The Spirit of the Woods: Poet and Painter Rebecca Hey’s Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations for the World’s First Encyclopedia of Trees
From the weeping willow to the oak, a watercolor serenade to the science and poetics of our ancient silent companions.
By Maria Popova
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter a quarter millennium before scientists began to see the molecular poetry of what trees feel and how they communicate.
Perched partway in time between Blake’s time and ours, and partway in sensibility between the poetic and the scientific, Sylvan Musings, or, The Spirit of the Woods (public library | public domain) is, as far as I am aware, the world’s first encyclopedia of wild trees.
Having resolved to face the new year like a tree, I came upon this forgotten treasure through the joyous gateway of serendipitous discovery — a bygone pleasure of atomic literature rarely accessible in our search-governed digital culture, always corralling us toward what we already know we are looking for: In the midst of a research project involving Mary Shelley, I acquired a rare surviving copy of the pioneering 1849 encyclopedia to which Shelley spent five years contributing short biographies of eminent scientists; one advertisement in the front matter of this fragile pocket-sized time travel device caught my eye, both for its subject matter, infinitely dear to my heart, and its authorship.
Of the very few female authors published in the nineteenth century, many appeared under male pseudonyms or ungendered initials. (This tradition would carry well into the twentieth century, leading the young Rachel Carson to publish her revolutionary marine masterpiece under the byline “R.L. Carson.”) Women publishing as women on scientific subjects were a particular anomaly.
“Mrs. William Hey” is Rebecca Hey — a poet, painter, and amateur naturalist. (Lest we forget, all women of scientific bent had to be “amateurs” by virtue of being excluded from both formal higher education and the scientific societies of the time. But there is something undeniably poetic and therefore redeeming in the etymology of the word, derived from the Latin amator — “lover of.” What greater portal to curiosity, what nobler means of understanding, than love?)
In her illustrated encyclopedia of trees, following one of flowers she had published fifteen years earlier to great popular success, Hey invites the reader to “partake the enthusiasm of the writer towards the whole leafy race,” highlighting thirty-six tree species found in British forests — from the oak, that most English of trees, iconic non-human protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, to the cedar, a cousin of which is now giving scientists new clues about ecological resilience. Each chapter opens with one of Hey’s handsomely hand-colored engravings of the tree’s leaves at the tip of a branch and closes with one of her original poems celebrating the species. Nestled between is the natural history of the tree, punctuated by thoughtfully chosen quotations from literary classics, both poetry and prose.
Hey’s poems, while largehearted and aglow with enthusiasm for the trees she eulogizes, are no match for Mary Oliver’s sylvan verse. But her paintings — intimate, delicate, alive with color and tenderness, in the making of which “many an hour has been most agreeably beguiled” — are a treasure. Under her brush, the Common Maple becomes a miracle of uncommon splendor and the humble pine a tassel of mirth.
I have endeavored to restore and digitize a number of them, making them available as prints, with proceeds benefiting the Arbor Day Foundation, whose noble reforestation work and sylvan stewardship are more and more needed as we watch fires consume the ancient forests that have long been the lungs of this irreplaceable planet.
Complement with Art Young’s imaginative Rorschach silhouettes of trees from the 1920s, Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, modern-day poetic naturalist Robert Macfarlane on what trees teach us about healthy relationships, and the inspiring illustrated story of Wangari Maathai’s tree-planting as resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, then revisit the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart.
Published January 6, 2020