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A Curious Herbal: Gorgeous Illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Botany

Time-travel to the dawn of modern medical science via the stunning art of a self-taught woman illustrator and botanist.

UPDATE: Some of these treasures are now available as face masks, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

A century before botany swung open the backdoor to science for Victorian women and ignited the craze for herbaria — none more enchanting than the adolescent Emily Dickinson’s forgotten herbarium — a Scottish woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) published, against all cultural odds, an ambitious and scrumptiously illustrated guide to medicinal plants, titled A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick (public library).

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell — not to be confused with the 19th-century physician of the same name, who became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American university — was not yet thirty when she began the project. It was a rare triumph of turning desperation into inspiration, or what Audre Lorde called turning fear into fire for creative work: Impoverished beyond imagination, with her husband in debtor’s prison and a young child to care for at home, Blackwell decided to enlist her early training in painting — women’s access to formal education was still centuries ahead — in saving her family. But she didn’t yet know exactly how.

After befriending the head curator Chelsea Physic Garden — a teaching facility for apprentice apothecaries established several decades earlier — she realized that there was a need for a handbook depicting and describing the garden’s new collection of mysterious plants from the New World. A keen observer, a gifted artist, and an entrepreneur by nature, she set about bridging the world’s need and her own.

Pomegranate. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell took rooms near the garden and began painting the plants as she saw them. She then took the drawings to her husband’s cell and had him supply each plant’s name in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. (The Linnaean classification system did not yet exist — Carl Linnaeus, born the same year as Blackwell, was yet to revolutionize taxonomy with his binomial nomenclature.) After producing an astonishing 500 drawings — many of species now endangered or altogether extinct, species falling out of our dictionary and imagination — she engraved the copper printing plates for the images and text herself, and hand-colored the illustrations.

Saffron. (Available as a print.)
Red poppy. (Available as a print.)
Dandelion. (Available as a print.)
Iris. (Available as a print.)

In 1737, just around her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Blackwell began publishing A Curious Herbal, which has since been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library — one of the most inspired and inspiring digital scholarship initiatives.

I have restored a selection of her gorgeous illustrations and made them available as prints, benefiting The Nature Conservancy to support their noble, necessary work of preserving our planet’s biodiversity.

Fig. (Available as a print.)

Punctuating the pictorial splendor are the fascinating fossils of modern medicine — folk remedies like the use of cucumber seeds to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections, stinging nettles to stop internal bleeding and counter coughs, mistletoe (now studied for its capacity to shrink tumors) to fight “convulsion fits, the apoplexy, palsy, and vertigo,” and the world’s first mass-market antidepressant: St. John’s Wort to allay “melancholy and madness.”

Mistletoe. (Available as a print.)
Coffee. (Available as a print.)

Across from her illustration of the coffee plant, Blackwell explains:

Accounted good for those who are of a cold, flegmatic constitution. But for persons of a thin, hot and dry temperament, the drinking it too much may bring on them nervous distempers.

Radiating from the pages is also the welcome disorientation of time travel, deconditioning our habit of mistaking today’s culturally constructed commonplaces for ahistorical givens: Blackwell’s bright-red tomato blazes the reminder that this plant — so common today as to be commonplace the world over — was then an exotic native of the New World, known in the Old World as love-apple.

Tomato, or Love-Apple. (Available as a print.)
Hot pepper, or Guinea pepper. (Available as a print.)

Against this botanical backdrop of cultural change arise certain cultural constants — under the entry for Agnus castus, commonly known as chaste tree for the belief that it preserves chastity, Blackwell wryly remarks, as every human culture has always remarked on its own moral collapse under the forces of progress, that “this age has left that medicine out of the dispensatory as useless.” (I am reminded of James Baldwin’s incisive remarks on Shakespeare: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” The past is better. The past is worse. Our misplaced historical nostalgia is a hideout for the terror of our own temporality and the concession that our present is always someone else’s past, both better and worse.)

