On the morning that my wife Laura and I visited London’s Natural History Museum, one of the museum’s curators, Dr. Mark Carine, met us at a staff entrance on Exhibition Road, just across the street from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Dr. Carine was a phenomenally gracious host. A research botanist by training, he is the principal curator in charge of the museum’s Algae, Fungi and Plants Division. In addition, he oversees the museum’s Historical Collections Room, where the plant specimens that John Lawson sent to James Petiver in 1710 and 1711 can now be found.
Dr. Carine has a special interest in historical herbaria and has edited a splendid anthology called The Collectors: Creating Hans Sloanes’ Extraordinary Herbarium.
The Fossil of an Angel
Our path to the Historical Collections Room was itself an adventure. Even though Dr. Carine led us through the museum’s corridors at a good clip, my fleeting glimpses of the exhibits and collection rooms still sent my mind reeling.
It is all a bit of a blur, but I remember that we very shortly entered and passed through the museum’s largest gallery, Hintze Hall. An awe-inspiring skeleton of a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth, hung from the rafters.
The great skeleton was surrounded by a dizzying array of artifacts and plant and animal specimens that are meant to represent the history of our solar system and life on Earth.
Dr. Carine led us quickly through a labyrinth of corridors passing through exhibit galleries. Along the way, I thought that I caught a glimpse of the museum’s famous Archaeopteryx , an incredibly beautiful fossil of a creature that lived 150 million years ago and which looks partly like a dinosaur and partly like a bird, feathers and all.
The museum’s fossil was the first Archaeopteryx ever discovered. Uncovered in the Solnhofen limestone beds of Germany in 1861, the fossil played an important part in helping scientists to understand that, in a very fundamental way, not all dinosaurs are extinct: the birds that we see in our backyards and wild places are their evolutionary descendants.
Of course, at the time that the museum’s Archeopteryx fossil was found, few if any people had any idea at all what to make of it. At the time of its discovery, according to one report that I read, some people even thought that it was the fossil of an angel.
The museum is full of such treasures, 80 million objects in all, and many of them, like the Archaeopteryx fossil, were of singular importance in the history of science.
Some of the museum’s other treasures include many of the specimens that Charles Darwin collected on the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831-36. Darwin’s study of those specimens led him eventually to his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species.
In the Cocoon
While I was agog at my fleeting glimpses of the museum’s treasures, Dr. Carine soon led us out of the old 19th-century, terracotta part of the Natural History Museum and into the Darwin Centre, a very modern addition that was only finished in 2009.
The Darwin Centre is just spectacular. The central feature is an eight-story pod structure known as “The Cocoon.” It really does look like a giant butterfly’s cocoon, though one nestled within a dazzling glass room.
Inside The Cocoon, the museum has created a remarkable facility that specializes in research and education about biodiversity and the consequences of global climate change.
The Cocoon has laboratories for research scientists and spaces where the public can watch scientists at work. In some cases, museum visitors can interact with the scientists.
The Cocoon also houses the museum’s entomological and botanical collections, including more than 17 million insects and the three million plant specimens that I mentioned in the first part of this essay.
Laura and I followed Dr. Carine into one of the Darwin Centre’s lower levels, where we finally entered the Historical Collections Room. This is the museum’s special repository for its pre-Linnean (basically pre-1750) plant specimens.
The Historical Collections Room was like no other I had seen: it was a long narrow space with a curved wall on one side that reminded me of the interior hull of an old sailing ship.
Along that wall, cabinets with scores of sliding shelves housed the museum’s oldest plant collections. At its heart was the Sir Hans Sloane Herbarium, including an estimated 120,000 plant specimens from over 70 countries and territories.
Among them are the plants that John Lawson collected on the North Carolina coast and sent to James Petiver in 1710-11.
Other famous collections of plants from early American history were also there, including those of the great Philadelphia botanist and horticulturalist John Bartram.
