An isolated island is a botanist’s dream. Isolation contributes to evolutionary differentiation of the few plant colonists that by chance arrive and manage both to establish themselves and reproduce. We probably envision these isolated isles as lying in the tropics and covered by lush forests in which epiphytic orchids hang from the tree branches, reflecting the powerful images in the first writings on island biology published from the experiences of Alfred Russel Wallace on the warm, wet islands of the South Pacific and common contemporary access to the Hawaiian Islands. Kerguelen’s Land, lying far from the equator in the southern Indian Ocean 2000 miles from Africa and farther from Australia, is probably not the place we imagine as a lovely, isolated island. Captain James Cook, after visiting the island on an early voyage of discovery, attempted to rename Kerguelen’s Land the Isle of Desolation.
Joseph Dalton Hooker wandered the island’s desolation for two months in 1840. The young Hooker arrived at Kerguelen’s Land on James Clark Ross’s 1839-1843 expedition to the Antarctic. Robert Brown had called Hooker’s attention to Kerguelen’s Land before his departure for the Antarctic, although landing there wasn’t his choice to make, but making it was to be a great delight.
Ross’s ships Erebus and Terror arrived at the Cape of Africa on the 17th of March 1840 and left in early April, sailing southeast from the continent. On the 17th of April, Hooker wrote “the weather now began to assume a wintery character. . .” Gales kept them from landing at the Marion Islands (21 April) and the Crozettes (26 April). “Thence we proceeded to Kerguelen’s Land,” he wrote later to his father. They arrived off Kerguelen’s Land on May 6th but bad weather prevented landing, and gales blew the ships from the island for nearly a week. When they finally approached in better weather on May 14th, Hooker wrote in his journal, “The shore had to me a most inviting appearance, the broad bands of brown and green being sure indications of the presence of abundant mosses. . . I thought this cannot be such a land of desolation as Cook has painted it, containing only 18 specimens of plants.”
By noon the next day, the Erebus was moored in Christmas Harbor of Kerguelen’s Land, and Hooker was on land an hour later. He walked up a valley between high hills, where the “rocks [were] covered with mosses and most beautiful lichens. I never saw, even in the Highlands of Scotland, rocks more elegantly painted by nature’s hand than these . . . the colours sometimes bright, were beautifully harmonized, producing the most pleasing effects to the eye; my only regret was the difficulty of procuring characteristic specimens, their extreme tenuity causing them to be removed with the living rock.” At the end of his first walk, he found his collections totaled 30 different species of plants, which nearly doubled the known flora of the island.
He found three plants to be very abundant around the shore, but “what pleased me more than any other plant,” Hooker wrote in his journal, “was one that Mr. Brown had particularly directed my attention to, it was the cabbage of Cook’s crew, and a very remarkable Cruciferous plant . . .” He filled-in the flavors from later tastings: “The root tastes like horse-radish, but much milder; the heart’s like garden mustard . . .but of rather a leathery consistence, very good however, The leaves when boiled look like cabbage, are more of the consistence of spinach, and have a slight and peculiar medicinally bitter taste, which some of the crew are very fond of.” He wrote later, after tiring of meals of penguin, that the “seaman being however less delicate [than the officers], continued to enjoy soups of [penguin] flesh and Kerguelen’s Land cabbage.”
On Kerguelen’s Land, Hooker wrote, “My time was my own to leave the ship when I liked for the Captain took off all restriction to my going when I liked. My rambles were more generally solitary through the wildest country I ever saw. The hill tops are always covered with snow & frost & many of my best lichens and mosses were gathered by hammering out the frozen tufts or sitting on them till they thawed. The days were so short & the country so high snowy . . . that I never could get far from the harbor though I several times tried by starting before light.”
