microscope of stones, plants including fungi, and insects, and its striking illustrations.

Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus, ( 1707-1778 ) classified the three kingdoms of nature as they were known in his time. He developed “binomial nomenclature,” or identification by genus and species, which is still in use, although much of his classification system has been modified by discoveries since his lifetime.
The Museum for his patron, the King, is a selected list of quadrupeds, reptiles and fish with their Linnean names, preceded by an essay in Latin and Swedish on the study of natural history, and illustrated with engravings.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) learned to paint from her stepfather, the still life artist Jacob Marrel. She was interested in flowers and insects from an early age, and published books of her paintings, showing insects in different stages of their development, with the plants that attracted them. When living in Amsterdam she saw a collection of South American natural history specimens, and was so much interested that she traveled to Surinam with one of her daughters to study the native flowers and insects on the spot. After two years she returned and published her major work Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis, in 1705. In the book, the insects are not usually identified with as much detail as the plants.

Mark Catesby (1679-1749) made two lengthy journeys to America, from 1710-1719 and 1722 to 1726. The “Florida” of the title included what is now Georgia. He collected natural history specimens and made drawings and watercolors of plants, reptiles, animals and fish, then engraved his own pictures and published them for the first time in 1731. The work was successful and there was a second volume in 1743, followed by a second and third edition of both volumes. The third edition is shown here.

Abraham Trembley (1710-1784) tutor of Count Bentinck’s two sons at Sorgvliet near the Hague, noticed a hydra attached to an aquatic plant, and found that it was an animal capable of independent motion. Further observation and experiment proved that the hydra could be multiplied by dividing it in pieces. A thorough researcher, Trembley studied three species of hydra and published his findings in 1744. The illustrations shown are from a 1791 German translation, as well as the original 1744 edition.

William Curtis (1746-1799) was from a Quaker family much interested in medicine. He was apprenticed to an apothecary who left him his business, but he sold it to concentrate on his real interest, the study of natural history, and became well known as a horticulturist. Curtis had a subscription garden near London, where for a guinea a year the members had access to the plants and the library. He published the first edition of the Flora Londiniensis in parts from 1775-1798, but it was not a financial success. It was large, costly, and the plants illustrated, which grew wild around London, were considered by many to be not much better than weeds.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) began his career in the Prussian Department of Mines, but hoped to be a scientific explorer. He succeeded in gaining permission to visit the Spanish territories in Central and South America, then practically unknown in Europe. From 1799 he and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland traveled from Venezuela to Mexico, making discoveries in botany, zoology and geology and original observations of the geography, demographics and politics of the region. Humboldt published the results of the journey in Paris over a period of 29 years. Humboldt’s is the monkey.

Charles Lucien Bonapart (1803-1857), nephew of Napoleon, had an outstanding career as a zoologist. He was in the United State from 1822 to 1828, where he wrote four additional volumes for the ornithological work which Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) had left unfinished at his death. Bonaparte had the help of the artist Titian Peale, who found and painted birds for him in the Rocky Mountains and in Florida.

Image left: from American Ornithology, or, The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting in the United States, not given by Wilson … Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1825-33.

John Gould (1804-1881) was a largely self-taught ornithologist who began as a taxidermist for the Royal Zoological Society. His first book, on Himalayan birds, was based on skins shipped to London, but later in his career he traveled to see birds in their natural habitats. He was his own publisher from the first, and the 41 volumes of his works contain 3000 beautiful lithographs as well as exact scientific commentary, and were a financial success. Gould was not an artist, and employed professionals to rework his sketches. (Swallows below by Gould) From Birds of Asia. 1852-1883.


Handasyde Buchanan. Nature into Art: a Treasury of Great Natural History Books. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.

Natalie Zemon Davis. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dictionary of Scientific Biography . Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor-in-chief. New York: Scribner [1970-1990].

Sylvia G. Lenhoff. Hydra and the Birth of Experimental Biology, 1744: Abraham Trembley’s Memoires Concerning Polyps. Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood Press, 1986.

Gordon C. Sauer. John Gould, the Bird Man: a Chronology and Bibliography. [S.l.]: University Press of Kansas, 1982.

Shirley Streshinsky. Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness Athens, GA:: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Michael Sidney Tyler-Whittle. Curtis’s Flower Garden Displayed … Oxford; New york: Oxford University Press, 1981, c1979.

Carolyn Smith is Librarian of the George Peabody Library and Collection Development Librarian for Special Collections in the Sheridan Libraries.

National Museum of Women in the Arts – she’s there.

Seek and you will … annoy everyone around you?!

I’ve been doing a little work on a very high level history of the Natural Sciences in the west:

I continue to shamble along the cow path of inquiry. This morning I was surprised to connect the dots in the person of a writer named Kim Todd. Amazon suggested her while I was considering whether to buy Amazing Rare Things. (I did find a used copy of Plant Discoveries that was cheap & couldn’t resist. It’s coming.) Someone was practically giving away a used (new) hardcover of Todd’s biography of Maria Sibylla Merian. I couldn’t resist, since she was the only woman in any of the books I’ve seen so far, and was, by all accounts utterly fascinating.

I looked up the author, and she sounds absolutely amazing and delightful. She has degrees in writing & environmentalism, did her undergrad at Yale (English) and lives in Montana. Her first book looks really great too: Tinkering with Eden, a Natural History of Exotics in America. She had articles in Orion & the Sierra magazine. (Wonder if Stephanie has met her?) She’s been reviewed in the NYTimes & Kirkus, and made the 2007 booklists for the Library Journal & NYPublic Library & Booklist.

She won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. ((I had not heard of him before, so I looked him up. He won the Burroughs Award in 1974 for Wilderness Days.)) i.e. I’ve not heard of the book before either, but I can squint and guess that it is beautiful, smart, sensitive, compassionate writing about the natural world.

Looking at him led me to a site where someone had posted a short overview of conservation writers by Susan Bray. I stumbled into a treasure trove presented by the Library of Congress: “The Evolution of the Conservation Movement: 1850-1920” .

This morning I glanced down through the postings below, and discovered that she wrote the short review of Amazing Rare Things for Orion!! (Hi Kim!!)

*her site –
**Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

She has a link to the Author’s Guild on her site. I looked at that and thought it was worth frequenting (business news from the publishing world):

The Great Naturalists

The Great Naturalists by Robert Huxley (Ed). London.  Thames & Hudson.  2007.

Huxley is “head of the botanical collections of London’s Natural History Museum. ”
39 noteworthy naturalists:
from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to
John James Audubon &
Charles Darwin

Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish doctor and naturalist
Joseph Banks, best remembered for his 3-year voyage to the South Seas with Captain James Cook.
Ulisse AIdrovandi, a Renaissance innovator who stressed the need for direct observations and the value of accurate illustrations in natural history books. quotes Publishers Weekly:

The little-known history of natural history-that is, how the first naturalists observed and catalogued their world, how they grappled with unanswered questions, and how the sciences of geology, biology, ecology and paleontology developed over three centuries-is wonderfully illuminated in this volume from the Natural History Museum of London’s Huxley. Examining 39 naturalists, Huxley assigns each subject-from ancient Greece’s Aristotle to America’s first botanist, Asa Gray-his or her own biographer (many also from London’s Natural History Museum), who provide a brief but detailed life story and a summation of scientific contributions. While some subjects are well-known-John James Audubon, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin among them-many will be unfamiliar: John Ray, labeled the “English Aristotle,” first defined the concept of “species”; Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered micro-organisms (using Robert Hooke’s microscope); and Mary Anning, born to destitution in Regency England, sparked a revolution in scientific thought with her fossil excavations.