Books of Life

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

“Research” means “to search intensively,” but that’s not the whole of it.  I love to research partly because it is an invitation for the mind to wander.  I’m sitting in the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture, preparing a story on cloud forests.  In 1993’s Biodiversity and Conservation of Neotropical Montane Forests, edited by Steven P. Churchill, I find that there are more than 90,000 species of flowering plants in the Neotropics; which is twice as many species as are found in the African and Southeast Asian tropics combined.

Wow, why?    “When compared to the approximately 250,000 species world wide, the mountains of tropical Latin America are truly one of the world’s great centers of biodiversity….”  The authors note that “little (here) has been explored with regard to patterns and processes of evolutionary history and biogeography,” and then warn that deforestation is likely to drive more than half of these plant species to extinction by 2100.  “Extinction is final; any information that might have been gained from those plants will be lost with them.”

I have a pile of other books referencing cloud forests in front of me, but as I lean back to ponder this massive threat of loss, my eye catches sight of a pretty little volume on display:  Nature and Its Symbols by Lucia Impelluso (2004). 

I open the book to “Tree,” where I learn that “Always considered a manifestation of divine presence, the tree has long been an object of veneration, as a symbol of the communication between the heavenly, earthly, and lower realms.”  Aha!  This prompts me to remember one of my favorite books of all time, The Garden of Eden:  The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise, by John Prest (1981).  I obtained a copy of this book awhile ago on Amazon’s marketplace, a virtual flea market of used books; mine is decommissioned from the Schenectedy County Library in New York State, and still has its clear library cover on it.  How any library could get rid of this treasure I will never comprehend. It is filled with beautiful art work and brilliant observations.  Of course I don’t have it with me.

So I stand up and go search the catalog for this book, which I pull off the shelf.  Prest traces the first botanical gardens to an impetus both scholarly and devout:  “The Garden was an encyclopaedia.  Like an encyclopaedia it was a ‘book’, laid out in pages…It had the advantage over a book that the plants were real, and took precedence over a herbarium (or plant museum) of cut, dried, and mounted specimens, because the material was alive.”  A small thought balloon appears in my mind, at that word “alive.”  I’m thinking, Spring is on the way; it’s time for me to revive the garden that struggles to live on my back deck.  I need new plants, but which ones?

Before putting the Prest book on the cart to be reshelved by someone who will make painstakingly sure, as I will not, to put it in the right place, I browse it a bit more.  “Contemporaries interpreted the foundations of these encyclopaedic Gardens in the context of the re-creation of the earthly Paradise, or Garden of Eden, with which this story begins.”

With which this story begins.  I look over at the children’s section of the library, an inviting place with low chairs for short people, and beguiling picture books – a pretty young mother is reading to a rapt toddler; someone else’s child inexorably gravitates towards the words, the pictures, and sits down with them.  I think about the magic in books and the magic in gardens.  Hey!  I’m supposed to be writing a story on cloud forests.  I go back to my carrel and pick up The Panorama of Neotropical Cloud Forests, by Grady L. Webster (1995).  I am delighted with Webster’s description of the “green mansions” in the mountains of Central and South America; this is a reference to the classic book by W.H. Hudson.  Then Grady gets a bit technical:  “…the integradations between vegetation types and the variation produced by effects….”  At integradation, dear Reader, I’m about to doze.


So I get up and search the catalog again, for:  Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, by Nora Harlow (2004); Golden Gate Gardening by Pamela Peirce (2010); and Designing California Native Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook (2007).  I make note of some ideas for my deck.  It is 3 p.m.  I should keep working on my piece.  Aha!  I can continue my research outside.  In fact, there are three cloud forest gardens within short walking distance, full of the fuschias, passifloras, brugmansia, and salvias I have been reading about.  I decide to go look for a Deppea splendens in the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest – a species that has gone extinct in the wild.  But the story has not ended for this plant here, at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.  So out I go, to read the leaves.


One Response to “Books of Life”

  1. Great piece on Nirvanix. Not a lot of people are showing the services of companies.

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