Hooker later wrote to his father, the botanist William J. Hooker, “Believe me that at Kerguelen’s Land I strained every nerve to add to its scanty Flora in that department. Though 2 months there to the last day I went ashore botanizing & as far as I know here left no hole unexamined, or stone unturned. My excursions were generally solitary; but you cannot conceive the delight the new discoveries afforded me, as they slowly revealed themselves though in many cases it was all I could do to collect from the frozen ground as much as would serve to identify a species. All these are packed in one small case now sent & very glad I shall be to hear that its contents [arrived].” In another letter, he added, “I hope you will not be disappointed with the fruits of my poor exertions. You say you hope I shall double the Flora & I have done so.”
I leafed through the now delicate pocket notebook, covered in brown leather, that Hooker carried on his rambles on Kerguelen’s Land. He was a fine artist, and pages of the notebook are covered by illustrations of flowers, flower organs, dissected cross sections of ovaries, fruits, and leaves. Many of the pages have the illustrations arranged as if ready for a plate in a publication. On the page following the illustrations of each plant is a description of it’s characteristics written in Latin in Hooker’s tiny script. Finally, there is a sketch of the Erebus sitting in Christmas Harbor.
Erebus and Terror left Kerguelen’s land on 20 July and arrived at Tasmania on 16 August. Among the letters that Hooker received were those from his family that told of his brother’s death. Hooker wrote to his father, “You have lost a son; but I the brother & companion of 20 yrs. standing; know I shall have none, on my return, with whom I can talk over my childhood days. But I must not complain of this & will rather try to tell you little as I feel able, shortly, what I have seen; reserving a better account & extract of my journal for another time, when it will not be tainted with the melancholy that must pervade this air.” Hooker began to compose more formal notes on islands, isolation, and relationships, the ideas that would become central to his theories of plant geography.
The chill this morning left frost on roofs. Fog enclosed the Thames.
In the library at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, I read from the journal written by Joseph Dalton Hooker while on the Antarctic Expedition (1839-1843) led by James C. Ross on the Erebus and Terror. A typescript of the journal has been microfilmed, and I spent the day hunched over the bright screen of a microfilm reader in the back corner of the library. That shaded station before a large window held a chill, and I wore through the day a long wool coat and a scarf around my neck. I reached the point in Hooker’s journal where the expedition sailed south from Australia for the Antarctic, a place that few had entered and was known mostly from stories of mythological proportions.
Hooker reported day after day of fog and icebergs, which aside from the steadily decreasing daily temperatures of air and water must have created their own chill aboard the wooden ship with only wind to power is maneuvers. The shapes, colors, and stones embedded in the icebergs caught his attention for some days, but then he simply began to record that icebergs were many. The birds and whales were also numerous and on many days Hooker gave an accounting of the various kinds that were seen.
On the day they surpassed Cook’s latitude record, going farther south than any other explorer had recorded, they see mountains in the distance. Though still at great distance, as they get nearer, they realize the height and ruggedness of the mountains, which are completely covered by snow, except Hooker notes where they must be too steep for it to stick and he sees brown. Then, as if a gift of contrast in the white, one of the mountains releases black smoke. As they get closer, they see reflected in the dark smoke the red of the molten lava inside the volcano.
I wrote with my notebook resting on the screen of the microfilm reader, the most effective way to take notes. With the paper close the image of text, I could look at the text and write, barely glancing at the lines of my yellow tablet. Or I would write with my tablet perpendicular to the microfilm reader and sitting on a side table that the librarians have conveniently placed at the station, but this wasn’t as effective—it required that I lean back from the screen, turn to the tablet, find my line, and write a few words, check the text to make sure that my quote was accurate, and then look back at my pad to continue with more writing. The most comfortable position was to turn my chair slightly so that I could cross my legs, on which I propped my tablet to write, but I was a little far from the screen in this position, almost at a distance that required my glasses for the text, and, if wearing glasses, then my tablet would be too close to see my writing, and I would be forced to read, lift glasses, write, lower glasses to check text on screen, then lift glasses to check text on paper and begin to write more—I liked the position, but it didn’t last too long.
