Children, Youth and Environments
Vol 13, No.1 (Spring 2003)
Anne Ophelia Dowden
Botanical Artist and Author 1
Citation: Dowden, Anne Ophelia. “Anne Ophelia Dowden, 1907- .” Children, Youth and Environments 13(1), Spring 2003. pp. 23-47. Retrieved [date] from http://cye.colorado.edu.
This autobiographical essay chronicles Anne Ophelia Dowden’s youth, spent observing nature in wild and manicured places, and her career as an illustrator and author of more than 15 botanical books, many of them created for young people. From a childhood filled with “exclamations of wonder” through an adult life rich with experience, she has for the past 96 years sustained an ongoing pursuit of her deep interests in the natural environment, an intense devotion to environmental education and an unmatched patience in her work.
As a young woman, Dowden left her childhood home in Boulder, Colorado, to attend Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) where she graduated with a degree in art in 1930. Seeking to publish her work, Dowden then moved to New York City. After managing the art department at Manhattanville College for more than 20 years, she embarked on a flourishing freelance career, and became renowned for the technical accuracy and artistic beauty of her work. Her paintings are frequently exhibited alongside those of the younger artists she inspired. The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Dowden’s alma mater recently published the first retrospective catalog of her paintings, Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden: A Blossom on the Bough. Now settled at the foot of the mountains in which she first collected blossoms and spied on insects, the artist reflects on a life well lived.
Affectionately called the “grandmother” of contemporary botanical artists in the U.S., Dowden is best known for her intricate watercolors of flowers. With a keen eye for the color of life and a scientist’s fascination with the workings of nature, she brings our attention down to earth. Even in the least hospitable urban environments, she finds the green among the gray. Weeds that grow in patches of city soil become fascinating studies of survival in Dowden’s steady hand. A long-time resident of Manhattan, the artist was motivated to search out the native botanical denizens of city streets in the early 1970s. She compiled a primer for young urban dwellers, Wild Green Things in the City: A Book of Weeds. The book, now out of print, speaks eloquently of the challenges and opportunities of growing up in cities, for both plants and children: “Our city wild flowers grow in earth that is packed hard, with few spaces for the vital water film to collect around soil particles. … It is important to find out what traits give some plants the ability to do so well in spite of so many difficulties.”
Dowden has devoted much of her work to communicating the wonders of nature to young people, writing and illustrating volumes that inspire scientific engagement and close examination of nature. She reminds us that to truly see, we must learn. CYE republishes this essay, accompanied by an exhibit of select work, in the interest of children, with the hope that reading it will inspire adults everywhere to help young people cultivate their innate curiosity in their natural surroundings.
- Darcy Varney
University of Colorado
Anne Ophelia Dowden
The great botanist Linnaeus, who devised our system for classifying and naming all the plants on earth, also classified botanists. One kind on his list is the species "much given to exclamations of wonder." I guess I am an example of that species.
At least I am intensely aware of the world of plants and animals that so completely encloses us human beings. And I am always surprised that there are people not aware of it- people who do not realize that if it were not there they would not be there either, and that the environment is more than a nice place for a vacation. Getting acquainted with this natural world is tremendously important, and caring about it is the moral duty of every person who shares its benefits.
But few moral duties are so much fun in their performance. Just looking at flowers and birds and trees is a pleasure. Then when one progresses to the point of investigating their complicated structures and functions and their intricate relation to each other, pleasure becomes amazement and excitement. That is when one begins to utter those exclamations of wonder.
Ever since I learned about these things for myself, I have wanted to let other people in on the delectable secrets, and in all my books I have hoped that I could make young people aware of this entertainment that is so close around them. After the fun, they will begin to understand the relationships of all the earth's small organisms and then recognize the great accumulated forces that shape our lives on this planet.
I was lucky enough to meet these wonders very early- when I was growing up at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I was born in Denver, Colorado, on September 17, 1907, and there I spent the first three years of my life- years I now know only from family stories and photographs. All my memories of childhood begin after we moved to nearby Boulder, into the house that was to be "home" to my family until my mother died there sixty years later. That house is now part of someone else's life, but Boulder is still "home" to me, even though I have lived in New York for more than fifty years.
