Review of Atlas of Poetic Botany | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Atlas of Poetic Botany

Atlas of Poetic Botany
by Francis Hallé; translated by Erik Butler

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
128 pp., illus. 42 col. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 9780262039123.

Reviewed by
Mike Leggett
February 2019

Prof Hallé, who is in his 80th year, is somewhat given to iconoclastic statements: “My dream is to do away with the need for names and classifications and bring botany back to the study of the biology of plants.” For those of us who are not botanists (or scientists as such), this foreshadows an intervention into the world of Linnaeus that could topple taxonomies of every discipline. But as it transpires, no harm is intended; as a botanist of the high equatorial forests, he hopes the reader will discover ‘... a potent antidote to the woes that attend our modern life in the metropolis.’ His experience and his passions, curiously, avoid the woes we know are attending the forests themselves. The thirty plants featured in this cabinet of curiosities are organised into five sections grouping the behaviours peculiar to each plant: Records and Exuberance; Adaptations; Mysterious Behaviour; Coevolution Between Plants and Animals; and Biological Singularities. Travel has been a constant throughout the author’s career to all parts of the tropical world and the wow-factor is predominant. My favourite is one of the Bromeliads, an epiphyte growing high in the tops of the tropical forest, where like most plants of this kind, the leaves are formed close enough together to hold rainwater, as much as 20 litres in this species; “…exposed to sunlight, a whole ecosystem develops inside each hanging aquarium: frogs, molluscs, shrimp, insect larvae, and a kind of crab … dead leaves make compost where other animals live: Some researchers think that when the plant blooms, it turns carnivorous and kills off the fauna for the benefit of its own inflorescence at the bottom of the aquarium.”  Appropriately, the image is something of a metaphor for the pitiable state we have allowed the planet to reach and in particular the tropical forest where these plants grow.

Slim volumes about botanical curiosities have been standard fare for publishing since printing began, always risking the confusion of novelty with virtue. Such titles are often timed to appear before the end of year seasonal gift giving so it is a little surprising that The MIT Press has joined the tradition with this collection of strange plants. Curiously in the context of the imprint, the author introduces the subject with a digression into the efficacy of drawing as preferred to the photograph; ‘ the case of photography, the thinking belongs more to the person who has conceived and automated the camera than the person who uses it; .… In contrast, drawing – which relies more on the individual brain and hand and does so without technological mediation – is more directly the work of the artist.’

The artist, Éliane Patriarca, with whom he collaborates is clearly from a graphics background; the diagrams she makes eccentric to the tradition of botanical illustration, outlining the principles referred to in the text which itself occasionally seems to have lost something in translation. This reviewer with a special interest in orchids is offended when ‘mushroom’ is used to describe the specific and complex mycorrhizal fungal processes so crucial to orchids and many other plants. The avuncular tone adopted suggests the book is aimed at children between the ages of eight and thirteen, when interest in the wider world is alert but before critical reflexiveness can interrogate the evidence and hypotheses proposed. Anthropomorphising the natural world, as practiced in the entertainment industry, is irritatingly applied here as part of the approach. Does it really close the gap between humans understanding other species, or simply amplify their role as servants and slaves of humans? It raises the question of the bending of significance and meaning by a professional botanist and biologist being good pedagogical practice aimed at the young. Such subjectivity can by no means can be excused as being ‘poetic’, though at least the locations designated in the tiny atlas image at top left are accurate and useful. There is a (too) brief lexicon of botanical terms, no bibliography or index but overall attractively laid out and printed.