Growing hope from earth’s oldest plants in Helen Humphreys’ new book “Field Study”

WhatsOn Sep 16, 2021 by Nancy Wigston Toronto Star

Helen Humphreys (“The Frozen Thames,” “The Evening Chorus,” “Rabbit Foot Bill”) is a wonder at showing human kinship with nature. Her exquisite new work, “Field Study,” has the size, heft, and enchanting illustrations of a naturist’s diary — including her own drawings — and is the result of a year examining the 140,000 plant samples collected by amateur and professional botanists, preserved in Queen’s University’s Fowler Herbarium.

Beginning each morning with a walk in her “personal paradise,” a place to assuage stresses and losses, Humphreys devotes her year to examining the Fowler Herbarium collection, a vast library of dried plant specimens. For centuries, botany was a hugely popular pastime, favoured by scientists and writers including Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. For Humphreys, “a visit to the Herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel.”

Her pages glow with plant samples, lichen as lacy-bright as the day they were found, orchids sadly faded to brown. Each is labelled, with details about the plant, where it was found, and its collector’s life, thus connecting us with other landscapes, other times. As winter turns to spring, summer to autumn, we become deeply familiar not only with plants but with their collectors, some sane, others very eccentric. In early days, some “settler-colonists” roamed the Americas documenting plants, while others collected close to home, all passionate members of a plant-mad democracy of men and women.

From Humphreys’ descriptions of earth’s oldest plants — ferns — we proceed though times and seasons, with frequent detours (in England’s Kew Gardens’ Herbarium, species are arranged by geography, numbering seven million specimens) and nuggets about collectors that read like mini-biographies.

Young Alfred Klugh, twenty-one, picked a cinnamon fern on July 16, 1903, “almost halfway through his brief life … the fern reaching up, the hand reaching down.” Humphreys reaches down through time and into the present, holding Klugh’s 1903 find on a “scrap of archival paper, in this blue file folder.” One man died age forty-one, another lived until ninety-four, seeing most of the 19th century. A woman collected on her bicycle. A plant-loving Prussian immigrant helped support himself delivering mail, until the weighty bags paralyzed his arm. In 1904 he shot himself, leaving behind an herbarium of more than 60,000 plants.

Collectors sent specimens to Charles Darwin. Several published books — about trees, wildflowers, ferns, seaweed. Some wrote lively descriptions of plants and where they found them; others were cagey, like secretive prospectors. A few used Indigenous plant and place names rather than their colonial replacements. In 1858, a British collector worked with an Algonquin chief’s son, using Ojibwe plant names.

Not only does Humphreys show “a profound need within humans to connect with the natural world,” her sleuthing uncovers connections with our plant-collecting forebears, although anonymous monikers like “Mrs.” and “Misses” stymie her. She grows fond of certain observer-collectors, such as Reverend Kenneth Crawford and his “haiku-ish” descriptions:

“Near beech, amongst ironwood, bracken

fern, asters, goldenrod.

Sugar maple.”

Occasionally, Humphreys’ personal losses appear in her meditations, like the “sunny day in May” when she and her mother visit the cemetery where her brother is buried. They search for descendants of a red oak sampled there in June, 1893, consoled, perhaps, by the notion that the oak’s “brethren” grow there still. Robins perch on gravestones and “the fallen serviceberry is a scattering of white between the dark stones, like snow.”

Plants can defy their origins, travelling as “accidentals” (cannabis, wild ginger, wild hops) and “escapees” (from old gardens). Pay attention, her year of plants seems to teach, not only to what is lost, but to what continues. “Despair is not a great motivator, but hope is.”

Her moving Epilogue takes us back to Rome’s Colosseum, where thousands of beasts were slaughtered, some to extinction. In the 1850s, a gifted English botanist discovered un-Italian plants growing there. What happened? Humphreys imagines an African lion pacing his cage, awaiting death, when “a tiny seed of oat grass rubs off his coat, nestles into a crack in the stone, slowly unfolds, and begins to grow.”