When I was growing up there, Boulder was a wonderful place for children. It was then a very small university town snuggling against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
West of the town, the steep slopes of those foothills rose, with great rock slabs laid against them- the Flatirons. At the base of the Flatirons, dry grassy mesas reached out eastward toward the prairies. Westward, beyond the, rocky hills, there were glimpses of snowcapped distant peaks.
All this belonged to us children, as well as the open grassy fields that lay between the mesas and our house- fields now vanished under streets and lawns and houses. There we played and wandered, and then went on to explore the hills and picnic in the canyons. We got to know their every rock and lonesome tree, as well as most of the animals and birds and insects that lived in them.
Boulder's only industry was the University of Colorado, and as faculty children my sister and I were part of it long before we became college students ourselves. We took part in the university's fetes and commencements, attended its theater and concerts, used its libraries and museums, and cheered its football teams. Our neighbors and family friends were all professors, and some were very important in our lives.
My father, James Campbell Todd, was head of the Department of Clinical Pathology in the university's School of Medicine. Born in Ohio and educated in Pennsylvania, he was an intern in a Pittsburgh hospital when he met the nurse who became his wife, Edith Brownfield. He had intended to settle in Ohio and join his father in medical practice there, but the young couple was scarcely married when his health broke down and they had to transfer their lives to the kinder climate of Colorado. In Denver he began to devote himself entirely to pathology, and in a few years he became so well known in that field that he might be called the father of clinical pathology in this country.My mother was not a college graduate and not intellectually inclined, but she moved easily among the other faculty wives. She was devoted to her husband, nursed him when necessary, and managed all our lives with the greatest efficiency and love.
Bad health plagued my father all through his rather short life, but it did not prevent his teaching, taking part in university affairs, administering the Pathology Department, and writing Clinical Diagnosis by Laboratory Methods. This book became a basic text in every medical school in America and in many other countries as well. Our whole family was interested in it- my sister and I read proof when we were still in grade school- and so, when any of us spoke of The Book, we didn't mean the Bible, we meant Clinical Diagnosis!
But our house was full of all kinds of books and, as soon as I could read, I began to sample them. There were the children's classics, from Grimm and Andersen fairy tales through Little Women to Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. I devoured them all and then moved on into our sets of Dickens and Mark Twain and Poe. We also had a number of animal and insect books written for children and, as we grew older, the complete works of Henri Fabre, the great French entomologist.
My sister Edith was just two years younger than I, near enough so that we played together and, with her special chum and mine, made a foursome that spent its playtime in make-up games, impersonating princes and princesses, traveling to imaginary lands, and concocting witches' brews. We had several secret societies, usually with pseudo-Greek initials, in imitation of the names of campus fraternities. Sometimes we played with other neighborhood children and occasionally had enough players for a rather skimpy baseball game, but mostly we lived in our own world of imagination. And in my solitary hours, I was always drawing.
There was one other important member of our family- Peter, our handsome little auburn-colored cocker spaniel. From the time I was a baby, a succession of dogs and cats had come and gone, but Peter was something special: he really shared our childhood. We got him as a small puppy when I was ten years old, and he was part of all our activities for fifteen years. He went with us everywhere and he probably thought he was a child too. He certainly thought he could do anything we could- he played ball with us, climbed rocks, and slid down chute-the-chutes. Once when we had climbed up a ladder onto a shed roof, we were amazed to see Peter's head appear at the top of the ladder. He scrambled onto the roof, but when it came to getting back down, he had to be carried.
All during my childhood, I was crazy about horses, but we almost never had a chance to ride. Except geographically, Boulder was not a part of the Wild West. There were no cowboys, and the few small ranches on the surrounding prairies had nothing at all to do with the life of the town. But once in a while someone turned up with horses to rent- or, more often, burros- and then for a few hours we delightedly became horsemen.
In those days, skiing was not the popular sport it is now in Colorado. We never owned a pair of skis, and neither did anyone we knew. But, with plenty of snow and good hills, sledding was popular and we always made good use of our Flexible Flyers in the winter. In the summer, we roller-skated- often on macadam streets so free of traffic that they were as safe as the sidewalks, and much smoother.
