Friday, June 5, 2009

The Writing Life: Longevity of Books

The Writing Life Book Review:

I’m holding a 1906 copy of How to Know the Wild Flowers, originally published in 1893 by Mrs. William Starr Dana. More about the author later.
What’s incredible, besides the fact that it is the first wildflower field guide published in the USA, is that the field information is as relevant to day as it was 116 yeas ago. I can’t name a current nonfiction book with that kind of longevity.

The subtitle: A Guide to the Names, Haunts and Habits of Our Common Wild Flowers is an accurate description of what you’ll find in the book. But I think the subtitle should be: When Field Guides Were Fun. Each section covers the plants with flowers of the same color, which makes it “field friendly.”
After a factual description of root, stem, leaf, flower, and seeds or fruit, the author launches into a bit of poetry, a folk remedy or some other phrase that brings me right into the woods with her. The line drawings of the majority of wild flowers are so detailed that I forget they’re not in color.
The 50 color plates almost leap off the page.
For comparison’s sake, I went to the library and checked out the 1963 version of How to Know the Wild Flowers. Just holding them, I notice that the 1906 book is bulkier and the paper and binding sturdier. There are no color plates in the 1963 edition. It makes me wonder what a book published in 1893 looks and feels like.

My brief count-up of the indexed plants shows that the 1906 book has about 750 plants listed, but the 1963 version lists over 1,000 plants. Since the author died in 1952, I wonder who added the 250 plants. A deeper look into the book reveals that plants were not simply added, some were deleted or their names were changed. Botanical names change frequently as knowledge is discovered. In the last 5-10 years, the application of DNA evidence has revealed that some plants formerly thought to be members of different families share DNA. Although I may be reading different names for the same plant, that still doesn’t change the physical appearance, habitat, or growth pattern of the plant in the field.
This author of many field guides was not allowed to publish under her own name in 1893, hence the author credit “Mrs. William Starr Dana.” She was widowed and then remarried and her name became Frances Theodora Parsons. A respected and accomplished botanist, her acquaintances included Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling. In the 21st Century it’s easy to take our economic and social power for granted and forget what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers have fought for and gained since the 19th Century.

It’s also easy to forget the pleasures of holding a book in this age of Kindle, e-books, and Call me a Luddite, but a field guide is meant to be taken into the field, where I often cannot receive a WI-FI signal anyway.

JJ Murphy is a freelance nature writer, photographer, blogging hiker, forager, locavore, and tree-hugger with more than 50 years of eco-centric living experience. Visit if you need relevant content that captures your personal style and tone.

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