Nancy Wigston is a freelance Toronto writer

Growing hope from earth’s oldest plants in Helen Humphreys’ new book “Field Study”

WhatsOn Sep 16, 2021 by Nancy Wigston Toronto Star

Helen Humphreys (“The Frozen Thames,” “The Evening Chorus,” “Rabbit Foot Bill”) is a wonder at showing human kinship with nature. Her exquisite new work, “Field Study,” has the size, heft, and enchanting illustrations of a naturist’s diary — including her own drawings — and is the result of a year examining the 140,000 plant samples collected by amateur and professional botanists, preserved in Queen’s University’s Fowler Herbarium.

Beginning each morning with a walk in her “personal paradise,” a place to assuage stresses and losses, Humphreys devotes her year to examining the Fowler Herbarium collection, a vast library of dried plant specimens. For centuries, botany was a hugely popular pastime, favoured by scientists and writers including Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. For Humphreys, “a visit to the Herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel.”

Her pages glow with plant samples, lichen as lacy-bright as the day they were found, orchids sadly faded to brown. Each is labelled, with details about the plant, where it was found, and its collector’s life, thus connecting us with other landscapes, other times. As winter turns to spring, summer to autumn, we become deeply familiar not only with plants but with their collectors, some sane, others very eccentric. In early days, some “settler-colonists” roamed the Americas documenting plants, while others collected close to home, all passionate members of a plant-mad democracy of men and women.

From Humphreys’ descriptions of earth’s oldest plants — ferns — we proceed though times and seasons, with frequent detours (in England’s Kew Gardens’ Herbarium, species are arranged by geography, numbering seven million specimens) and nuggets about collectors that read like mini-biographies.

Young Alfred Klugh, twenty-one, picked a cinnamon fern on July 16, 1903, “almost halfway through his brief life … the fern reaching up, the hand reaching down.” Humphreys reaches down through time and into the present, holding Klugh’s 1903 find on a “scrap of archival paper, in this blue file folder.” One man died age forty-one, another lived until ninety-four, seeing most of the 19th century. A woman collected on her bicycle. A plant-loving Prussian immigrant helped support himself delivering mail, until the weighty bags paralyzed his arm. In 1904 he shot himself, leaving behind an herbarium of more than 60,000 plants.

Collectors sent specimens to Charles Darwin. Several published books — about trees, wildflowers, ferns, seaweed. Some wrote lively descriptions of plants and where they found them; others were cagey, like secretive prospectors. A few used Indigenous plant and place names rather than their colonial replacements. In 1858, a British collector worked with an Algonquin chief’s son, using Ojibwe plant names.

Not only does Humphreys show “a profound need within humans to connect with the natural world,” her sleuthing uncovers connections with our plant-collecting forebears, although anonymous monikers like “Mrs.” and “Misses” stymie her. She grows fond of certain observer-collectors, such as Reverend Kenneth Crawford and his “haiku-ish” descriptions:

“Near beech, amongst ironwood, bracken

fern, asters, goldenrod.

Sugar maple.”

Occasionally, Humphreys’ personal losses appear in her meditations, like the “sunny day in May” when she and her mother visit the cemetery where her brother is buried. They search for descendants of a red oak sampled there in June, 1893, consoled, perhaps, by the notion that the oak’s “brethren” grow there still. Robins perch on gravestones and “the fallen serviceberry is a scattering of white between the dark stones, like snow.”

Plants can defy their origins, travelling as “accidentals” (cannabis, wild ginger, wild hops) and “escapees” (from old gardens). Pay attention, her year of plants seems to teach, not only to what is lost, but to what continues. “Despair is not a great motivator, but hope is.”

Her moving Epilogue takes us back to Rome’s Colosseum, where thousands of beasts were slaughtered, some to extinction. In the 1850s, a gifted English botanist discovered un-Italian plants growing there. What happened? Humphreys imagines an African lion pacing his cage, awaiting death, when “a tiny seed of oat grass rubs off his coat, nestles into a crack in the stone, slowly unfolds, and begins to grow.”