In Colorado's dry, sunny climate, we were out-of-doors a great deal, whether playing or probing. Our parents did not think it at all peculiar when my sister and I spent hours feeding spiders and antlions, watching caterpillars change into chrysalids, and investigating crawling creatures in general. I collected and drew any living thing that came my way, especially insects and flowers, and the study of nature was my absorbing hobby.
But it was always a hobby. From earliest childhood, I never had the slightest doubt that I would be an artist when I grew up. And in those years I never even thought of being a nature artist: the models I admired were the women painters Rosa Bonheur and Vigee LeBrun. My father and mother were not disturbed by this, though with their medical background they would have been very happy to produce a couple of scientists. They encouraged all my ambitions- with private drawing lessons and, in my teens, with a summer at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs.
Also in my teens, when a new edition of my father's book was in preparation, the artist who was making the color illustrations stayed with us- a friend of my parents, John Rennell. "Mr. John," as we children called him, was a highly accomplished watercolorist. He knew nothing at all about the blood cells and crystals he saw through the microscope, but guided by my father's explanations, he made beautiful paintings of them. I watched him with fascination. He introduced me to transparent watercolor and taught me more about it than anyone else ever did, so watercolor became, and has remained all these years, my special medium. That winter I was allowed to make a half-dozen small drawings for the book; they were my first published work- a tremendous thrill.
My father's parents also were an important part of our lives, even though they lived in Ohio. They often visited us and we occasionally visited them. Grandma Todd was a gentle, almost angelic, person who endeared herself to everyone who knew her. We loved her and were impressed by her quiet goodness, but she died when I was only ten, and it was Grandpa Todd's imposing and much less virtuous presence that we felt for all of his ninety-nine and a half years. A distinguished doctor in the Ohio town of Wooster, he was also a very accomplished amateur archaeologist and geologist. His collections of Indian relics and of minerals and stones eventually went to the Ohio State Museum, but while he lived they lay in cabinets all over his big fourteen-room house. We saw them only rarely during our childhood, but later- during my years in college- I spent a lot of time in my grandfather's romantic house and its beautiful yard. Grandpa, of course, loved to show me his specimens and tell me about them. And when he visited us, he had to admire my butterfly collection.
My butterflies were more interesting to two of our friends and neighbors, the noted entomologist T. D. A. Cockerell and his biologist wife. When we were very little, they patiently responded every time we pounded on their door to ask the name of some bug or animal or flower. Later they answered more complicated questions, and then they taught us formally in high school and college. Both of the Cockerells were interested in young people and I was only one of their protégés, but I always felt especially close to them. Their generosity and concern followed me as long as they lived- it even opened doors for me years later when I was living in New York and beginning to make friends at the Museum of Natural History there. They were almost second parents.All this was part of our education, but we didn't think of it that way while we were spending the usual years in public school. Like most college towns, Boulder had excellent schools, and from the earliest grades, I enjoyed them. In high school, most of our instructors were stimulating, and several of them were truly wonderful teachers. I have been grateful all my life for the thorough training I received, especially in Latin, French, and biology. But high school, of course, included a lot of activities that did not take place in the classroom. I belonged to several clubs and was president of the Art Club and the Nature Club. I attended enough parties and dances not to feel left out, though by no means enough to be rated "popular." I made drawings for the yearbook and won a prize in a poetry contest for a poem about a water nymph!
All in all, those years, though not without the usual doubts and pains of adolescence, were generally pleasant. Surprisingly, my happiest memories are not of things like our dancing classes and bridge parties, but rather of making discoveries in science and literature, and spending hours with my father, reading to him my homework translations of Cicero and Virgil.
One incident that occurred while I was in high school had little importance at the time but became an amusing sequel later. Two university student editors were expelled because of something they printed in the college newspaper. My parents knew the family of one of them and talked about the scandal enough that I remembered it when, years later, I came to know the two by reputation. One became a leading international authority on American Indians; and the other, Hal Borland, became an outstanding writer, widely known for a weekly column in the New York Times. In the 1960s, I discovered that Hal lived in Salisbury, Connecticut, near the place where I then spent my summers. We became good friends and collaborated on a number of magazine articles and books.
