Thoreau's botanical specimens

Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.

Thoreau's Maine Woods

Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

There is something simultaneously fascinating and unsettling about the bottled specimens on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with so many creatures preserved in formaldehyde. Only a cruel victor exhibits the bodies of his slain enemies as a reminder of the sickening spoils of war, and even crueler is the conqueror who preserves those bodies for the ages: spoils that will never spoil.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The natural history museum in Dublin is popularly called the “Dead Zoo” for its abundance of taxidermy animals, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History has plenty of those on display. But what caught my eye during J and my recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the glass flowers were all those other glass items: a veritable bottled zoo with fish, reptiles, and mollusks preserved in neatly organized glass containers.

There is an odd air of earnestness around these bottles and their display that calls to mind an industrious housewife showing off the preserves she’s canned for the winter. Given a rich harvest, it would be criminal to let your fruit die on the vine; better instead to can until your fingers bleed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

The bottled specimens at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are remnants from a harvest that was never sustainable but once made a certain semblance of sense. If the earth is crawling with creatures, why not kill and study some of them rather than letting them die a natural but undocumented death, forever lost to science? The glass bottles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are not just biological specimens; they are historical artifacts from a time when nature seemed fecund enough, you could afford to be extravagant, displaying a mosaic of beetle carapaces…

Harvard Museum of Natural History

…or an entire shelf of sparrows.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

We no longer dare be so wasteful; we are too mindful of what’s been lost and what we stand to lose. But at a time when we no longer discount the life of even one creature, it would be prodigal to reject the bottled bodies of those that have already been killed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Go see the bottled zoo at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, wear out your eyes (and your camera batteries) studying them, and then seek out these same creatures in the flesh, in their natural environment and alive. The bodies you see under glass at the Harvard Museum of Natural History died a sacrificial death, slain in the name of science, so they will have died in vain if we don’t learn from them. There’s no more need for specimens and study-skins–no more need to kill, capture, or collect–now that science has succeeded in collecting the whole set.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Last weekend, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Although we each had been to the HMNH before, neither one of us had been there in years, and we’d never been there together. We each were overdue, in other words, for a return visit.

Fragile

The last time I went to the HMNH, I’d traveled from New Hampshire with a busload of college students on a field trip, but I abandoned the group as soon as we disembarked, exploring the museum (and writing a pair of blog posts) on my own. When J and I went to the HMNH last weekend, we retraced the route I’d taken on that previous trip, making a beeline for the glass flowers, an eye-popping collection of botanical specimens crafted from glass during the period between 1887 and 1936 by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Fragile

The Blaschkas were glassmakers in Dresden who were trained in the art of Bohemian glass making and ultimately found a niche creating amazingly lifelike glass models of invertebrates and plants that are showcased in natural history museums around the world. (The National Museum of Ireland’s natural history museum in Dublin, for instance, contains a collection of more than 500 Blaschka invertebrates.)

Fragile

In an era before plastic, the meticulously detailed plant models the Blaschkas crafted were a huge improvement over the wax and papier mache models botanists had previously relied upon to study plant anatomy. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical teaching tools, they aren’t “just” flowers: one of the things that amazed me on this return trip to the HMNH was artistry with which the Blaschkas crafted entire plants out of glass. There are leaves of glass, stems of glass, and even tiny rootlets of glass. One case, for example, shows enormous glass bees pollinating enormous glass flowers…

Big bee

…while another case shows a cluster of disease-spotted apples and a branch of moldy apricots, a display designed to show the effects of plant diseases on fruit.

A few bad apples

A few bad apples might not be as pretty as the colorful vases and beads usually associated with Bohemian glassmaking, but understanding the effect that mold and blight can have on fruit crops is an important lesson for any budding botanist.

Rotten apricots

The Blaschkas were artists whose dedication to their craft is apparent in every glass model, but they also display the keen eyes of amateur scientists. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical specimens, they need to be accurate, not just pretty.

Fragile

One of the things I love about the glass flowers is the way they bridge the realms of art and science. Flowers are inherently pretty, but there is something beautiful, too, about an anatomically accurate diagram of a living plant.

