So19 Interviews: HELEN HUMPHREYS

I'm delighted to feature an interview with Helen Humphreys about her resonant new book, Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, today. Small in size but imaginatively wide-ranging, Field Study 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, the endurance as well as fragility of nature itself, and the seasons of our journeys both personally and as citizens of the Earth. 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 as well as a perfect gift for anyone who loves plants, nature, environmental and scientific history and/or reflections on women's lives.

Helen Humphreys is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. My own favorites among her works include, in no particular order, Nocturne, The Ghost Orchard, The River, Leaving Earth, and (of course, for a feminist lover of the 19th century) Afterimage. Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium  appeared from ECW Press on September 21, 2021. It can be purchased at venues including Amazon.ca in Canada and bought in the US on AmazonBookshop.org, and through your local independent bookstore. With thanks to Helen for her thoughtful answers as well as her extraordinary book, here's our chat.

Q. Could you speak about the gestation of Field Study? What gave rise to the idea for the book at this moment in our communal lives and/or your own creative trajectory?

A: As I explained in the Introduction, I was looking for a way to write about nature that didn’t turn away from the dire facts of this present moment, but still allowed for praise. I decided on the herbarium because I wanted to show the interaction of humans and nature through time, and the herbarium seemed the perfect crucible for that exploration. I started writing and researching the book before the pandemic, so the subject matter wasn’t as timely as it became later on, after the book was published and the lockdowns had focused people’s attention more on the natural world.

Q. The first text we see after the title page reads, “This book was researched and written on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. I am grateful for their long and vital relationship with the plant life that inhabits this region.” That felt so important—could you talk about it a bit?

A: I wanted to give a land acknowledgement at the start of the book, as I give a land acknowledgement at the beginning of anything public that I do. It’s only right and proper to honor the people whose traditional territory I live and write in.

So19 Interviews HEATHER WARDELL

Today I’m pleased to welcome Heather Wardell to Society Nineteen for a chat about her novel Fiery Girls. Fiery Girls follows two protagonists through the period before and after New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest workplace disasters in American history. Heather, who lives in Ontario, is the author of twenty-two novels. She came to writing after careers as a software developer and elementary school computer teacher and can’t imagine ever leaving it. In her spare time, she reads, swims, walks, lifts weights, crochets, changes her hair color, and plays drums and clarinet— generally not all at once. Find out more about Heather and her diverse work on her website, Facebook page, and Instagram feed. Fiery Girls is available for purchase on Amazon, Bookshop, and through your local independent bookstore. With warm thanks to Heather for taking the time to speak with us, here's our chat.

Q. I’m always fascinated to know how an author discovers the idea or topic that becomes the “seed” of their story. When did you first learn about the Triangle Fire? What in particular drew you to it as the material for a novel?

A. I read a lot of historical fiction, so while looking for an idea for my next writing project, it occurred to me that maybe I'd like to try creating some. In wandering the Internet looking for historical women who might be interesting topics, I came across the fire. I had heard of it before, but when I started reading about it, I couldn't stop. The bravery of the young immigrant women attempting to change their lives, the horror of the fire, the people's struggle to ensure such a disaster would never happen again...once I found it, I knew it was my topic.

So19 Interviews ANGELA BUCKLEY (part two)

The first part of my chat with Angela Buckley, which you can read here, focused primarily on Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders, Buckley's study of a fascinating if profoundly sinister female perpetrator of crime. In the second part of my interview with the "Victorian Supersleuth," we move on to her books about male policemen, which figure in different volumes as both investigators and victims. You can find Angela's books on Amazon's US and UK sites and on Bookshop.org. As always, check out her website and blog and visit her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages for more information on her work. With thanks again to Angela for her rich, thoughtful responses, here's the remainder of our chat.

Q. I’d like to circle back to a more general question. How did your focus on Victorian crime, underworlds and detection come about? Is it related at all to your interest in genealogy?


A. Yes, it was my own family history which lured me into the Victorian underworld! I started researching my family’s past during a career break about twenty years ago and I soon discovered that many of my ancestors had broken the law. Subsisting at the bottom of Victorian society, they committed crimes such as petty theft, drunken and disorderly behavior, and even swearing on the highway! When I turned my attention to my roots in my home city of Manchester, I made an astonishing discovery: my 3-x-great-grandfather was a notorious brothel keeper right in the heart of the crime-infested slums in the mid-19th century. After that, I delved deeper into crime history and have remained fascinated by it ever since.