I wonder where and when Hooker made his journal entries. On the day they first saw the mountains of Antarctica, thinking at first that they has sighted an unknown island, it was 2.30 a.m. when Hooker recorded the land sighting and at 8.00 a.m. he begins to detail the topography, but Hooker provided no details about his actions on board, other than sketching. Amid the roll-call of birds and whales, there is no sense in the journal where Hooker sat, how much he paced, or how his days were consumed.
Trafalgar Square in central London looks to the power of the old British Empire. From the steps at the top of the Square, we could extend a slim rectangle to encompass the Old Admiralty Offices, the Old War Office and Ministry of Defense, Downing Street, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament. Framed at the end of Whitehall Street, which forms a gentle curve through the middle of our rectangle, is Big Ben, where time looks back at the Square while moving ruthlessly forward.
In the historical geometry of empire, Trafalgar Square is the side of nostalgia. It is commemorative space while also serving as a reminder of the depth and breadth of the old empire. The name refers to a decisive, 1805 naval battle off Cape Trafalgar in Spain that helped to consolidate British sea power. It was the battle in which Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed, and Britain lost a premier naval strategist and hero. A statue of Nelson stands high above the front of the Square on a fluted column. At the front corners of the Square are statues of General James Napier and Major General Sir Henry Havelock, K.C.B. Both Havelock and Napier served in the British Army in India. General Napier led the army in battles against indigenous rebels that led ultimately to the acquisition of what is now Pakistan for British India.
Mist from a fountain blew against my face as I looked at Havelock’s statue on the Sunday after Remembrance Day commemorations. Although there were numerous military veterans and thousands of others passing through the Square, I didn’t notice anyone aside from me paying attention to the statues of either Havelock or Napier. A throng is always gathered around Nelson’s Column, although after a glance up at Nelson, who is too far above to really see, people turn to the four lions that guard his column. People clamber up the lions. They straddle a lion’s back for photographs and then slide down his rump. The statue most neglected is that of King George IV, who sits on a horse behind and to the right of Nelson at a back corner of the Square. The statue of King George IV was to be erected at Buckingham Palace and was to be only temporarily in Trafalgar Square, but here it has remained for over 150 years. The King’s statue has been so neglected that visitors to the Square by the end of the 19th century didn’t know whom the horseman represented. It was then that the plinth below the King’s statue was inscribed with his name.
The only statue getting any attention on the Square (well, aside from the Lions) was “Alison Lapper Pregnant.” The attention it has garnered has come not just from visitors to the Square. The New York Times reported that “Alison Lapper Pregnant” “has fueled a sharp discussion here about art, the purpose of public monuments, and the appropriateness of displaying such a piece in such a singular public space” (10 October 2005, p. E-1). There has been some concern that Trafalgar Square should be reserved for war heroes that harken memories of the glorious past. Marc Quinn, the sculptor of “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” suggests that “the square needed some femininity”. Quinn goes on to say, “In the past, heroes such as Nelson conquered the outside world. Now it seems to me they conquer their own circumstances and the prejudices of others, and I believe that Alison's portrait will symbolise this.”
“Alison Lapper Pregnant” is radiant on Trafalgar Square. One notices first the whiteness of its Italian marble against the weathered stone of the buildings and plaza. The white marble has a bright sheen in the sun, and it shadows to the tones of London’s skies. “Alison Lapper Pregnant” is beautiful and stately.
Alison Lapper, the model for the statue, was born without arms and with very short legs. Frankly, one doesn’t really notice that she lacks arms—arms are not the object, we might say, of a female nude. “Alison Lapper Pregnant” recalls the “Venus de Milo,” another statue of an armless woman, held by the Louvre to be among its masterpieces. “Alison Lapper Pregnant” has the same sculptural elegance as the “Venus de Milo”—both are over-sized and the sculpted woman’s head is turned. With both sculptures we are drawn to the details of the hair and the calm face, but with both it is the expansive abdomen that is the focus of attention. For the “Venus de Milo” the drapery that covers her legs lies low in folds on her hips and serves like a pedestal for the display of her abdomen. Rodin wrote that her stomach was “immense like the sea! It is the rhythmic beauty of the sea without end.”* For “Alison Lapper Pregnant” it is the curve of her legs and her breasts that frame her late pregnancy stomach. We could reach to Rodin’s metaphor to say that in “Alison Lapper Pregnant” we have the broad fecundity of the sea in the stretched convexity of her stomach.