The Days Before the Tuscarora War
Dr. Carine quickly located Lawson’s plant specimens in several volumes that either James Petiver or Sir Hans Sloane had bound 300 years ago.
He pulled a first volume off the shelf for us and I immediately opened it to a dried specimen of rose pink (Sabatia angularis), a lovely wildflower that Lawson or one of the enslaved Africans who traveled with him might have picked up in a forest glade or on the edges of a marsh or road.
On the same page as the rose pink was a bouquet of lovely flowering plants: a morning glory (Ipomoea hederacea), butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa L.), and a coastal or sand-hill thistle (Carduus repandus), all of which could have shared a meadow or glade with the rose pink.
The next page I looked at featured the leaf of a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), a fruit-bearing tree that was cultivated by Indian tribes throughout much of what is now the Eastern U.S.
In A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson wrote what was apparently the first description of a pawpaw in the English language:
“The Papau is not a large tree. I think I never saw one a foot through; but has the broadest leaf of any tree in the Woods, and bears an apple about the bigness of a hen’s egg, yellow, soft, and as sweet as anything can well be. They [the Indians] make rare puddings of this fruit.”
The third page I saw highlighted a kind of iris known as blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium); a fourth, coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens L.); and a fifth, a tough little fern known as ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron). And on and on and on.
Next to the plant specimens, in many but not all cases, I could see notes in Lawson’s handwriting. In most instances, he identified the plant and the location where he had found it, and sometimes there was a word or two about the kinds of ecosystems the plants favored or how the region’s native peoples used them.
I knew well the places where Lawson found the plants. Most of them are only a few miles from where I grew up.
Neuse River. Trent River. Salmon Creek. Croatan. Hancock’s Landing, Long Shoal River, Broad Creek, the Outer Banks.
In many instances, a museum curator long ago had added, in pen or pencil, the plant’s Latin name in the system of taxonomy that Carl Linnaeus created in the mid-1700s.
We looked at Lawson’s plant specimens all morning and into the early part of the afternoon. We went through them volume by volume, page by page, marveling at their fragility and luminous beauty.
My mind wandered to the time and place where the plants had first risen out of the earth: I daydreamed of those days before the Tuscarora War, the war that, looking back now, seemed to change everything.
I thought of the seemingly inexhaustible wildlife that Lawson had written about, and the world out of which the plants had come, and all that had been lost and forgotten.
I dreamed as well of ancient forests and unspoiled waters. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to watch flocks of migratory birds so large that they darkened the autumn sky. I walked through the towns and villages of the Tuscarora.
* * *
Many thanks to Dr. Mark Carine for sharing so much of his time and knowledge with Laura and me when we were at the Natural History Museum. For both of us it was a very special day.
I would also like to thank botanist Vince Bellis of East Carolina University for his article on Lawson’s plant collections that was published in the journal Castanea in 2009. It was tremendously helpful in writing this essay.
You can find photographs of Lawson’s specimens and Dr. Bellis’s identification of them at ECU Libraries’ John Lawson Digital Exhibit.
I am also indebted to Amy Hackney Blackwell and Patrick D. McMillan at Clemson University’s School of Agriculture, Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Christopher W. Blackwell in Furman University’s Department of Classics, for their very helpful article on Lawson’s plant collections that appeared in the journal Phytoneuron in 2014.
Finally, I also want to express my gratitude to Johnny Randall at the North Carolina Botanical Garden and to Carol Ann McCormick and Alan Weakley at the UNC Chapel Hill Herbarium for helping me to appreciate more fully the importance of herbariums in today’s world.
3 thoughts on ““One Book of Plants Very Lovingly Packt Up”: Searching for John Lawson in London’s Natural History Museum (Part 3)”
Very interesting. Thank you.
Very interesting. Did you ever go to the Herbarium in Boston? I remember walking by it nearly everyday wanting to tour it but never did.
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No, but I’d love to one day!