Since I had a scholarship to the university, I went there for a year, and again I received solid, no-nonsense training, especially in English classes that taught us fundamentals like sentence structure and punctuation. (These can be taught. I have no sympathy with the now-popular "creative writing" courses, since all artists and writers must provide their own creativity and must foster it themselves with practice.)
Being a university freshman, of course, was not only hard work; it was a new and slightly scary experience. But much of the new experience was fun, like belonging to a sorority. I was fortunate enough to be asked to join Delta Gamma, the sorority I had been particularly interested in all my life and had most wanted to belong to. As a town girl, living at home, I didn't completely share the life of those in the sorority house, but I did share many new friendships and new activities, all bits of the web of student affairs. And then, when I had just begun to feel myself a part of all this, I left it.The University of Colorado in the 1920s did not have an art department. So to study painting and illustration, I had to go somewhere else and my father chose Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie-Mellon University), which was one of the few art schools that gave a college degree.
It seemed very far away, even though I had relatives in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Leaving home is always a big step in a young person's life and I was miserably homesick for a long time. Those nearby relatives didn't cure my doldrums, but they did help, and I finally had a chance to get acquainted with all my Eastern cousins. I couldn't afford to go all the way home to Colorado for short holidays like Christmas and Easter, so I spent them with my Ohio grandfather or my mother's family near Pittsburgh. Several of my cousins were almost my age and also home on college vacations, and we had a lot of fun together. We also developed the kind of lasting friendships one doesn't always have with relatives.
In spite of my homesickness, Carnegie Tech was a great adventure; at last I was really learning all about the techniques and materials of my chosen profession. I liked my teachers, the courses they taught, and my fellow students, especially the one who eventually became my husband- Raymond Baxter Dowden.
After three years at Tech, I graduated in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Determined to illustrate books, I went where books were published- New York City. Such a move is always precarious, but it was especially precarious at a time when publishers had little money to spend, and even established artists were begging for work. Trudging the streets with samples was even more discouraging than it normally is, and after a few months I gratefully accepted the offer of a teaching job at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn- though teaching was the last thing I wanted to do.
A year later my sister came to New York, freshly graduated from the University of Colorado with a fellowship at New York University's business school. We moved into an apartment, where we barely managed to pay the rent and feed ourselves on the proceeds of my two half-days of teaching and her scholarship. We learned lessons in economy that we have never forgotten.
But I had plenty of time to continue study- in a painting class at the Art Students League and a mural atelier at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. With my interest in the microscopic rather than the panoramic, I was definitely not a mural painter, but the Beaux Arts classes proved to be extremely interesting and valuable. There we got to know a number of New York's important architects- the skyscraper men who were changing the look of the city. One of them, Ely Jacques Kahn, asked a group of us students to design and execute a mural for one of his buildings at the Chicago World's Fair of 1934. By the time we finished his job, we got along so well that five of us joined together, dubbed ourselves the American Design Group, and, with no experience, started designing wallpapers and drapery fabrics. The venture succeeded, and for fifteen years we sold steadily to the high-style decorators' market.
But this free-lance work was only part time. I had discovered that, in spite of my original antipathy, pedagogy suited me very well, and in 1932, I began to teach at Manhattanville College in Manhattan. I was the first chairman of its art department and for a time the only member. It was a rewarding job that I enjoyed, my department grew, and I was very proud of the degree program I built during the twenty-some years I stayed there.In the meantime, in Pittsburgh, Ray Dowden had also graduated from Carnegie Tech and had also gratefully taken a teaching job- two small jobs, in fact, in a settlement house and in Tech's night school. Our letters traveled regularly between New York and Pennsylvania and occasional visits were possible, but both of us were tied firmly in place by the national economy.