Cucumber. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell’s book did for plants what Sarah Stone would do for animals a generation later with her trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic species. The handsome two-volume set, featuring hundreds of Blackwell’s hand-colored full-page engravings, was embraced by the medical community and lauded by the Royal College of Physicians. With the revenues, she was able to secure her husband’s release from prison. Outliving both Elizabeth and her husband, the book remained in print for decades — a rarity in the era’s ecosystem of publishing. Sir Joseph Banks — who christened Australia’s Botany Bay after alighting there with Captain Cook and who would become president of the Royal Society twenty years after Blackwell’s death — cherished his copy of her book and bequeathed it to the British Library. As Blackwell’s illustrated botany made its way across Europe, it eventually reached Linnaeus himself, who came to admire her work so ardently that he gave her the affectionate nickname Botanica Blackwellia.

Grapevine. (Available as a print.)
Quince. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the stunning algae cyanotypes of the self-taught Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who more than a century after Blackwell and shortly after the invention of photography became the first person to publish a scientific book illustrated with photographic images, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s wondrous 19th-century illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees and French artist Paul Sougy’s vibrant mid-twentieth-century scientific diagrams of plants, animals, and the human body.

BP

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

A rhapsody of wonder between the scale of atoms and the scale of minds.

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

When the sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary — America’s first institution of higher education for women, the “castle of science” where she composed her exquisite forgotten herbarium at the intersection of science and poetry around the time the sole surviving photograph of her was taken — her immersion in language, mathematics, and astronomy began giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood. How she must have marveled at equations that could describe the splendor of galaxies. She would die before the discovery of the electron, but how staggered her pliant young mind must have been to learn that scientists had just proven the existence of atoms — those then-smallest conceivable constituents of matter first imagined by the ancient Greeks two and a half millennia earlier.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, ca. 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Under the shimmering starscape of this new universe of knowledge, she found herself having “no interest in the all-important subject” of “becom[ing] a Christian.” Soon, she would write in her ravishing love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” The school’s founder and first principal, who divided her pupils into three categories along the spectrum of salvation — the saved; those for whom there was hope; and the “no-hopers” — placed Emily in the third. At the end of her first term, on the day of the Sabbath, she was among seventeen students — “the impenitent,” as the principal called them — who couldn’t readily proclaim that “they would serve the Lord” but instead “felt an uncommon anxiety to decide.” The following day, Emily reported the docility she’d observed, writing to a friend at home with removed reproof: “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety.” She was far more interested in the arc of knowledge as science was just beginning to bend its gaze past the horizon of old certitudes. What lay there would come to animate a great many of her spare, stunning poems — poems that illuminate the eternal, the elemental, the inevitable through the pinhole of the surprising.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

A century before the advent of particle physics and its deliciously disorienting revelation that we are mostly restlessness and empty space, Dickinson pondered the strangeness of a world so seemingly solid and stable yet governed by such imperceptible precariousness in one of her greatest masterworks at that rare precipice of the surprising and the inevitable. Appearing in Figuring as a bridge figure between the visionary poet and the visionary physicist Lise Meitner — whose groundbreaking unraveling of one of nature’s deepest mysteries was hijacked in the making of the atomic bomb despite Meitner’s refusal to work on the project — Dickinson’s poem was animated into new life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by one of the great poetic voices and deepest seers of our own time: Patti Smith.

Like all of Dickinson’s work, this poem was composed untitled and is numbered 600 in her astounding body of work comprising nearly 2,000 known poems — scholars assign these numbers based on where they are best able to place each poem in the chronology of her life — but it was it given a title by the poet’s early posthumous editors, who, in an effort to standardize her poetry into more marketable literature, also took the liberty of razing it of her singular punctuation and capitalization, so deliberate and inseparable from her subtleties of meaning; it took a century to reinstate Dickinson’s artistic intent and embrace her courage of breaking with convention in an unexampled way that atomized the matter of language into entirely new structures of meaning.

