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Nature’s art

We’re in Eden. The waters teem with living creatures and birds fly above the Earth. We navigate nature practically and spiritually. We hunt it, gather it, farm it, suffer it, copy it, shelter within and against it. We’re astonished by it. And having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we study it.

Skip millennia, to the mid-twentieth century, somewhere east of Eden, where we smoke like chimneys and protect our homes and crops with pesticides, against a backdrop of nuclear weapons testing on television – happily, as if the idea of tomorrow is missing from our brains. Enter the scientist and writer Rachel Carson to spoil the party with her case against the misuse of chemicals in the control of nature. ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’, the first chapter of her book Silent Spring, paints this scene: ‘There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings’ of farms and orchards and woods, wildflowers and birds and clear streams, until ‘a strange blight crept over the area … a shadow of death.’

Silent Spring hit us hard. Lyrical, scientific, prophetic, it quickly became a bestseller and is now regarded as one of the most important books ever written. But in the fifty years since its first publication our slow learning has had dire consequences. We are struggling to protect creatures and habitats from further demise. Bees, for example. Carson describes the effects of one of the elixirs of death, the organophosphate parathion, which was widely sprayed as an insecticide on fruit trees, cotton and rice: ‘Honey bees become “wildly agitated and bellicose” on contact with it, perform frantic cleaning movements, and are near death within half an hour.’ People were endangered too. ‘The amount used on California farms alone could, according to one medical authority, “provide a lethal dose for five to ten times the whole world’s population”.’ When entire colonies of bees are wiped out by parathion and other poisons, like the once extensively used organochlorine DDT, a wide range of crops, including some of our favourite foods – apples, berries, nuts – will not be pollinated, will not flourish. Carson stresses the relationship between nature and us, the decision makers. What we now call Colony Collapse Disorder, in relation to the demise of bees, might equally apply to humans too stupid to heed warnings.

Post-Silent Spring, and after decades of similar studies, relaxed stupidity is no longer an option. We are now better informed on environmental issues. Knowledge is no longer plucked from biblical trees, it is at our fingertips. Carson’s bequest was to inspire us to make scientific observations. She was one of the pioneers of the great twentieth-century revival of interest in nature and natural history. And her heirs are not only celebrity scientists like David Attenborough and Brian Cox, but novelists and poets and historians and rangers, and everyday enthusiasts: twitchers, divers, gardeners, collectors, walkers, local activists.

In Australia, one woman who follows in Carson’s footsteps is Penny Olsen. She has worked as a field biologist and ecological consultant. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics at the Australian National University and writes books about Australian natural history. She is a prolific author, having already produced four books in the first half of 2013: the two reviewed here, on the Cayleys and the botanist Ferdinand von Mueller’s women artists, as well as A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald and Have You Seen My Egg, a children’s book. There are more in production.

If popular science is to reach a wide audience, it has to tell a good story. It is in this spirit that the preface to Cayley & Son leaps into narrative action. We are told that Neville Henry Cayley (1854-1903) is

often portrayed as a hard-drinking, peripatetic bird artist, and indeed this claim appears to have some substance. He was also a highly talented painter when he put in the effort. It is usually said that he was born at sea off Dover, or in the town itself, to a sea captain, but in fact he was born in Norwich and was the son of a silk merchant.

Uncertainty also surrounded the spelling of his name, date of birth, date of arrival in Australia, and the status of some of his work, which was often copied by others, and by himself. After arriving in Melbourne in the late 1870s, Neville Henry made money by painting and lost it by drinking. Because of debt, he moved constantly between the New South Wales towns of Grafton, Yamba, Ballina, Casino, Woonona and Bowral, and the Sydney suburbs of Petersham, Glebe, Balmain and Waverley. In Yamba in 1885, he married Lois Emmeline Gregory, and she and their children shared his itinerant life, supported by his growing reputation as a bird artist and, in that field, as an especially good colourist. For its stark beauty, his depiction of the mid-air death gasp of an Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides, 1894) is one of his best known works. Olsen points out that around the time of Federation, when our national identity was stirred, Australian birds became icons, and by the time Cayley died and was buried at Sydney’s Waverley cemetery in 1903, he had produced over 1500 kookaburra paintings. He never achieved his dream of publishing a book of Australian birds; that baton passed to his son.