Nancy Wigston is a freelance Toronto writer

Growing hope from earth’s oldest plants in Helen Humphreys’ new book “Field Study”

WhatsOn Sep 16, 2021 by Nancy Wigston Toronto Star

Helen Humphreys (“The Frozen Thames,” “The Evening Chorus,” “Rabbit Foot Bill”) is a wonder at showing human kinship with nature. Her exquisite new work, “Field Study,” has the size, heft, and enchanting illustrations of a naturist’s diary — including her own drawings — and is the result of a year examining the 140,000 plant samples collected by amateur and professional botanists, preserved in Queen’s University’s Fowler Herbarium.

Beginning each morning with a walk in her “personal paradise,” a place to assuage stresses and losses, Humphreys devotes her year to examining the Fowler Herbarium collection, a vast library of dried plant specimens. For centuries, botany was a hugely popular pastime, favoured by scientists and writers including Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. For Humphreys, “a visit to the Herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel.”

Her pages glow with plant samples, lichen as lacy-bright as the day they were found, orchids sadly faded to brown. Each is labelled, with details about the plant, where it was found, and its collector’s life, thus connecting us with other landscapes, other times. As winter turns to spring, summer to autumn, we become deeply familiar not only with plants but with their collectors, some sane, others very eccentric. In early days, some “settler-colonists” roamed the Americas documenting plants, while others collected close to home, all passionate members of a plant-mad democracy of men and women.

From Humphreys’ descriptions of earth’s oldest plants — ferns — we proceed though times and seasons, with frequent detours (in England’s Kew Gardens’ Herbarium, species are arranged by geography, numbering seven million specimens) and nuggets about collectors that read like mini-biographies.

Young Alfred Klugh, twenty-one, picked a cinnamon fern on July 16, 1903, “almost halfway through his brief life … the fern reaching up, the hand reaching down.” Humphreys reaches down through time and into the present, holding Klugh’s 1903 find on a “scrap of archival paper, in this blue file folder.” One man died age forty-one, another lived until ninety-four, seeing most of the 19th century. A woman collected on her bicycle. A plant-loving Prussian immigrant helped support himself delivering mail, until the weighty bags paralyzed his arm. In 1904 he shot himself, leaving behind an herbarium of more than 60,000 plants.

Collectors sent specimens to Charles Darwin. Several published books — about trees, wildflowers, ferns, seaweed. Some wrote lively descriptions of plants and where they found them; others were cagey, like secretive prospectors. A few used Indigenous plant and place names rather than their colonial replacements. In 1858, a British collector worked with an Algonquin chief’s son, using Ojibwe plant names.

Not only does Humphreys show “a profound need within humans to connect with the natural world,” her sleuthing uncovers connections with our plant-collecting forebears, although anonymous monikers like “Mrs.” and “Misses” stymie her. She grows fond of certain observer-collectors, such as Reverend Kenneth Crawford and his “haiku-ish” descriptions:

“Near beech, amongst ironwood, bracken

fern, asters, goldenrod.

Sugar maple.”

Occasionally, Humphreys’ personal losses appear in her meditations, like the “sunny day in May” when she and her mother visit the cemetery where her brother is buried. They search for descendants of a red oak sampled there in June, 1893, consoled, perhaps, by the notion that the oak’s “brethren” grow there still. Robins perch on gravestones and “the fallen serviceberry is a scattering of white between the dark stones, like snow.”

Plants can defy their origins, travelling as “accidentals” (cannabis, wild ginger, wild hops) and “escapees” (from old gardens). Pay attention, her year of plants seems to teach, not only to what is lost, but to what continues. “Despair is not a great motivator, but hope is.”

Her moving Epilogue takes us back to Rome’s Colosseum, where thousands of beasts were slaughtered, some to extinction. In the 1850s, a gifted English botanist discovered un-Italian plants growing there. What happened? Humphreys imagines an African lion pacing his cage, awaiting death, when “a tiny seed of oat grass rubs off his coat, nestles into a crack in the stone, slowly unfolds, and begins to grow.”

Nancy Wigston is a freelance Toronto writer