Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Silva of North America

When I was cleaning out the archives last week, I came across chapters from my life I had long since forgotten, including a collection of…

But wait, first some background.

When we moved to North Easton, Massachusetts, 48 years ago, I discovered in our local library fourteen huge volumes that were among that institution's first acquisitions, and still, after almost a hundred years, the largest volumes in the collection: Charles Sprague Sargent's Silva of North America, magnificently illustrated by Charles Faxon.

A silva is a description of the trees of a certain area. Sargent undertook to describe all of the trees of our continent. His massive compendium is one of the great works of 19th-century science. It is a book that is as Yankee as cod and as Boston as baked beans.

Charles Sprague Sargent was born into one of the great Yankee families. The Sargent genealogy includes famous New England names like Saltonstall, Brooks, Winthrop, Everett, Gray, Ward, and Hunnewell. The family is perhaps best known for the painter John Singer Sargent, but many other Sargents have distinguished themselves in business, public service, or the arts.

Charles' father was a prominent businessman. When Charles was born the family lived on Joy Street on Beacon Hill. Soon they moved permanently to their summer estate in Brookline, called Holm Lea, 130 acres of handsome parkland and gardens. It was the largest personal estate so close to Boston.

The future botanist had a classic Yankee education -- private school, then Harvard. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and traveled in Europe. When he re turned to Boston in 1868 his record as a scholar, soldier, and traveler gave no hint of future distinction. He was twenty-seven years old and disinclined to enter the family business. He took up the management of his father's estate and fell willy-nilly into horticulture. An interest in horticulture and the design of gracious garden estates was one of the common enthusiasms of moneyed gentlemen in Sargent's social class.

In 1872, to everyone's surprise, President Charles Eliot of Harvard named Sargent Professor of Horticulture. The next year Sargent was given responsibility for Harvard's Botanic Garden in Cambridge and the new Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. His qualifications? According to Sargent's biographer, S. B. Sutton, he was "little more than a glorified gardener." Of course, it helped to have the right connections, at a time and in a city where connections were everything.

Sargent was the archetypal Yankee: aristocratic, aloof, taciturn, reserved. On the outside he was a bit of a cold fish. But like many Yankees, once fired with an inner passion his energy was unflagging. He built the Arnold Arboretum into the magnificent institution it is today. He was an early champion in the cause of conservation and the creation of the National Forests. And he made himself master of his particular branch of knowledge. His great multi-volumed book was a monument of its time.

To leaf through the fourteen volumes of Sargent's remarkable work is like a journey back in time. The Silva gives a Victorian rush to the senses. The hefty weight of the volumes, the big bold print, the lush Latin names, the anecdotal footnotes, the magisterial text, and above all the finely-rendered art of Charles Faxon appeal as much to the hand and the eye as to the intellect. As a young science teacher, I was smitten.

But now I have gone on too long. I'll wait until tomorrow to share what I found in the archival bedroom.