Neville William Cayley was born 1886 in Yamba; he was 17 when his father died. A few years later, he began exhibiting his own work alongside his father’s. In 1917, he married Beatrice Lucy Doust in Marrickville. Cayley junior earned his living and reputation with book illustrations, and valiantly met the country’s ever-growing demand for images of kookaburras. But he also had an ornithologist’s eye and a conservationist’s awareness of the relationship between birds and their habitat. With other contributors, he was commissioned by Angus & Robertson to illustrate a book of Australian birds, which was to appear in 60 monthly instalments, but the artist could not keep up the pace and the project was cancelled. These were dark days, when Cayley was also mourning the loss of his wife, his sister and his niece. He turned to journalism, with a weekly article for the Sydney Mail, and illustrated Feathered Minstrels of Australia (1926), with text by his friend Alec Chisholm. By the late 1920s, Angus & Robertson had restarted the bird-book project and with support from the Gould League, Cayley went on to publish What Bird Is That? A Guide to the Birds of Australia in 1931. Since that time, many field guides to Australian birds have been published, but this one is still the classic. As well as an artist and scientist, Cayley was an educator and activist. He advocated against destruction: against those ornithological traditions that took shooting and trapping and egg collecting for granted. Among other achievements, he was part of a protest against the felling of trees in the Royal National Park. He died in 1950.

Olsen’s books cast a wide net. They are always well researched and beautifully written. She has a knack for storytelling and trusting that a story carries its message without further prompting. Beyond factual outlines, it’s her insights and digressions that enliven the subject. Such as the notion that Cayley senior’s occasional painting of canaries recalls his home town of Norwich, famous for the breeding of canaries. Olsen includes an anecdote about one breeder who fed his birds red peppers to achieve their luminous orange plumage and explains (for readers new to this game) that ‘“Colour feeding” was briefly regarded as cheating, but soon everyone was doing it to improve the fancy.’ She points out that in science, this kind of experiment informs the nature-versus-nurture debate. Or, describing Neville William Caley’s love of the sea and his founding membership of the Cronulla surf life saving club, she encapsulates a cultural history of Australian surfing and sunbathing – which were ‘regarded as somewhat scandalous activities at the time’ –  and portrays this outspoken young man as ‘an effective voice for surf lifesaving … becoming a voice for the birds’. Fittingly, his illustrations are often of birds that appear to sing ‘their hearts out with beaks wide open’.

Collecting Ladies is a terrific title for a book about nineteenth century women artists who were in some way connected with Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-1896). It hints that, almost as ardently as he collected botanical specimens, Mueller collected ladies. In one swoop, the title captures different forms of collecting in science and culture, and its psychological dimension, as a kind of compulsion. Olsen makes the most of these layered meanings to describe an era and a milieu, as well as people’s more private worlds.

Mueller, a German-born pharmacist, arrived in Adelaide in 1847, moved to Melbourne in 1852, became Victoria’s first government botanist, and in 1857 was given the full directorship of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. To find plants, he travelled widely, including in the Flinders Ranges, the Alps of Victoria and New South Wales, the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers, and in 1855-6 with the Gregory Expedition to Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Beyond collecting and categorising, writing and lecturing, his great skill was networking, which in turn brought him many honours and medals. He exchanged an abundance of seeds, specimens and correspondence with other botanists around Australia and the world, communicating with Charles Darwin, William Jackson Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker in England (the Hookers alone are said to have received more than 100 000 plants), Asa Grey in America, August Petermann in Germany, Alphonse Pyramus de Candolle in Switzerland, and hundreds more. The three large volumes of his letters, Regardfully Yours (1998, 2002, 2006), are a triumph of biographic and scientific scholarship; incredibly, those volumes represent only a fraction of Mueller’s correspondence, since much has been lost.

