By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
I recently cataloged a small field book by a “Mrs. William Owen”. I found this book unusual (and very interesting) for several reasons. First of all, the diminutive book contains entries on only 16 collected specimens, but the entries are incredibly rich and descriptive; I can almost hear her thoughts as she wrote them. Secondly, no years are included. No specific localities (beyond Guatemala) are written. And for the life of me, I could not find biographical information on this woman! Thirdly, her entries include a wealth of information on the native names and uses of plants. Uses of plants range from medicinal, to culinary, to bases for useful products and tools.
Take, for example, this entry:
Chu-che’ [Indian] This tree has no Spanish name. Its Indian name Chu-Che means bad smelling (Chu) tree (che’), because the branches when broken emit a strong pungent odor. The leaves of this tree after being wilted over embers are burned to the temples to relieve neuralgia. It grows like bamboo or cane putting up shoots from the root until 3 or 4 years old, when it becomes a gnarled and unattractive tree. Of the long straight shoots of the young tree the Indian makes his blow gun (pub-che’).
What a great deal of information Owen has provided in a short paragraph! She gives a detailed physical description of the plant, including how it looks at varying stages. Even more interesting is the information she includes regarding the use of the plants by native Guatemalans. No Latin name is given for this plant, but she has indicated the local language name. I especially love the fact that this tree is used for a blowgun.
I wish I could find more information on this woman. Was she a botanist? Plant enthusiast? Ethnographer? What years did she work? (Her materials don’t have dates!) What brought her to Guatemala (assuming she emigrated there)?
When searching for biographical information on a “Mrs. William Owen” I found some materials on someone who studied Guatemalan folklore, and was married to Captain William Owen—Mrs. Mary Owen. There isn’t enough evidence to be sure it is the same person, but this is my favorite (unfounded) theory.
So, I will put this out there for all. Do you know who Mrs. William Owen was? Comment below!