So19 Interviews JENNIFER ASHLEY

I'm delighted to share my interview with fiction author Jennifer Ashley, whose latest mystery novel features the reconstructed Crystal Palace in Sydenham, one of my favorite Victorian structures. Jennifer writes mysteries, romance, and historical fiction as Jennifer Ashley and Ashley Gardner, as well as a few series under the name Allyson James. Ashley, who has been published for approximately twenty years now, has written 115 or so novels and novellas. Find out more about Jennifer and her work on her website and her Facebook and Twitter feeds. Death at the Crystal Palace can be purchased on Amazon, Bookshop.org, and through your local independent bookstore. Many thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to speak with me; I hope you'll enjoy our chat!

Q. Before we dig into the Below Stairs series, talk to readers about your different authorial names, genres, and projects. You’re a real writing and publishing dynamo.

A. I have several historical mystery series going. As Ashley Gardner I write the Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries (1816-1820 and onward) and the Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries (ca. Rome AD 63), and as Jennifer Ashley I write the Below Stairs Mysteries featuring cook Kat Holloway (1880s). As Jennifer I also write romance (historical, contemporary, and paranormal). I certainly do a lot of writing! I enjoy the current series, and I always have ideas for new ones—new characters, time periods, and situations.

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 herself....it 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, Bookshop.org, and through your local independent bookstore.






So19 GIVEAWAY: Signed AFTER EMILY book and digital collage

I'm so delighted to announce our first Society Nineteen giveaway for the year, inspired by Julie Dobrow's rich and thought-provoking After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America's Greatest Poet. Click here to enter!

To enter, just follow us on Instagram and leave a brief comment on the contest post. Comments on After Emily, the poet herself, or anything else you're inspired to share are welcomed, but it's fine to say "I'm in" or just post an emoji too.

Chosen by random drawing, the winner will receive a signed copy of Julie's book and a signed print of the digital collage I made to celebrate its themes and cover. For more about the book, read my interview with Julie and visit her website. For more on my art, visit my arts blog.

Entries are accepted from 9/15/21 through 9/29/21; the winner will be chosen by random drawing on 9/30/21 and notified via Instagram message. This giveaway is open to US residents only; no purchase is required and there's no need to enter more than once.

Click to be redirected to Instagram and enter


My digital collage, "Blossoming, I"


About the collage and book

Click to buy After Emily

So19 Art: "VIEWING VICTORIAN CRIME"

Completed last week, this digital collage celebrates the work and books of Angela Buckley, who writes, blogs and posts as The Victorian Supersleuth. My interview with Angela on her book on Amelia Dyer can be read here; the interview's second half, covering her other books, will appear on So19 this fall.

The background is a vintage photo of the (now defunct) Clappers bridge in Reading. I liked the energy and symbolism of the water, which suggests both the rushing passage of time and the turbulence that crime brings in its wake.The bridge is among the settings in Buckley's book Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders.

The three images in the magnifying-glass lenses come from Buckley's book covers: the Amelia Dyer cover in the center, part of the cover of her The Real Sherlock Holmes at left, and part of the cover of her Who Killed Constable Cock at right. A semi-transparent image of a circular lens used on top of the book cover bits helps give the magnifying lenses a more realistic look.

The circular motifs above the two smaller magnifying glasses combine a key motivation for crime (money, in the form of a 19th-century half-sovereign coin) and a historic result of criminal activity (the hangman's rope). 

Buckley's initials and her Victorian Supersleuth soubriquet appear in a font called Bleeding Cowboys, which I love for its grungy, grandiose flourishes. An antique wood frame surrounds the whole. The bold blue and gold colors of the piece felt suggestive of police uniforms as well as nicely Victorian to me.

It's so much fun to make art inspired by the generous and talented authors who chat with me on So19. Thanks to Angela and her rich, thoughtful books for providing such great inspiration for this piece.

For more on Angela, visit http://victorian-supersleuth.com. Visit https://www.sfoxarts.com and https://www.sfoxartsblog.com for more on me. 


Digital Collage (c) Suzanne Fox 2021.
Book cover images used with author permission.
Vintage public domain photo of the Clappers Bridge
All other images are stock images