To enrich his network, Mueller was in the habit of advertising in newspapers for ladies to work as collectors, illustrators and writers. Olsen notes that in Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century ‘most botanical roads led to him’. Intrigued by this ‘great bachelor botanist’, who was more than once engaged but never married, she has set out to write about those women who were drawn to nature, science and art, and not least to Mueller himself. Some are known to me: Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895), the Scott sisters Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910), Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872), Ellis Rowan (1848-1922). So I was delighted to be introduced to the lives and fine work of others: Fanny Anne Charsley (1828-1915), Anna Frances Walker (1830-1913), Fanny De Mole (1835-1866), Margaret Forrest (1844-1929), Rosa Fiveash (1854-1938), Gertrude Lovegrove (1859-1961), Flora Martin (1845-1923) and Marie Wehl (1862-1960). And for anyone who knows about Mueller’s closest encounter with matrimony – which has inspired operas, romance novels and various biographical interpretations – it is a real bonus to have the story of Euphemia Henderson (1820-1907) filled out beyond the usual anecdotes, and to see reproductions of some of her botanical illustrations.

In reading this book, one of my fascinations was with its mapping of scientific, artistic and social relationships in Australia and England in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and its pinpointing of individuals within these circles, with Mueller at the centre. For Anna Frances Walker, for example, who was keen to publish her work (comprising 1700 illustrations), Mueller acted as an advisor, and in turn asked her to collect plants for him. Louisa Anne Meredith’s connections included not only Mueller, but also the artist and garden designer Edward La Trobe Bateman, a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Bateman helped design some of her books. She corresponded with Sir Henry Parkes, and in London met with Sir Joseph Hooker.

As children in Sydney, the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena, had drawing lessons with Conrad Martens, their neighbour. When the family moved to Ash Island near Newcastle, Ludwig Leichhardt was a visitor. Later Helena met the great botanical artist and globetrotter Marianne North, who had been told by Charles Darwin that she must paint Australian flowers, and who crossed paths with the artists Ellis Rowan and Margaret Forrest during her time in Australia. The Scotts illustrated publications by scientists like Gerard Krefft, on snails and snakes and mammals; they also took on a range of commercial work.

Like several of the women in this book, Louisa Atkinson counted on the mentorship of the clergyman-botanist William Wools: he had a PhD from the University of Göttingen on the plants of the Parramatta region and was one of Mueller’s constant correspondents. Atkinson’s husband was James Snowdon Calvert, a botanist and member of Leichhardt’s first expedition of 1844-45; it is possible the couple met at a committee to organise a search for Leichhardt, who disappeared in 1848.

Fanny de Mole’s contact with Mueller was probably through her neighbour Frederick George Waterhouse, first curator of the South Australian Museum and first superintendent of Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens. Margaret Forrest, married to John Forrest (explorer and later first Premier of Western Australia), met Mueller when he visited Perth in 1877. She was friends with Ellis Rowan, who was in turn strongly influenced by North. And while Rosa Fiveash may not have known Mueller personally, she worked for someone who did.

Since natural science is often a collaborative activity – specimens and information are shared, and it is not unusual for one naturalist to continue where another left off – it is appropriate that Collecting Ladies is a collective biography. But this does not detract from the author’s attention to individual portraits. I’ll select just a few.

Louisa Atkinson was a writer, artist and naturalist, who lived at Sutton Forest, Kurrajong, Yass, and Berrima, in NSW. Olsen comments that

By the time Atkinson married, her nature writing had matured to crisply expressive accounts of her country rambles that were full of information – a breath of fresh air beside the heavily scientific contributions to the broadsheets by her male colleagues. The fact that she had written four novels probably helped to refine her style … Although she attained  a high level of botanical knowledge, she expressed her interest in a way that was acceptable for a woman of her times by sending her finds to experts and writing about them as part of local, nature-centred travelogues, not by naming plants and participating in scientific societies and publication.

Atkinson’s journalism often addressed ecological concerns. Mueller named a number of plants after her. She died in 1872, shortly after the birth of her first child. Her collections and much of her work have been destroyed or lost, including the manuscript of her book of Australian flora and fauna, which Mueller had sent to Germany to be engraved.

If Birmingham-born Louisa Anne Meredith loved England, she also loved and studied the Australian bush. Her own gardens were always a mix of native and exotic plants and she was an early conservationist. Mueller named the everlasting daisy in her honour, Antennaria meredithae (now Ewartia meredithae). She thanked him (with touching irony) for linking her to ‘the small immortelle found on Mount Olympus, in Tasmania’.