Fragile

The glass flowers are teaching tools, but they are also aesthetically amazing. The more you understand botany, the more you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed flower, and the closer you examine a pretty posy, the more you appreciate the intricacies of design that hold that flower together. Because glass is a fragile but enduring medium, the Blaschkas left an enduring scientific and aesthetic legacy that continues to amaze and inspire.

Fragile

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History: enjoy!

Mountain laurel

At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest that these Mountain Laurels aren’t real, freshly plucked from nature itself…except, of course, that Mountain Laurels don’t grow in my neck of the woods, nor do they bloom in March. If you had to guess how I saw such fresh-looking flowers as these this weekend, you’d probably suppose I saw them in a greenhouse or at a florist. Surely you wouldn’t guess (as I wouldn’t have) that these flowers are not only fake but that they are somewhere between seventy and more than a hundred years old, crafted during the period between 1886 and 1936 out of glass.

Glass orchids

Before this weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, I’d heard about the famous glass flowers on display there…but nothing anyone had told me prepared me for what this exhibit would really be like. Hearing the phrase “glass flowers,” I imagined the objects on exhibit would look like glass first and flowers second: pretty, colorful, and entirely artificial looking, more art than science. What I found instead was a serious botanical exhibit where entire plants and magnified plant parts are depicted in meticulous three-dimensional detail: had I not known these models were crafted from glass, I would have never guessed it.

Glass lily

Harvard’s glass flowers were made by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father-and-son team working near Dresden, Germany in the nineteenth century. Trained in the Bohemian tradition of glass- and jewelry-making, the Blaschkas were enlisted in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale to make scientific models for Harvard’s newly established botanical museum. As absurd as it seems today to make botanical models out of glass, Goodale and the Blaschkas lived in an era before plastic, back when botanists relied upon wax or papier-mache models to study the structure of plant parts.

Glass flowers in glass cabinets

Financed by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter Mary Lee Ware, the Ware collection of glass flowers was given to Harvard as a memorial to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware. Although non-botanists might think it odd to spend good money on fake flowers, these models represent more than 830 species and thus allow students and scientists alike to study plant parts (the kind of schematic I found in the leaf litter of Beech Hill) all year and in the temperate climate of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Glass cactus

It’s one thing to study botany from a book; it’s another to study plants face-to-face. If you can’t travel to where cacti grow, a quick trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History will show you what several species look like up close and personal. Having expected an exhibit of merely pretty posies, I was shocked by how botanically accurate these models were: smaller species are depicted life-size and in their entirety, flowers growing atop leaved stems that look like they’ve been freshly yanked from the ground, soil nearly clinging to still-living rootlets. To my casual yet plant-accustomed eye, I couldn’t tell that these models had been crafted from blown and heated glass, their colors either mixed into molten glass itself or baked on afterward. To my eye, the glass flowers looked like actual plants that had been preserved with a wax-like epoxy, even the tiniest detail of miniscule flower ray and stem-hair preserved in fragile perfection.

Vining

Throughout the room that houses the Ware collection of glass flowers, signs remind you not to lean upon the cases that house these delicate handiworks, and I spotted several leaves that had broken, the only indication of these models’ true fragility. As much as I marvel at the Blaschkas’ craftmanship in making these botanic masterpieces, I wonder how workers managed to transport the collection from Dresden to Harvard: how many specimens were shattered in transit, how many beads of sweat and frustrated tears shed?

Maple leaves

As much as a museum full of bones and boobies makes me marvel at Nature’s handiwork, the Ware collection of glass flowers leaves me in awe of the ability of art to assist science. The Blaschkas’ flowers, leaves, and plant parts are both artful and scientifically accurate in their meticulous attention to natural detail. Even if you’ve never seen a New England autumn–and it’s not clear whether Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, working in Dresden, ever did–you get a crystal-clear sense of how miraculously wonderful a forestful of changing maple leaves must be, judging from how a mere armful of fall foliage glows from its enclosed museum case. Both flowers and foliage are ephemeral: the ones you pick today will be wilted by tomorrow, and the pressed specimens botanists collect quickly lose their vibrant color. But the silly insistence of science makes life linger on, the works of artists now dead showing curious visitors the wondrous growing things that carpet God’s green earth.

On display