Flora

(Mostly about my life.)

In the mail from Steven Levine, a book he picked up for me at a flea market a while back (Steven collects things from flea markets, estate sales, and garage sales):

Farm Weeds of Canada (George H. Clark & James Fletcher, Dominion of Canada Department of Agriculture, 2nd ed., 1923 [1st ed. 1909])

Steven wrote that he had had

plans to have Plate 19 (Purple Cockle or Corn Cockle) framed as a gift. But the book was so beautiful I couldn’t bear to deface it… The plates are so painfully beautiful to me that I do sometimes think they could be better appreciated removed and framed, though.

… note — this seems to have been deaccessed from the Edison High School Library [in Minneapolis] — a huge inner-city school in an immigrant area (even in the 20s when this book was acquired). Of what use is the Canadian Government farmers guide to such a school? Which could explain why it escaped damage. I hope it brings you many hours of pleasure.

He couldn’t possibly have known how touching this gift was. The book takes me back to my childhood and then to my father’s young adulthood — and to the many years between my childhood and where I am now as an old man, closing in fast on my dad’s age when he died. (He told me about his leukemia by saying that he’d always secretly hoped to live to be 100, but that wasn’t going to happen, and that was because …); 75 was good, even if short of his dreams.)

The drawings are indeed fabulous. A couple of scanned items:

The book is a little miracle of public works, in the vein of the New Deal enterprises in the U.S. and of the USDA’s Yearbooks of Agriculture, which I collected in my young years (for instance, Trees in 1949 and a somewhat later Insects), though nothing I’ve seen from the USDA comes up to the artistry of their Canadian counterparts.

I had several of the USDA books as a kid, but they got sloughed off in the many moves (from one Pennsylvania house to a smaller one, then to New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, and California; my friend Ilse Lehiste maintained that three moves equals one fire, so I’ve been through two fires plus a bit over). Nevertheless, some things survived, and I have them still: my dad’s wildflower books from his visit to the family in Switzerland in the 30s.

There used to be lots of photos, of a young and smiling Arnold Zwicky (the first) climbing mountains and hanging out with his Swiss cousins, of the Jungfrau, and so on. I don’t know where they are, but they were probably victims of those Move Fires: my parents went from one place in Pennsylvania to another and then on to a series of places in California, and then my mother died in Solvang, and then my dad moved on to Arroyo Grande with my stepmother.

The wildflower books are treasures, and I’ve carried them with me through all my moves.

My dad gave them to me when I was still in grade school, the way my grandfather gave me personal things even though I was just one of his many grandchildren — a Canton Glarus cap I treasured but which has since vanished, and then, after his death, his engraved retirement pocket watch, a touching symbol of his life as a (willing) tool of the Industrial Revolution in service of the Textile Machine Works and of his rise to the middle class in a great social movement of the first half of the 20th century. (That I still have.)

Two wildflower books in particular:

Taschenflora des Alpen-Wanderers : 207 colorirte und 10 schwarze Abbildungen von verbreiteten Alpenpflanzen (by Ludwig Schröter, 1899) (link from the Biodiversity Heritage Library internet archive, where it can be viewed)

and Wilhem Troll’s Taschenbuch det Alpenpflanzen (1928)

The Schröter, held in my hands as I write this, was brought back from my dad’s Swiss visit, during which he not only climbed (modest) mountains and clowned around with his Swiss cousins, but also collected wildflowers, preserving them in a flower press that he brought back to the States and eventually passed on to me.

The same way he gave me his freshman English composition text at Penn State. Turns out he wanted to major in English rather than dairy husbandry, but then it was the Depression and he was the only one of the five kids to be able to go to college at all and he had to do that on an athletic scholarship and of course he had to major in Something Useful for a boy from the farm. He gave me his copy of Foerster and Steadman, which I have still and quote in my writing, before I went to Princeton. Now, of course, I have lots of composition handbooks, from this time and later, but this one is special.

He brought back those two Alpen-Flora guides. The Schröter seems to be precious, much sought after. It is, in fact, gorgeous. (It’s also a guide to plants from a hundred years ago and more.)

I went through it, page by page, many times as a child. (Eventually I grew some Edelweiss in my Columbus garden, though the environment wasn’t hospitable. It was a sentimental gesture towards Swissness.)

The Edelweiss page:

(The Edelweiss is the big white composite.)

My all-time favorite page was one of the gentian spreads, all intense blue:

(This was before I’d seen any actual gentians, so they were exotic plants for me.)

From roughly the same period, I have a wildflower guide in French that uses a flowchart / decision tree of characteristics to identify plants. Then, later, another German guide I picked up in the 60s in Cambridge MA. Then over the years many many guides in English for American plants, and from the early 70s, a guide to British wildflowers.

Back when my dad did his Swiss thing, he collected plants, and put them in that flower press, a pair of handsome wooden lattices with sturdy absorbent paper interleavings in between. I added my own collected flowers to his, and eventually my dad helped me get a second press, which I filled with plants from our neighborhood.

Lord knows what happened to the flower presses in all those moves. Probably they went the way of my rifle and the Yearbooks of Agriculture and so much else. Now, looking at the elegant drawings of Canadian weeds, I miss them terribly.

(Like Steven, I have seriously mixed feelings about  extracting these wonderful plates from their books. I know that there’s a small industry in ferreting these books out, cutting out the plates, framing them, and selling them. As a lover of books, I’m appalled. But they’re beautiful to see.)

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