We are told that Fanny de Mole, suffering from tuberculosis and ‘confined to a wheelchair and the couch in England’, for a time became healthier and more mobile in Adelaide.

Ellis Rowan was one of the most successful and popular botanical artists; she won many prizes and once shared an award with one of Australia’s greatest landscape painters, Eugene von Guérard. But as Olsen points out, ‘the gendering of floral painting was well entrenched.’ Many men did not consider flowers as their domain, and ‘one legacy of this feminisation of floral art was a long debate about its artistic relevance.’ In Australia, the artist Tom Roberts thought Rowan’s work was decorative, Norman Lindsay called it vulgar, and an English reviewer called it ‘a wondrous monument to a weak woman’s activity’. But her travels increased, and her British and American reputation grew. In 1898, the New York Times suggested that, despite her delicate appearance, ‘her journeys entitle her to be called an explorer as well as a painter.’ In 1916, in her late 60s, she went to New Guinea.

Rowan’s work was more painterly, but the botanical art of Adelaide-based Rosa Fiveash ‘captured the detail necessary for true botanical reproduction’. Her work is so precise that her plants – especially her orchids – appear real enough to pick up off the page. But her high standards of Victorian realism, as Olsen points out, lost its public appeal: in the course of the twentieth century, her paintings were moved from the Art Gallery to the South Australian Museum and then to Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens.

Exhibiting or publishing botanical art wasn’t always easy. When Gertrude Lovegrove and William Baeuerlen, one of Mueller’s main collectors, co-produced Part 1 of The Wild Flowers of New South Wales (1881), with the idea that it was to be the beginning of a series, a reviewer suggested the book might suffer, because Australians ‘have not yet shown any very encouraging predilection for standard or even magazine literature of any kind’. Lovegrove’s other illustrations were never published.

‘Fungs’ was Mueller’s plural form of ‘fungus’. Fungi are difficult to preserve, so precise depictions were important. And this became the specialty of Mueller’s niece Maria Magdalena Wehl, and also Flora Mary Martin, one of the first ‘sisters of science’ to be admitted to the Field Naturalists Club.

Euphemia Henderson and Mueller read Byron together and collected seaweed on Phillip Island where she lived. In a letter, he called these his ‘algological rambles on your coast’.  They exchanged endearments and tokens; he named a plant after her, Nematolepis (now Rhadinothamnus) euphemiae. In Olsen’s words, ‘he was besotted.’ But from his surviving letters to Euphemia, it can be seen that within a short time his feelings cooled, and the engagement was broken off, apparently because he thought that she, at 42, was too old to have children. He asked her forgiveness. She continued to send him plants – in particular, seaweed – and they kept writing to each other; his letters to her were later discovered in the hidden compartment of a davenport he had given her.

For her birthday in 1864, Mueller sent Euphemia his latest work, a refutation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The following year, he tried to enlist her help in raising funds to finance an expedition to search for the lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. By then, he was already courting Rebecca Nordt, described in a letter to Sir William Hooker, as ‘a dear most gifted girl beaming in the beauty of youth’. She was sixteen. He named more than one plant after her.

Euphemia soon turned from painting exceptionally delicate botanical watercolours, to landscapes in oil. Like Mueller, she never married. Recently, amidst a miscellany of Mueller memorabilia kept at Melbourne’s Herbarium, I saw a gold chain and locket with Euphemia’s picture. I also saw the gold engagement ring he exchanged with Nordt. Criticised for making the Botanical Gardens more scientific than beautiful, in 1873 Mueller lost his directorship, to be replaced by William Guilfoyle, whom he described as someone with a ‘taste for growing daffodils for dandies’. Now, outside the Herbarium, a bust depicts Mueller as a sad-faced man with sloping shoulders and a chestload of heavy medals.

Someone who knew Mueller well described him as ‘a mental giant with the heart of a child’. Olsen sees him as ‘a remarkable and complex man: in turns exuberant and melancholic, generous and jealous, kind-hearted and selfish’. She suspects he might have been happier ‘if he had married Euphemia’.