*Rodin, A. 1912. Venus: To the Venus de Melos. B. W. Huebsch, New York (translated by Dorothy Dudley).
[Plaque on Nelson's Column at Trafalgar Square. The inscription reads "England expects every man will do his duty."]
This has been a weekend of commemorative events in association with Remembrance Day in the U.K. At the Cenotaph and Trafalgar Square, there were many elderly men who wore rows of medals and ribbons and wandered among the thriving tourist crowd. I walked from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus, which made me think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway recounts her joy of Bond Street, just off Piccadilly Circus, as she goes to purchase flowers; but vibrant Piccadilly remains shocked by memories of the Great War. Mrs. Dalloway remembers the war dead while it attends to the fractures from war that remain in lives and society.
[Piccadilly Circus from the corner of Bond Street]
[Caryatids of the St. Pancras Parish Church, London]
The oddest simulacrum is the human form sculpted in stone. For what could be less like life than stone, despite the pinkness of some marbles? Stone lacks the warmth and give of flesh. Yet, given its fineness of texture, some stone can be carved to carry the form, if not the breath, of human life. The power not only to sculpt stone but also to recreate through it human likeness must have been immense for those who first succeeded. Likeness has a power that looks over our shoulder.
The vivacity of Classical Greek sculpture is astounding. It is, I suppose, the seeming motion and tender elegance obtained not just through the accurate proportions and curves but also by the drapery, which can be sheer and adhere to each small curve or fall in folds away from the body and trail to provide a sense of carriage.
The exchange of sculpted human form for column in architecture, the creation of the caryatid*, must have been a shock to those who had valued the sculptures for their sense of motion and seeming life. The capture of the sculpted human form between plinth and architrave, an enslavement to carry load, could not have been seen without irony.
Yet with all of the aesthetic disasters that could have occurred what descended was the elegance of the Erechtheion, where six caryatids bear a portico. These caryatids, modeled supposedly on beautiful women of Greek Karyai, make the Erechtheion one of the most alluring buildings. When you stand before the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, you can see to the left the Erechtheion’s caryatids in profile surrounded by blue Mediterranean light (or modern Athens’s smog).
Of course, what I saw on the Acropolis many years ago were copies of the caryatids. The originals are in museums, five in Athens and one in the British Museum. When I began writing this I was unaware of the pilfered caryatid in the British Museum, but I shall walk over later for a look.
I started thinking about carytids when I walked past the St. Pancras Parish Church in London, which is on my morning walk to the British Library. The church has two porticos, high-ledged black spaces that block-in the crypt, and each has four caryatids, modeled on those of the Erechtheion. The St. Pancras caryatids date from the 19th century and are now blackened and streaked by urban grime. The caryatids of one portico face busy Euston Road, where they are protected by a metal fence and shaded by a row of sycamores.
*A caryatid is strictly a sculpted female form that carries a weight-bearing load in an architectural setting; a sculpted male form in a similar setting is a telemon or atlas.
On our approach to London yesterday morning, the bright light gave yellow ruffles to the upper surface of the clouds, but below, in the gray, the clouds were formless and the landscape without shadows.
I am always astounded when the plane comes under the clouds by the green of the English landscape; this is, perhaps, only a consequence of living in the American West, where the predominant tones are browns and ochres especially in the approach to winter. I don’t recall from the year I was here earlier this persistence of green leaves on the trees and shrubs this late in the fall.
On the Gatwick Express, we passed horses wearing long blankets in their pasture and were quickly in Horley, with its rows of red brick houses, and on to Purley Oaks, where the plots of the community garden were still covered by green. Sycamores lined the high banks above the rails as we entered South Croydon. The business high rises of East Croydon offered entry to city. Passing through Selhurst, I saw the roofs of the village through the windows of a passing train. Our speed increased and the next stops were blurs, then Balham with the first red, double-decker bus, Wandsworth Commons with its broad public parks that spread away on both sides of the railway, and Clapham Junction with its boxy towers of flats. We slowed in Battersea Park, passed the huge industrial storage tanks and the dead power station, and cross the Thames to the ray of tracks that spread into the mouth of Victoria Station.
