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In the name of science and self-glory

The Brother Gardeners: botany, empire, and the birth of an obsession

Title: The Brother Gardeners: botany, empire, and the birth of an obsession
By: Andrea Wulf

The 18th century was an inquisitive and busy time in the world’s history. Darwin was discovering how we evolve, and an egomaniacal Linneaus was making sense of the botanical world with his classification system as well as enraging his fellow botanists and his Holiness the Pope. Explorers like Captain Cook were exploring the new world in the name of science and self-glory.

In America and England (long before the American Revolution), two men became friends across the ocean. American farmer John Bartram and English amateur botanist/gardener Peter Collinson started a relationship of many decades, exchanging seeds and gardening information as well as personal stories of their lives. English gardens, which previously had been planted in the manner of the formal Italianate gardens of straight lines, topiary hedges and tall clipped Italian cypresses, became lushly floral, colorful living spaces, with winding asymmetrical paths.

The second half of the book focuses on the botanical mania of Joseph Banks and his voyage with Captain Cook (ostensibly to witness the transit of Venus, but in fact secretly to explore the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita). Other colorful historical characters make their appearance in snippets of stories: Captain Bligh with his life-saving breadfruit trees; and Daniel Solander, pupil of Linneaus but, unlike his mentor, universally adored and revered. We witness the evolving of Banks from a brash, manipulative young man to an esteemed statesman whose contributions to the British empire were considerable.

18th century pictures pepper the pages of Wulf’s book, and she supplies a glossary, bibliography, and notes for the scientist. Her storytelling is compelling and lively. It inspires one to think about, if not investigate, the provenance of our own gardens. Exploring the Australian gardens at UCSC’s Arboretum would be particularly interesting after reading Brother Gardeners.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction

Posted by libwolf on Dec. 1, 2013 at 8 a.m.


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