In earlier times, the sciences were studied in close relation to one another. Although we have been assiduously separating scientific fields – ornithology is differentiated from oology, anatomy from psychology – their links are more important now than ever before. And those who observe these links – Rachel Carson and Penny Olsen, the Cayleys, Mueller and the botanical artists of his time – are becoming as interesting to us as the birds and plants and environmental issues that have focussed their attention. What draws them and us to nature?

The philosopher and musician David Rothenberg has an answer. He is one of the most creative and optimistic of all respondents to the threat of a ‘silent spring’. The author of Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song (2005), Survival of the Beautiful: Art Science and Evolution (2011), and most recently Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, he identifies visual and aural patterns and improvisations in nature – the interconnected beauty of it all – as a meeting ground of art and science. Reviewing Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful in the Guardian, Peter Forbes wrote:

Something is stirring in art and science that could have major consequences for our whole culture. Endless Forms, the 2009 Darwin exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, showed how biology in the nineteenth century helped to pave the way for the artistic revolutions that followed, an idea enthusiastically endorsed by David Rothenberg. But in the intervening 150 years a false dichotomy has grown up around nature, naturalistic art and abstract painting. Orchids, hummingbirds, the peacock’s tail have a beauty of form, pattern and colour that artists struggle to match – and these are abstract designs. Except when practising mimicry and camouflage (Rothenberg has an excellent chapter on these) nature is not copying anything: it just is – a vast pattern book of original designs. Darwin was acutely aware of this and admired the modelling of the ocelli on the argus pheasant tail feathers as ‘more like a work of art than of nature’.

In Bug Music, Rothenberg encourages listening. He recalls Rachel Carson, who

famously listened at night to a sound resembling a tiny bell, ringing over and over again. She named this creature ‘the fairy bell ringer’ and marveled at a voice ‘so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly … exactly the sound that should come from a bell held in the hand of the tiniest elf, inexpressibly clear and silvery, so faint, so barely-to-be heard that you hold your breath as you bend closer …’

He is amazed that this great biologist was so enraptured by the mystery of sound that she did not even think of scientifically identifying its origins. And he suggests that, even more than the music of birds and whales, ‘in their very distance, bugs invite attention and wonder.’ This is his theory: that ‘the great chorus of overlapping insect songs … complex, beautiful, and inviting … may have had the most direct influence on human musicality.’ Bug Music is a joyous, sometimes raucous, sometimes melodious, often scholarly and technical book, which offers orchestras of cicadas, crickets, beetles, and some human musicians (including Rothenberg himself on clarinet, saxophone, electronics and seljefløyte), noisily to defy the prospect of a ‘silent spring’. They pipe us back to Eden, whence we came. The book comes with a CD. My favourite, Track 13, features the Engraver Beetles who ‘are decimating the forests of the American West, some gobbling up pines, others into spruce.’ Because it is possible that extreme electronic sounds will destroy them, ‘this piece explores the possibility that sound can kill.’

It all hangs together. In the world of natural history, interconnections prevail. Some years ago I was so disturbed by the portrait of Ludwig Leichhardt in Alec H. Chisholm’s Strange Journey (1941), the book about Australian exploration that influenced the novelist Patrick White in his writing of Voss (1957), that I wanted to find out more about Chisholm. So I asked one of the gurus of Australian natural history, Andrew Isles, who offered a few anecdotes but suggested that – Chisholm being a ‘bird man’ – I take my questions to Tess Kloot, the ‘grand old lady of Australian birds’, who had known him and written about him. While Chisholm (at least, in his rage against Leichhardt) remains a bit of a mystery, Tess – ornithologist, archivist, educator and biographer – has become a friend. She has been an inspiration to many, and I dedicate this essay to her. Born 1923 in Footscray, Victoria, Tess Kloot, née Tatiana Alexandrovna Bulatova, turns 90 this year.

References

Peter Forbes, ‘Survival of the Beautiful,’ The Guardian (10 February 2012).
Ferdinand von Mueller, Regardfully Yours, edited by R. W. Home, A. M. Lukas, Sara Maroske, D. M. Sinkora, J. H. Voigt and Monica Wells, 3 vols. (Peter Lang, 1998, 2002, 2006).