Later, I picked-up my Reader’s Card at the British Library and stopped in Russell Square for tea. The wind scraped rustling sycamore leaves on the asphalt of the café. If the temperature were to drop, the wind would be fearsome; it has the will of winter, but not the cold; there’s a would-be chill, but it’s held at bay by tea and walking.
I shall be here, reading and botanizing the asphalt, for some weeks.
Rose Macaulay, whose The Pleasure of Ruins I have been slowly reading, was the perfect spinster. Macaulay’s life span (1881–1958) was roughly that of Virginia Woolf’s, and they might have been more equal in longevity if Woolf hadn’t filled her pockets with stones and stepped into a river. Woolf wrote on 18 February 1921 about Macaulay in her diary:
“Rose Macaulay dined here last week - something like a lean sheep-dog in appearance - harum-scarum-humble - too much of a professional, yet just on the intellectual side of the border. Might be religious though; mystical perhaps. Not at all dominating or impressive; I daresay she observes more than one thinks for. Clear, pale, mystical eyes. A kind of faded beauty; oh badly dressed.”
Macaulay’s childhood was spent in Italy. She read Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford. Her first novel was published when she was 25, and there were 34 books to follow. She turned her life and various observed experiences into fiction. Macaulay had an affair with Gerald O'Donovan, once a Catholic priest, novelist, and married, whom she met while working in the War Office during the Great War. Their romance ended with O’Donovan’s death in 1942.
She published in 1935 a collection of essays called Personal Pleasures. Macaulay wrote about themes we might expect, such as hot baths, bed, reading, walking, and writing, as well as more exceptional pleasures, both bakeries and florists’ shops in the night, cows, elephants in Bloomsbury, hatching eggs, heresies, improving the dictionary, and telling tales of travel.
Macaulay travelled extensively, and those experiences as well as the London Library helped to shape her Pleasure of Ruins, in which she wrote about ruined cities and other antiquities set in the landscape. She considered the pleasure to be taken from ruins “a complex enjoyment.” I like the idea of considering the sources of our enjoyments, and that some may have more facets and complexity than others. Macaulay produced the following list of why people might take pleasure from ruins:
1. Admiration for the ruin as it was in its prime. 2. Association of the ruin with history or literature. 3. Morbid pleasure in decay. 4. Righteous pleasure in retribution (the once proud and bad have fallen). 5. Mystical pleasure in destruction of all things mortal. 6. Egotistical satisfaction in surviving. 7. Masochistic joy in common destruction.
[Mt. Garfield and Grand Mesa from the slopes of Pollock Bench]
I walked from flood plain of the Colorado River up the northern rim of the Uncompahgre Plateau to cross Pollock Bench, a plain of junipers. A cluster of Juncos sat on the fallen branches of a dead juniper as they harvested seeds from snakeweed. The snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) was among the last species to flower, and there are still the occasional yellow heads, each no more than a centimeter across and with only a few yellow ray flowers. Most the snakeweed have transitioned to fruit in the last weeks. Each tiny head has dried to be a papery urn, and in each there are a few fusiform fruits (achenes) that are topped by crowns of white scales. I rested on a curved upper lip of Pollock Canyon where I could look to the south, down canyon. On each side were flat, parallel palisades of high rimrock, and below each each face was a slope of greasewood and juniper that met in a V at the bottom. I faced the low sun, which gave yellow edges to the pillars and promontories of the eastern wall. The sun felt unusually warm, but there was a rising wind and the gusts had cold edges—the temperature of sun and wind teeter tottered, but unbalanced I thought. Dark clouds had moved in behind me, I saw when I stood; the clouds had shadowed the Book Cliffs.