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an Atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

Patti Smith as a child. (Photographs courtesy of Patti Smith.)

For other highlights of The Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of science through poetry, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory and trouble generations of children into contemplating the cosmic perspective — savor Pioneer Works Director of Sciences and poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of the stunning “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronaut Leland Melvin’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, then revisit Patti Smith’s uncommonly poetic meditation on dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life.

BP

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a ‘function’ of society.”

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare. “Art must be life — it must belong to everybody,” Marina Abramović insisted in her artist life manifesto. Since long before Abramović, since long before Baldwin, since long before Shakespeare, the Igbo culture of Nigeria has embodied and enacted the notion that there is poetry — there is art and artistry — in the lives of the people, the ordinary people, unleashed into communal belonging through their ritual of mbari — the ceremonial celebration of the creative spirit, dedicated to the Earth goddess Ala.

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) explores what mbari can teach us about the crucial interleaving of art and society in a long-ago essay titled “Africa and Her Writers,” excerpted and discussed in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature (public library) — Jonathan Cott’s collection of erudite, sensitive, soaring conversations with such titans of feeling in word and image as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Astrid Lindgren, originally published just before I was born (and reprinted in 2020 with a foreword I had the joy of writing).

Achebe writes of the mbari temple as a spare but striking structure that, despite its simplicity, often becomes “a miracle of artistic achievement — a breathtaking concourse of images in bright, primary colors,” sculpted from Ala’s own material — “simple molded earth.”

Figure of Ala in an mbari. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe describes its making and makers:

Every so many years Ala would instruct the community through her priest to prepare a festival of images in her honor. That night the priest would travel through the town, knocking on many doors to announce to the various household whom of their members Ala had chosen for the great work. These chosen men and women then moved into the seclusion in a forest clearing and, under the instruction and guidance of master artists and craftsmen, began to build a house of images. The work might take a year or even two, but as long as it lasted the workers were deemed to be hallowed and were protected from undue contact form, and distraction by, the larger community.

What emerges from this tradition is the bold, unfussy affirmation that art is not only a form of consciousness accessible to all but a form of citizenship — that the responsibility for its making, the right of its enjoyment, and the dialogue between the two are an essential and natural part of our civic conscience. Achebe writes:

The making of art is not the exclusive concern of a particular caste or secret society. Those young men and women whom the goddess chose for the re-enactment of creation were not “artists.” They were ordinary members of society. Next time around, the choice would fall on other people. Of course, mere nomination would not turn everyman into an artist — not even divine appointment could guarantee it. The discipline, instruction, and guidance of a master artist would be necessary. But not even a conjunction of those two conditions would insure infallibly the emergence of a new, exciting sculptor or painter. But mbari was not looking for that. It was looking for, and saying, something else: There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a “function” of society.

Mbari depicting a maternity clinic with three uniformed nurses attending to a woman in the act of giving birth. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe recognizes that while this notion may be a natural part of the “holistic concern” of traditional societies, it is “abominable heresy in the ears of mystique lovers” — the ego-pricked ears of those who exalt the artist as a special class of citizen, apart from and above the rest of society. With a wry wink, Achebe offers a necessary disclaimer “for their sake and their comfort.” Echoing Thoreau’s distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, he writes:

The idea of mbari does not deny the place or importance of the master with unusual talent and professional experience. Indeed it highlights such gift and competence by bringing them into play on the seminal potentialities of the community. Again, mbari does not deny the need for the creative artist to go apart from time to time so as to commune with himself, to look inwardly into his own soul. For when the festival is over, the villagers return to their normal lives again, and the master artists to their work and contemplation. But they can never after this experience, this creative communal enterprise, become strangers again to one another. And by logical and physical extension the greater community, which comes to the unveiling of the art and then receives is makers again into its normal life, becomes a beneficiary — indeed an active partaker — of this experience.