We were able to spend some time together in the summers, because both of us received fellowships to the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, on Long Island. In those early days, Mr. Tiffany still lived in his Oyster Bay mansion, and each summer he invited groups of young artists to live and work on his estate. There was space for ten men and five women, who came for one-month or two-month stays. A residency was a period of very hard work painting in the fields and woods every day, followed in late afternoons with swimming in the bay, and in the evenings with games in the big recreation room. Mr. Tiffany came himself every weekend to follow the progress of his young fellows. (After his death, the Tiffany Fellowships became money grants only.) Since Ray was invited to the Foundation twice and I was there three times, our stays sometimes overlapped.Finally, in 1934, we felt confident enough to get married. During his spring vacation, Ray came to New York, and on Easter Sunday we were married in New York's ancient St. Paul's Church. Then, after a few days in the city, Ray went back to his job in Pittsburgh and I returned to mine at Manhattanville. But teachers have good free summers, and when June arrived we were able to set out on a long car trip to Colorado. It was the first of many such trips and it was Ray's introduction to the vast spaces of the United States and to the Rocky Mountains. I couldn't wait to show him what real mountains were like, since I had for years been pooh-poohing the insignificant Alleghenies.
That fall Ray moved nearer New York, with a job in a private school in Darien, Connecticut. At least we could spend weekends together. And after a couple of years we finally lived together full time, when he began to teach in Manhattan at Cooper Union. There he soon became head of the Art Department and directed it for more than thirty years.
So we both taught and, when not in school, we worked together in our studio on our free-lance projects, helping each other solve problems, exchanging criticism and approval. In those years of my textile designing and teaching, the scientific study of plants played no part. But, since drapery fabrics have always used flowers as an important motif, I often sketched plants as reference material. And nature was still a very satisfying hobby. During our summer vacations, Ray and I drove all over the United States, drawing, painting, observing wherever we went. Occasionally we went abroad- to Europe, Mexico, or Canada.
It was during World War II that I finally got close to plants again. Our good friend Floyd Starr, founder and director of the Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Michigan, needed help tending the school's thousand-acre farm. We were very interested in the school's educational and sociological activities, but during our several summers there we were purely field laborers, chiefly in the big vegetable gardens. We worked hard and we thoroughly enjoyed the days of activity in the open air, but sometimes, while my husband conscientiously hoed the carrots and spinach, I dropped my tools and squatted in the fields to look closely at some ordinary weed. Those unwanted wildflowers were interesting in many different ways- some, for instance, had been used by the Indians as food or medicine. I made paintings of all I had time for.
Very soon I had a use for those paintings. A sabbatical leave from Manhattanville gave me the opportunity to make a number of fully documented color plates of edible wild plants. Then I set out to find a publisher. I envisioned the drawings as prints in a portfolio, but no one was interested in such an expensive project during the war years, and it was some time before Life magazine used nine of them in an article. Then several other picture stories for Life followed, and at last I was introduced to botanical illustration.
Combining my hobby with my profession in this way was so satisfactory that, at the age of forty-eight, I resigned from my teaching, gave up textile design, and finally began the work I had been moving toward all my life. After a number of illustration projects for Life, House Beautiful, and Natural History, which required research as well as painting, it was only a short step into bookmaking, i.e.: writing, designing, and illustrating my own books.
The first book, Look at a Flower, was done under the guidance of Elizabeth Riley, head of T. Y. Crowell's children's book department. I showed her an outline of what I wanted to do, with sketches of the intricate flower parts that were the basis for my story. She liked the idea, gave me a contract, and- guiding with a firm hand- gave me my first lessons in putting a book together. Though Look at a Flower was not illustrated in full color, it was always one of my favorites until it went out of print twenty-two years later.
Look at a Flower was scarcely finished when Western Publishing asked me to do several books for their "Odyssey Library" series. This delightful series of very small, full-color volumes included a range of subjects from sailing ships to butterflies, all written by experts in the various fields. It was the brainchild of Ole Risom, and working closely with him taught me still more about the technical problems of planning and producing books.
Since then, I have seldom been without a work-in-progress. Sometimes publishers come to me with their ideas or with projects of other writers who need illustrations; sometimes I take an idea of my own to an editor. Many of my books began as magazine articles, chiefly for Natural History and Audubon. Fellow Coloradoan Hal Borland wrote the text for several of the Audubon picture stories and also for a couple of my books. He was a delightful collaborator and so were other author-partners, like Robert Crowell (The Lore and Legends of Flowers), Jessica Kerr (Shakespeare's Flowers), and Phyllis Busch (Wildflowers and the Stories Behind Their Names).
