Monday, April 04, 2011

Last child in the woods?

There was a time when I was younger -- in my thirties -- that I set out to collect, identify and press all of the wildflowers of Easton, my New England town. I tramped woods and meadows, swamps and roadside verges looking for specimens. Pressed them on special acid-free paper. Mounted them in what I took to be aesthetic arrangements, identified by common name. Framed many for display. My herbarium.

Now, decades later, I have no idea what happened to those hundreds of flowers.

Emily Dickinson made a much more rigorous, even scientific, collection of the flora in and around Amherst, Massachusetts, as schoolgirl between the ages of ten and fourteen. She was a botanist before she was a poet.

Her herbarium, in a leather bound volume containing more than four hundred plants identified by scientific binomial, is now in the archives of the Harvard University Library. A splendid, full-sized facsimile edition was published by Harvard University Press in 2006. See typical page above.

It is hard to imagine any pre-teen child today setting out on such a project. Certainly so ambitious an enterprise would never have crossed my mind at that age. Not that I wasn't out romping in woods and meadows, but plants were elements of play, not objects for scientific study. We smoked sweet-everlasting, but knew it only as "rabbit tobacco." We gathered goldenrod galls, but knew them only as "knockers" for rapping each other over the head. We stumbled through poison ivy without ever knowing what it was until we broke out in a rash.

But I suspect even those rambunctious schoolboy forays into woods, ditches and ponds planted the germs of ideas that would later incline me to more careful study, and to a lifelong interest in nature.
By Chivalries as tiny,
A Blossom, or a Book,
The seed of smiles are planted --
Which blossom in the dark.