“Spirit worker” pounding clay from anthills for the apprentice artist to sculpt with. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Complement this slender portion of Cott’s wholly magnificent Pipers at the Gates of Dawn with Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches and his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin, then revisit Baldwin on what it means to be an artist and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

BP

A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.”

A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“A cat must have three different names,” T.S. Eliot proclaimed in the iconic verses that became the basis of one of the longest-running and most beloved Broadway musicals of all time. “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” Caroline Paul wrote generations later in her gorgeous memoir of finding the meaning of life through a lost cat. Between our longing for love, our urge to name what we barely understand, and our yearning to know the ultimately unknowable lies the eternal allure of the cat as an intimately proximate but impenetrably distant human companion.

That paradoxical pull is what the great short story writer and novelist Leonard Michaels (January 2, 1933–May 10, 2003) explores in one of his least known, loveliest and quietest masterpieces, simply titled A Cat (public library) — a posy of prose poems, of miniature meditations playful and profound, on the imponderable nature of our feline companions, illustrated with consummately expressive line drawings by artist Frances Lerner and brought back to life a quarter century after its original publication with a new introduction by Sigrid Nunez.

Michaels writes:

A cat is content to be a cat.

[…]

Nothing is more at home in the world than a cat. Flowers, compared to a cat, seem too assertive, even vulgar — their peculiar colors, their showy shapes. Sprawled in sunlight, a cat dissolves, pours free of its shape, and becomes one with the ground. Sliding along your leg, it gives you a sense of fusion. A cat makes itself one with anything. It is at home in the world. A cat defines a home.

“There is no terror like that of being known,” Emerson wrote in his journal as he faced his inability to let himself be loved. This, perhaps, is why the knowing gaze of a cat’s enormous alien eyes so penetrates the human soul with a terrifying enchantment. Michaels writes:

Face-to-face with a cat, you see almost no mouth. Its expression is unforthcoming, uncommunicative. Eyes and ears. A tiny, cool, exquisite nose. Without much mouth, the face seems uninterested in eating, and the eyes seem large and salient, as though a cat wants only to observe, to know things. A cat’s whiskers, like exquisite antennae, read the airiest messages.

With great subtlety of insight, Michaels plays with our perennial tendency toward projection — on our lovers, on trees, on “our” cats (which are, in their essence, “not owned by anybody,” as Michaels reminds us):

You look at a cat, and it looks at you. You have the scary idea that a cat is a kind of person. You look more carefully and let the cat’s eyes tell you what it sees. It sees you are a kind of cat.

A cat always looks into your eyes, as if it knows that you see it with your eyes. As if it knows? What a mad idea. A cat doesn’t even know it has eyes, let alone know that it is seeing you with its eyes. And yet it knows, it knows.

There is, of course, the obligatory contrast between a cat and a dog, nowhere more pronounced than in the existential challenge of loneliness. Michaels writes:

When it comes to loneliness, a cat is excellent company. It is a lonely animal. It understands what you feel. A dog also understands, but it makes such a big deal of being there for you, bumping against you, flopping about your feet, licking your face. It keeps saying, “Here I am.” Your loneliness then seems lugubrious. A cat will just be, suffering with you in philosophical silence.

In one of the lushest passages in this tiny gem of a book, Michaels considers the cat’s tail as an appendage of consciousness — the alien, impenetrable consciousness that seems to fold universes of knowing into its modest cortex. Three years after Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her superb essay on beauty, mortality, and growing older that “cats know exactly where they begin and end” and that the tail is “a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship” with space and selfhood, Michaels writes:

The tail of a cat lashes, curls, and swishes slowly. It stands straight up. It vibrates. It blooms before battle and looks three times thicker. It is a flag of feelings — courage, shame, pleasure, fear. It can become the hook of a sickle, or a shepherd’s crook, or a rod, or a plume, or an S, and it can press down to seal a cat’s heinie. It is the poetry and prose of a cat. When a cat is thoughtful, the tail moves like a part of the mind. It is a moody river, a smokey flow. It is a sentence, the material shape of an idea. It is an announcement, a revelation, and an artistic gesture, beautiful even if only to express boredom.

