“The beauty of a flower… may serve to awaken an interest in nature, which shall not sleep again.”
“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her stunning poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.”
When exactly the split happened is difficult to discern — this crossing-point at which human nature reached upward to its higher potential and downward to its darkest depths at the same time; this divide into “double consciousness,” to borrow Dr. Du Bois’s enduring term for another kind of damaging otherizing the human animal has perpetrated.
Is there a turning point in life that could have been one way or the other?
It could have been even earlier, if the science and art of botany had not enchanted our species with the wonders of the living universe.
Only for a short time, but around a century, beauty appeared to prevent entitlement.
It had all begun with a poem: A century before his grandson forever changed our understanding of how nature evolved, the physician, poet, abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coinage-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin published Botanic Garden — a book-length poem that used scientifically accurate metaphors to scintillate the popular imagination with the new science of sexual reproduction in plants. (“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin would write in his autobiography a century before Lucille Clifton named the kinship between organized beings in her stunning poem “cutting greens.”)
Published in 1791, Erasmus Darwin’s wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read. They did, however. Many chose botany. Many people who are artistically inclined brought their talents to the new science.
Clarissa Munger Badger, a botanist from America, was able to inspire a nation with her art. Anne Pratt (December 5, 1806–July 27, 1893) was doing the same in England.
Anne was poor in health and had knee problems since childhood. She grew up mostly indoors. Anne found inspiration in drawing, which helped her cope with the isolation of childhood and brought nature nearer to her.
When a family friend introduced her to botany, a new world of possibility burst open — she devoted herself to studying the science of the living world and perfecting her art.
At thirty-three, she made her tentative debut — no small feat for a woman in Victorian publishing — with a book titled The Field and Garden are the Woodlands. It was quietly received, but that didn’t matter — she had found her calling, and it fed her, and she fed it back to the world.
The artist continued to paint and write, punctuating natural history with poetry. Each year, she published an illustrated novel.
People started taking notice, moved by her passionate approach to botany, her keen understanding that a touch of the poetic does not dilute the scientific but deepens it (as we now know), her psychologically insightful and empathetic decision to go against the scowl of the academy and use the English rather than Latin names of plants, demolishing the wall of intimidation erected between lay people — especially women, who had no access to formal education in science — and the study of nature.
Anne Pratt was a beloved Victorian botanical illustrator by the time that she reached her forties. She was highly praised and admired by Queen Victoria.
Because of her talents and dedication, she was financially independent, so she didn’t have to get married out of poverty, unlike many other women in her time. At sixty, she was in love and married.
Anne Pratt was closest to naming her personal credo from her books in her preface for her natural history on the seashore. But it can be applied to any of her other works.
We could track the mental histories of the great naturalists. It would be interesting to see if many of those who have dedicated their lives to science had first focused their attention on it. Linnaeus can recall listening to a conversation or, like Sir Joseph Banks’, thinking about the beauty of a bloom. Reading a small volume such as this on everyday things may awaken a love for nature that will not go away.
Her books were portable awakenings, extending a ravishing invitation to paying attention — that elementary particle of wonder that shimmers in every excellent scientist and every excellent soul.
Nowhere does this ethos shine more brilliantly than in The Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges, and Ferns of Great Britain and Their Allies the Club Mosses, Pepperworts, and Horsetails — her six-volume, two-decade labor of love and knowledge, detailing more than a thousand species with hundreds of exquisite illustrations, which established this late-blooming visionary as one of the greats — the first volume was published in the final year of Anne’s forties, the last a year after she got married.
When the series first appeared, Anna Atkins had already revolutionized scientific illustration with the world’s first science book illustrated with photographs. Photographic technology was not yet able to revolutionize our perceptions and style, nor the history and evolution of science or art. Although still young, the technology was expensive and cumbersome. It also suffered from slow acceptance of new ideas. The primary science of illustration remained, while botany was only just beginning to take off.
Anne Pratt’s illustrations besotted readers with the beauty of this world and went on to inspire generations of botanists, artists, and ordinary people who hungered for intimacy with nature. By the final year of her century — when she had already returned her atoms to the soil she so cherished, having outlived her era’s life expectancy twofold — her oft-reprinted series was celebrated as “the standard popular work upon British Flora.” Her illustrations continued to be widely beloved — and widely plagiarized — for a century.
Today, with every species she painstakingly painted instantly available in trillions of digital photographs depicting its littlest detail from every imaginable angle, the illustrations might appear to some useless — fossils of a bygone epoch from the evolution of seeing.
However, I feel that they still have a little bit of their human touch, something that radiates the passionate attention this Victorian middle-aged woman gave to millions, in spite of all the odds.
Over the years, these plates, time-yellowed, whisper their stubborn, silent insistence that Nature is also them.
Complement with 21st-century artist Rosalind Hobley’s haunting cyanotype portraits of flowers, pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s gorgeous early-20th-century paintings of Rocky Mountain wildflowers, French artist Étienne Denisse’s 19th-century illustrations of the most luscious plants of the Americas, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-century illustrations for the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then revisit Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study — the century-old field guide to wonder that laid the foundation of the youth climate action movement.
Donating = Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.