Sunday, May 17, 2009

Andrea Wulf

From a Q & A with Andrea Wulf about The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession:

Q: THE BROTHER GARDENERS is a group biography of the founding brothers of the modern garden. It is a story of an extraordinary group of men who are all completely absorbed with botany, plant collection and gardens. It is a tale of adventure, competition and commerce as well as science, reason and obsession. What is your favorite tale from your biography?

A: There are too many fabulous tales to really make this decision but there is one little episode which I have always loved because it brings together the obsession and adventure that runs through so many of these stories.

In summer 1768 Joseph Banks – dashingly handsome and one of the wealthiest landowners in Britain – joined Captain Cook on the Endeavour for the most daring voyage the British had ever planned. Together they would circumnavigate the world. Three months after they set sail they reached Rio de Janeiro and Banks couldn’t wait to explore the local flora, but the Portuguese governor of the colony thought them to be spies and refused any botanical excursions. Imagine this, stuck on the Endeavour, Banks peers through his telescope and sees the flora and fauna of South America laid out like seductive wares in an exotic bazaar. There were humming birds hovering over clambering bougainvilleas which were dripping with pink blossoms, as well as hedges of brightly colored flowers and juicy fruits dangling from trees. So close and still so far away. In his frustration, Banks writes a letter to a friend which, I think, sums up how the Brother Gardeners felt about plants: ‘I feel like a French man laying swaddled in linnen between two of his Mistresses, both naked [and] using every possible means to excite desire’.

But if you ask me who my favorite character is, I have a clear answer (although I should probably like all my characters equally) – I just adore John Bartram, the American farmer who changed the English parkland and made his countrymen love American native species. Working through his hundreds of letters, I encountered a brave and diligent man who was alive with intellectual curiosity. He brought a smile to my face when he described how he would scramble up pine trees and hold his hat out to catch the seeds which he shook from their hanging cones. I adore him for his habit of falling out of trees, and for the melancholy which overcame him when he failed to find the seeds he sought. He was also a man so distractedly obsessed that he would often lose his way, or would find himself stranded in storms and darkness because he failed to notice sudden changes of weather when searching for a particular plant. He was strong-minded, loyal and passionate – I would have loved if I were able to walk with him through his garden.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Andrea Wulf's website.

--Marshal Zeringue