But, happy as these partnerships were, I have always most enjoyed the books I write myself. All their intricate research- pulling blossoms apart to learn their innermost structure or sitting hours in a marsh beside an orchid to watch its moth-pollinator at work- brings me close to the natural world I love.
That kind of on-the-spot research taught me the botany I never studied in school. Though I'd had excellent courses in biology and zoology, I still had to learn for myself the details of the character and function of plant parts and the organization of the great floral kingdom. Pursuing this knowledge in the library and herbarium of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I soon found a wonderful friend and helper in George Kalrnbacher, the Garden's taxonomist. For years he was my tutor, always ready to share in my discoveries, interpret my research, and check my manuscripts for even the smallest errors.
All this was very different from teaching and textile design, but I soon discovered that the long detour had not been entirely a waste of time. From teaching I had learned how to explain things to young people, and I have always designed flower paintings in much the same way that I designed textiles, with carefully worked out compositions. This seems to me to be the only way to raise botanical art above mere mechanical reporting. Though I am intensely interested in visible facts such as the minute details of plant structure, the textures of leaf and petal, and the play of light across surfaces, I think these details can be selected and arranged to provide harmony, rhythm, and balance in a finished composition.
These convictions have led to what is probably the world's slowest working method. Accurate and detailed research paintings nearly always come before any finished illustration. Working only from living plants, I make drawings as slowly or as rapidly as the wilting specimen allows. Later I repaint these plants in the arrangement needed for a particular project, picking out sections of the research paintings and making changes in position of parts or pattern of dark and light. My research paintings now number several hundred and they are always useful references for projects, especially when someone wants a violet or a wild rose in the middle of the winter. For this reason I never part with any original research plates.
This insistence on working from living plants has always made life difficult for a city-bound artist. But the country is not far away, and trips out of New York often end with the bathtub full of floating flowers, there to be kept fresh until I can preserve them permanently on paper. Plants not available in areas close to New York must be shipped by special airmail, which is often a problem of logistics and timing. Even specimens from close-by botanical gardens involve careful timing and planning, and every large project requires a lot of long-range organization. In January and February I list the species needed for the following summer's work, checking their blooming dates and the places where they will be available. If the plants do not grow in the New York botanical gardens or in nearby New Jersey or Connecticut, inquiries must go out to collectors all over the country. At this point I rely on the goodwill and cooperation of my friends, and none of them is immune from my urgent requests for specimens. Often I must have plants grown from seed, and in these cases the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a very special friend in Connecticut have been most helpful; but then I have to arrange to be in the right place at the right time when the blooms are ready. Synchronizing my schedule with that of nature and my friends requires a lot of phone calls and a lot of correspondence; the file of letters in preparation for a book is often bulkier than the manuscript itself.
For years, one of my best collecting grounds was Cooper Union's Green Camp in northern New Jersey. Its more than one thousand acres had once been part of Peter Cooper's family property. The manor house with its pretty gardens had become a state park, but the farmland and surrounding wild hills belonged to Cooper Union and were used by the engineering students as a surveying camp. During my husband's tenure, the art students used them too- especially each May, when he took the graduating seniors there for a two-week painting session. I was always invited to come along to botanize and draw. It would be hard to find a more untouched piece of New Jersey woodland, and during the years I went there, I learned where to find nearly everything that grew within its bounds, from may apples to Joe Pye weed. During that time, almost all my Eastern wildflower specimens came from Green Camp.
Then, in 1952, I found another hunting ground when my husband became director of Yale University's summer art school in Norfolk, Connecticut. For ten years after that we spent idyllic months in the lush and beautiful northwest corner of Connecticut, living carefree in the manor of the estate that housed the school. The director's wife was not burdened with many duties, and I was able to wander about the countryside collecting plants of all kinds and then painting them. Many of my books were done during those years, as well as large paintings for collector prints published by Frame House Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.
