So19 REVIEWS: Helen Humphreys' FIELD STUDY

I'm thrilled to have just received my copy of Helen Humphreys' Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, one of my favorite new books so far this year. Beautifully small in size but imaginatively wide-ranging, the book uses reflections on herbaria—the collections of dried plant specimens made by both amateur and professional botanists to preserve and share information about plant species—as a means of connecting to the plants and plant lovers of the past, the plants of our present, and the endurance as well as fragility of nature itself. It's filled with fascinating lore and detail, yet it's also a profoundly meditative book: an elegant, quiet, and compelling record of one woman's journey into past and present, the outside world and her own imagination. As beautifully designed and illustrated as it is written, it's a wonderful read or gift for anyone who loves plants, nature, environmental and scientific history and/or reflections on women's lives.

Field Study is not as directly related to the nineteenth century as many of the books I cover here, yet it's infused with the experience and imperatives—as well as the species—of centuries past. As Humphreys writes:

A couple of hundred years ago, it seems as if literally everyone picked and pressed flowers and plants and made a herbarium. Thoreau had one, as did Emily Dickinson. Botanizing was a popular settler pastime in the nineteenth century, both on a professional and amateur level, with lots of cross-pollination between the two groups. One aspect of colonization was a feverish desire by the incomers to catalogue the flora and fauna of North America, and since the tools required for botanizing were few—a notebook and pencil, magnifying glass, and specimen bag—it became available to rich and poor alike. The abundance of wilderness and the minimal equipment required to explore it was coupled with the notion in the mid- to late 1800s of self-improvement through acquired knowledge. Many people who did not have a formal education were motivated to learn more about the fields and forests that surrounded their towns and villages as a way to better themselves, and in doing so, perhaps better their situation in the larger world.

Unfortunately, as she also notes, plants could also be driven to or even over the edge of extinction by the activities of plant collectors. It's one of the rich if sometimes painful tensions that runs through Field Study, this reality that most attempts to preserve and share nature risk damaging it.

Organized by season, Field Study encompasses discussions of plant groups from the well-known (pines and grasses) to the relatively obscure (spurges and worts). The herbarium through which these plants are primarily viewed is the Fowler, a collection of some 140,000 specimens housed in the Queen's University Biological Station in Ontario, about an hour or so from Humphreys' home. But she also writes eloquently about other collections—most notably, as mentioned above, those amassed by Dickinson and Thoreau. Though the book is conceptually focused on the botanical world, it also brims with intriguing human personalities. To name one of many examples, I was delighted to re-encounter Mary Treat in its pages. For a time a resident of New Jersey's utopian Vineland community, Treat was a correspondent of Darwin's who was among the only female botanists able to publish their work in the 19th century. She's also one of the protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered, another book (this one a novel) that I love. In contrast, I had never heard of Annie A. Boyd, who collected plants for the Fowler on her bicycle while a student at Queen's; or Lulie Crawford, a musician and botanical artist; or Frances Theodora Parsons, who wrote 1893's bestselling How to Know the Wildflowers under the pen name Mrs. William Starr Dana; or most of the other specimen collectors acknowledged in Field Study. Brief and colorful, Humphreys' introductions to these figures work much like the specimens in a herbarium. You can't learn everything about Treat, Crawford, Boyd, Parsons, et. al. from the book's pages, but you can gain a sense of each character sufficient to compare, contrast, and above all, to want quite fervently to learn more.

Humphreys is a novelist and poet, and Field Study is a poet's as well as a naturalist and historian's book—that is to say, a book of surprising connections, resonant moments, and meticulously crafted, concise, and vivid language. The opening of the book's first section, "Winter," is characteristic in its quiet honing and close observation.

The road to my particular herbarium—the Fowler Herbarium—winds through forest, twisting like a river, each turn revealing something new and surprising: a rafter of wild turkeys in the woods; deer browsing on the underbrush; a glittering, icy pond fringed with rushes; and, once, a fox nose down, snouting the snowy furrows of a winter field.

Yet though both what she describes and her own language are more often beautiful than not, Humphreys' vision of the natural world is never sentimental or idealized. Loss is here, an ever-present part of the natural cycle. One particularly affecting moment occurs when the author's dog Charlotte becomes incurably ill with a cardiac cancer. This "constant companion" must be euthanized only three days after the diagnosis, but before that they share the same kind of country walk they take every day. Immediately, Charlotte begins hunting small animals on the edge of a field:

The dog's hunting this morning was very deliberate and purposeful. She was intent on what she was doing, to the exclusion of all else, and we could tell, from this change in her manner, that she was focusing very hard on having this time of concentrated pleasure, of being fully was obvious that the walk was special. Made more so, of course, because it would be our last together, but also because everything had conspired to make it so joyful and beautiful. The milkweed had just come into flower in the field and their scent filled the air we walked through with a strong, heady, sweet musk....In the car ride home, I opened the window for her and she thrust her head out (something she usually did not do) and breathed in great lungfuls of the sweet morning air.

The experience of Charlotte's illness and death, Humphreys notes, "changed my course in this book." It wasn't grief that prompted the change but "that last walk of hers, that beautiful parade through the field..." "So," she concludes,

after witnessing that, after being a part of it, how can I turn away from the sunshine and the flowers and the wheel of birdsong towards the cold cabinets filled with folders of dried and dead plants?
I can't.

Humphreys does go back to her herbarium visits that fall, something for which we all have cause to be grateful. But some of the same paradoxes inherent in Charlotte's last walk—the sense of the natural world as a place of both danger and comfort, the experience of its organisms as things of bursting life and constant death—pervade the book throughout. 

"This world I live in—this world that you live in—is a world of disappearing species, but it is also a world of wonder and beauty," she writes. "And while we must all do more, and petition our governments to do more about the climate crisis, and not ignore the fact that humans are responsible for the destruction of species and habitat, we must also celebrate what is still here with a ferocious reverence."

Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium by Helen Humphreys appeared from ECW Press on September 21, 2021. It can be purchased on Amazon,, and through your local independent bookstore.