Another passage emerges as a splendid missing verse from poet Mark Strand’s lyrical celebration of clouds:

A cat bunched up and sleepy is like a cumulous cloud. Stretched out on its side, flat along the ground, it is like a stratus cloud. Clouds piled up high are like a great council of cats in silent meditation.

The cat’s great gift, Michaels intimates, is not that of being our silent witness but of being our mirror, revealing us to ourselves in its nondisclosures, revealing the deepest truths in its withholdings:

If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.

Complement the slender and splendid A Cat with The White Cat and the Monk — a lovely ninth-century ode to the joy of companionable purposefulness, newly illustrated — and Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity, then revisit the lavish Big New Yorker Book of Cats.

BP

Wonder and the Grandeur of the Universe as the Antidote to Human-Manufactured Bias and Divisiveness: Marilyn Nelson’s Stunning Poem “The Children’s Moon”

A lyrical time-capsule of human history being made under the unblinking eye of cosmic time.

Wonder and the Grandeur of the Universe as the Antidote to Human-Manufactured Bias and Divisiveness: Marilyn Nelson’s Stunning Poem “The Children’s Moon”

In one of her love letters, Margaret Fuller — who laid the foundation of American feminism, advocated for black voting rights generations before women won the vote, and believed in every fiber of her being that genius is “common as light” when given the chance — wrote of “that best fact, the Moon.” A century, a Civil War, and two World Wars after her, amid the golden age of space exploration, the great Italian scientist, humanist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi considered the spiritual value of our cosmic dreams in his gorgeous essay “The Moon and Man,” insisting that “for good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress toward justice and peace.”

Marilyn Nelson shines a sidewise gleam on that best, most unifying fact in her stunning poem “The Children’ Moon,” written in the voice of her own mother — one of the first black women to teach at an all-white elementary school, spearheading a classroom of twenty white second-graders at an Air Force base school in Kansas four months after Brown v. Board of Education.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Performed at the On Being gathering in 2018 and published a year earlier in Mrs. Nelson’s Class (public library) — the conceptually brilliant anthology Nelson edited, featuring persona poems by twenty different poets, each taking on the voice of one of the bodies in her mother’s classroom to imagine what the experience of making history together might have been like — the poem is a stunning reminder that the human capacity for wonder at the grandeur of the universe and the natural world, a capacity “common as light” among us all, will always eclipse the capacity for diminishment and divisiveness along artificial lines, lines drawn not by the reality of nature but by the selectively consensual non-reality we call culture, lines that constrict and confine and desecrate what is best and largest in our nature.

THE CHILDREN’S MOON
by Marilyn Nelson

In my navy shirtwaist dress and three-inch heels,
my pearl clip-ons and newly red-rinsed curls,
I smoothed on lipstick, lipstick-marked my girls,
saluted and held thumbs-up to my darling Mel,
and drove myself to school for the first day.

Over the schoolyard a silver lozenge
dissolved into the morning’s blue cauldron.
Enter twenty seven-year-old white children.
Look, children, I said as they found their desks:
The children’s moon! A special good luck sign!

We pledged allegiance, and silently prayed.
George Washington watched sternly from his frame.
I turned to the blackboard and wrote my name.
I thought I heard, She’s the REAL teacher’s maid!
I thought I heard echoes of history.

But when I turned, every child in the room
had one hand up, asking, What is the children’s moon?

Complement with Nelson’s entrancing performance of her existential-scientific poem “Faster than Light” at the third annual Universe in Verse and savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett (who also read an existential-mathematical poem in the same show), then revisit other titanic poets of our time performing their own work: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “The Venus Hottentot,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” and Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe.”

BP

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