When Ray resigned from the Yale school, we continued our summers in Norfolk, enjoying our friends, the fields and woods, and all the subjects we both found to paint. But in the early 1970s the Connecticut house we had been renting was sold and we transferred our summer vacations to Hanover, New Hampshire, where we had several friends among the Dartmouth College faculty. We soon made more friends and began to enjoy all the pleasures of a college town that reminded me of my childhood in Boulder.
During these New Hampshire years my husband had a number of health problems, and by 1979 they became serious. From then on, he was in the hospital for months at a time. I spent every day with him there, or else cared for him at home, and I had neither time nor energy for drawing. He died in January of 1982. Since then, I have returned to a busy life of observation and research, of writing and drawing, constantly aware of how much- even in those very personal occupations- I had always depended on my beloved companion.
One thing Ray always helped with was the practical problem of gathering plants. Almost all my books have involved such problems. Wild Green Things in the City originated when Elizabeth Riley suggested that city children would have little chance to get acquainted with any plants except the ones to be found among the pavements and abandoned lots. So in the spring of 1969, I set out to learn exactly what does grow in a concrete jungle like Manhattan. Every weekend my husband and I prowled the streets. Ignoring all parks and man-made plantings, we investigated warehouse areas, parking lots, docks, sites of torn-down buildings, edges of railroad yards. On Sundays such places are deserted, and we were able to carry on our innocent snooping without interference except for occasional questions from curious, rather skeptical, policemen.It was pleasant to watch the progress of spring in this harsh setting, and we soon began to make discoveries that were both surprising and exciting. Though there were many weedy green plants like grasses and mugworts, we also found bright patches of wildflowers, like coltsfoot in the spring and tall asters and goldenrod in the fall. There were enough varied flowers to make a colorful book.
The Blossom on the Bough: A Book of Trees presented a different kind of problem. Though many of these flowers, like magnolia and cherry, grow on small trees, the most important- and tiniest- ones, like elm and maple and ash, are borne high over our heads. They are hard to find and even harder to gather. Both Ray and I had at one time been expert tree climbers, but that time was long gone and now we wished for a trained monkey to collect our specimens for us. Finally we solved that problem with a borrowed pruning hook, but other emergencies arose. One spring, almost at the end of the blooming season, I was starting to draw sassafras when I discovered that its male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The specimens I had were female, so in a great rush Ray drove me up and down country roads, while I hung my head out the car window scanning the overhead branches for male sassafras flowers. We did find our blossoms just in the nick of time.Of course, it is even harder to observe and collect insects. Many of my paintings include insects, occasionally for decoration, more often because the relation of the insect to the flower is important. Flower pollination is one of the most fascinating things that happen in the natural world, and just watching bees and butterflies, beetles and hummingbirds at work among blossoms is fun. But the excitement of watching this activity with a knowledge of and an eye for its complicated mechanisms is downright intoxicating. It is my favorite subject, and several of my books deal with it- Look at a Flower, The Secret Life of the Flowers, From Flower to Fruit, and The Clover and the Bee.
All my insects are drawn from real specimens, but they don't require rapid research paintings as flowers do. Once caught, dead insects can be stuck on pins and preserved indefinitely- they do not wilt before your eyes. On the other hand, they are harder to collect than plants, especially when the collector can no longer run like a high school athlete or wield an insect net like a tennis player. But, without expending such energy, one can always peer over a bumblebee's shoulder as she works the pollen trigger in a flower or watch a butterfly's spiral tongue uncurl into a deep floral throat.Spying on these creatures is the kind of research I most enjoy, but I must often deal with material that can be found only in the library: What flowers did Shakespeare have in mind when he referred to gillyvors? What is the shittimwood of the Bible? What plants did mediaeval housewives use for dyes? Tracking down the answers to questions like these involves detective work that is only a little less interesting than pulling a blossom apart to see how it is constructed.
