This time of year, I am in love with the word botanical. Ephemeral spring wildflowers bloom with abandon here in the Green Springs, on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument: mariposa lily, scarlet fritillaries, Oregon buttercups, grass widows, Douglas irises, calypso orchids. Even before I learned to match the names to the correct flowers, walks through the meadow sent me into rapturous delight. My happiest day this month came when I spent the day accompanying a botanist on a survey of the rare, endangered and endemic Gentner’s fritillary on Bald Mountain in the Applegate Valley. Finding these finely wrought bell-shaped flowers, flecked with red and yellow like a specialty stained glass, was the best game of hide-and-seek I’ve played since childhood. (Steven David Johnson, my husband, posted a few pics of that outing on Hothouse’s Instagram account.)
I’m making my way through a biography about David Douglas, The Collector, by Jack Nisbet. Between 1824 and 1834, Douglas spent years of his life traipsing across the Pacific Northwest collecting specimens, seeds, bulbs, cones, and other plant parts to send back to the London Horticultural Society. Although poor Douglas was constantly losing hard-gained specimens to river currents, mischievous children, and other accidents, many of them safely arrived to the Society where they were cultivated for the fancy gardens of England’s elite. The blooming flowers were then drawn and painted for illustrations in the burgeoning scientific publishing industry. Many Pacific Northwest species were named after the collector, David Douglas, including the famous Douglas-fir tree. This illustration by M. Hart, of an iris named after Douglas, was originally published in 1829 in Edwards’s Botanical Register:(Browse more botanical illustrations at: plantillustrations.org.)
Going further back in time, I’m also reading a biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, botanical illustrator extraordinaire of late-seventeenth century Holland. Her naturalistic-yet-stylized flowers and caterpillar studies helped to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation in her time, and continue to impress centuries later. Kim Todd’s Chrysalis tells the story of Merian’s life and contribution to the arts and sciences.
But let’s return from our time-traveling expedition to the present day and consider a contemporary artist whose work touches the same nerve in me as those fantastic classic botanical illustrations, partly because of its resemblance to those earlier days of botanical illustration and other drawings related to natural history, but partly for its contrast, its quirkiness, its surreal qualities.
Consider the curious and extraordinary work of Elizabeth Haidle, illustrator who makes her home in Taos, New Mexico, and travels elsewhere, too, responding to the places around her in sketches, drawings, and notes. She blends elements of the natural and human-made world with wild imagination to create fictional narrative art that fosters a spirit of playfulness and wonder.
With regard to place, Beth says, “I find that I have a large amount of peace of mind in northern New Mexico for some reason. And I feel that at the end of the day, the moments where I’ve found True Calm are the ones lingering in my mind as the best part. . . I do like to walk or hike the same routes repetitively. Maybe I like the way it sort of organizes my thoughts, so that it’s not so chaotic in my mind. New locations are good for adventures, but I find excitement there and not so much the calm.”
I resonate with Beth’s words, although for me, the place where I’ve found peace of mind and something like “True Calm” is here in southern Oregon, hiking the woodland paths lined with scarlet fritillaries. I focus my attention on a particular blossom and, for the time being, that’s all the world there is.