By Emmie Miller
Even having studied history in college, it is difficult to chase away the ennui of seemingly dead-end research, particularly when you imagine divulging exciting facts and uncovering lost secrets. For me, research possesses the allure of sleuthing a mystery. Spontaneous discoveries do not exist outside the realm of possibility, but more often than not, making difficult sources pliant requires context and focus. My experience with the Smithsonian Field Book Project exemplifies this process of making your search an informed one. When told I could write about almost anything pertaining to the field books, my question was, “Where to start?”! Eager as I was, I was at a bit of a loss.
Then I found an ink-etched scrawl in a seam between pages of Agnes Chase’s field book: “Who is Ramón Corral?” This was my spontaneous discovery! Never having heard the name, I asked the same question. Who was Ramón Corral? A quick search explained that Corral was vice president of Mexico from 1904-1911. Corral resigned from his post as incumbent president in light of revolutionary uprisings against the government of Porfirio Diaz. Diaz and Corral’s deposition began the Mexican Revolution that made Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata famous rebel leaders. This gave me context to understand one small mystery buried in Chase’s scientific notes.
Uncovering Corral’s identity also supplied me with the focus for this blog post. While Chase’s quick scrawl may have been a passing thought that was never answered, her presence in Mexico at this time subjected her to precarious situation, including growing revolutionary sentiments. Her exposure to this tension may have prompted her thought on Corral’s identity. Unfortunately, however, there was no other obvious record of conflict in her notes.
So began my hunt for other botanists with similar experiences represented in the field books. Some botanists used wartime as an opportunity for collecting, like Edward Palmer. As a Union soldier during the Civil War, his command sent him west to Colorado, a new biological landscape for him to explore; his field notes document his collecting during this time. Another botanist, Egbert Walker, received specimens mailed from American servicemen all around the globe during World War II after establishing the Servicemen’s Collecting Program, giving him access to diverse ecosystems. But the most intriguing botanical character to pursue life-threatening field work was Joseph Rock.
Rock was perhaps more an adventurer than a botanist. He spent his life collecting in Asia and studying Chinese and Tibetan indigenous cultures. Rock’s frequent use of Chinese characters in his field books demonstrates the degree to which Rock studied Chinese culture. He journaled his ambivalent feelings about China, criticizing the culture from his very Western perspective, though he often felt at home there. Context is pivotal here in explaining Rock’s experiences: Rock continually returned to China despite the five occasions on which violence interrupted or destroyed his work. This makes his field books more valuable, as Rock had, at times, poor luck preserving his scholarship. To understand the risk of his returns, you must understand Rock’s departures.
One of Rock’s 1922 field books gives a cursory glance at the difficulties of working in China. In a note to Smithsonian botanist William Maxon, he says, “I will mail [my field book] to you from China if I find a post office in Yunnan.” At what point he found a post office is hard to say, but presumably the note and the field book were sent together, reaching the Smithsonian safely.
Rock’s early years in China are well-documented, and while he botanized, he experienced localized tribal conflict. In one instance he’d made preparations for the precipitous journey to a mountain pass for collecting, but fighting between Chinese Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists jeopardized the expedition and it was called off. World War II further challenged Rock’s studies. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Rock fled to modern-day Vietnam. 1944 found Rock evacuated to the United States as WWII intensified in the Pacific. In 1949, Rock fled China for the last time during the Chinese Revolution.
The context surrounding Rocks’ exploits explains why my article’s focus is important: scientists often find themselves in dangerous regions in dangerous times. Rock’s location in the early twentieth century posed challenges due to the dangers and inconveniences of the politically unstable region. Like the other determined and ambitious botanists mentioned in this article, Rock would not be stopped.
Beaty, Janice. Plants in a Pack: A Life of Edward Palmer, Adventurous Botanist and Collector. New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.
Chase, Mary Agnes. Field Notes, Natural History Library (1906-1959).
Jowett, Philip S. The Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Oxford: Osprey Printing, Limited, 2006.
Palmer, Edward. Field Notes, Natural History Library (1861-1914).
Rock, Joseph F. Field Notes. Natural History Library (1920-1924).
Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA RU007270, Walker, Egbert H (Egbert Hamilton) 1899-1991, Egbert Hamilton Walker Papers, 1923-1987. Finding Aid. Smithsonian Institution Archives. 21 September 2012. http://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_arc_217427?back=%2Fsearch%2Fsia_search_findingaids%2Fegbert%2520walker. 11 July 2011.
Sutton, Stephanne Barry. In China’s Border Provinces: The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, Botanist-Explorer. New York: Hastings House, 1974.