But however the information is gathered, it then has to be presented accurately and precisely by word and picture. I enjoy designing a book from the beginning, making hundreds of rough sketches, weaving together the text and illustrations, and then painting those illustrations. This process is sometimes simple, as in historical chronicles, where picture and text are loosely bound together. But in books that describe and illustrate intricate botanical processes, picture and text must be very tightly matched. I must write the narrative so that it tells its story clearly and also fits close around its picture; and at the same time the whole arrangement must achieve a handsome pattern of shapes and colors.
It is like solving a complicated puzzle- fun to do and very rewarding when it succeeds. Working like this, I am able to spend my days with paints and paper, as well as with the living things I love. And always I hope I can persuade other people to love them too, especially potential young botanists who may eventually begin to make their own discoveries and utter their own exclamations of wonder.
|Books written and illustrated:|
(With Richard Thomson) Roses, Odyssey, 1965.
Wild Green Things in the City. A Book of Weeds, Crowell, 1972.
The Blossom on the Bough: A Book of Trees, Crowell, 1975.
State Flowers, Crowell, 1978.
This Noble Harvest. A Chronicle of Herbs, Collins & World, 1979.
From Flower to Fruit, Crowell, 1984.
The Clover and the Bee: A Book of Pollination, Crowell, 1990.
Hal Borland, Plants of Christmas, Golden Press, 1969, revised, Crowell, 1987.
Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare's Flowers, Crowell, 1969.
Louis Untermeyer, Plants of the Bible, Golden Press, 1970.
Louis Untermeyer, editor, Roses, Golden Press, 1970.
Hal Borland, The Golden Circle: A Book of Months, Crowell, 1977.
Phyllis S. Busch, Wildflowers and the Stories behind Their Names, Scribner, 1977.
Robert L. Crowell, The Lore and Legends of Flowers, Crowell, 1982.
John and Katherine Paterson, Consider the Lilies: Plants of the Bible, Crowell, 1986.
Botanical illustrations published in four issues of Life, 1952-1957, in House Beautiful, Natural History, and Audubon. Title page decorations for Wild Flowers of the United States, six volumes, New York Botanic Garden/McGraw
1. Reprinted with permission from the author and Gale Research Inc.publisher of “Something About the Author” Autobiography Series, Volume 10, pp 75-86, 1976, pp. 835 Penobscot Building, Detroit Michigan 48226-4094.
I am an old Banyan tree and I am writing my autobiography. I was born on 26th January, 1814. I have a faint recollection of my infancy. Actually people fail to imagine the age of a Banyan tree like me because they generally fail to calculate it as they lack knowledge. I don’t like to accuse them, instead I would like to inspire them to take preparation to celebrate my bi-centenary.
People say that only great men can think of writing autobiographic. If goodness is also greatness, I can, without pretension, justly write the story of my own life which will interest my readers.
First a tree cannot be sure of anything about its birth. If is said that a certain bird while eating a bunch of banyan cones dropped some seeds on the ground where I stand new. I was born of one of those seeds I remained cold and low throughout winter and one fine morning, in spring. I opened my eyes and smiled upon the sun. Gradually, I grew into a plant a young plant to sustain life upon earth in a fully fledged manner and contributing whatever I can for the society and the environment.
I have gathered varied experience in my long life. On a fine summer day, I felt a little puzzled when I saw myself being worshipped by some village women; but I do not know what holiness they found in me. I am now a stout and strong Banyan tree deeply rooted to the ground. Once I saw a weeping woman following the pier of her husband to the cremation ground with a child in her arms. Her eyes were red and her cry, seemed to reach the sky. It was a great tragedy that took place fifty years ago. I have also seen many happy sights like wedding processions, pilgrims going to distant alters, processions of young people celebrating their victory in tournaments and the like. On the last day of Bengal year, a village fair is held in the place around rue and the people of the neighborhood come to join it.
Several generations of men of this place and its adjoining areas have come in direct contact with me. I have seen them come and go, but I am still living. Generations of monkeys, countless generations of birds have lived upon my branches. People, birds and other animals are still with me, fairs and meals are still held and I may have another hundred years’ life unless I am struck by a deadly thunder or uprooted by the violent storms or cut by man. But in any case I wish to die with mental satisfaction that during my long tenure of life my enemies were directed towards rightful actions and duties worth living.
Category: Essays, Paragraphs and Articles