October 7, 2017

Sanchezia parvibracteata (common name Sanchezia), 1991 (pen and ink on Bristol board)

In the late 80s and early 90s I worked as a botanical and entomological illustrator at the Academy of Sciences. This pen and ink is an example of how plants being studied are typically drawn. In the center is the “habit” of the plant (what it looks like with all it’s parts attached in their proper place) and surrounding the “habit” are various plant parts (sometimes rendered as though it has been sliced open to show what’s inside). Such illustrations are also traditionally drawn in black and white as they are printed in a black and white monograph that is shared with other scientists, or in this case other botanists. I suspect there are only a couple hundred people in the world who actually see these published works, and printing in black and white is substantially cheaper than color. Sorry this photo of a copy isn’t so great, but the original went to the botanist and the crispness of the line looks kind of blurry.

I loved the many hours I spent making these drawings in the quiet of the various artist’s rooms at the Academy. And I loved the time I spent with the various scientists there, especially the people in the botany department. It was clear that everyone loved their work and they often had lunch together during the week. Thinking back it’s fun to remember a couple of particularly wonderful lunchtime conversations when Tom (John Thomas Howell) was there. He had been Alice Eastwood’s assistant at the Academy, starting in 1929, and had assisted Ms. Eastwood until she retired in 1949. Tom finally retired in the 1960’s. That meant he had been coming to the Academy probably close to 30 years, post retirement. Like I said, these were people who loved what they did—very inspiring!

Who was Alice Eastwood?

Alice Eastwood was an early California botanist (not a native Californian) who was credited with building the botanical collection of the Academy of Science’s Herbarium starting in 1891. One lunchtime Tom (native Californian, born in Merced in 1903) told the story of how Alice Eastwood single-handedly saved the plant collection of the Academy (then down on Market Street) after the 1906 earthquake. As much of San Francisco was on fire after the quake, the Academy building looked like it was going to burn down too. Tom said Ms. Eastwood placed a ladder up to an upper story window and crawled inside. Bringing the hem of her apron (yes, ladies of the day wore aprons) to her waist, she created a kind of large cloth envelope to carry the stacks of prepared plants from the Herbarium. Holding the bulging apron closed with one hand she carefully hung on to the ladder with the other and climbed down to the street below. She placed the items in a safe, but temporary spot, and went back up the ladder for another load. Tom said she did this over and over again until the entire collection was removed from the building, and then the whole collection was taken to a safe place. To this day, I can picture a very headstrong woman (wearing a long skirt with a starched white apron full of dried bits of plants attached to card backing) going up and down, and in and out. That must have been quite a sight to see, with what must have seemed like the whole world on fire all around you.

More about Tom

Our lunch conversations were quite a bit livelier when Tom felt well enough to come in and work (yes, work) on some of his “Flora of California” studies. His particular specialty was Eriogonum (common name buckwheat). Even though he had retired so many years earlier, he still had an office and was Emeritus Curator of botany and a Fellow at the Academy. He told so many stories of early plant collecting in California and how the truly gifted botanists collected plants that were a bit further away from the train tracks (yes, the only way to get to many places in the now “road covered” California was by train, horseback or by foot). According to him it was only the bravest of botanists who would traipse around the hills and dales of California like John Muir. He also told a story of Peter H. Raven, a world-renowned botanist who headed the Missouri Botanical Garden (world-class center for botanical research and education). He thought it a very funny comment that he once told Peter, when he was a young undergraduate, that he would never amount to anything because Peter had terrible handwriting. That really seemed to amuse the almost 90-year-old Tom.

I remember another particular lunchtime encounter with Tom when the hills of Oakland were burning out of control (October 1991). We were all sitting around at lunch, talking about the fire and who was worried most about his or her house, or if we knew of someone who had either lost their house or was about to be evacuated. There was one woman who said her house was pretty close to the flames and she was kind of waiting for the “mandatory evacuation” call from the fire department. She said that she was ready to leave at a moment’s notice as she had all her shoes in the car. (Of course no one let her stop there.) She added that her shoes were ready to be evacuated because it was very tricky for her to find shoes that fit her foot comfortably and she didn’t want to lose a single one. That got a few smiles from the group. Of course Tom had something to add. He said he remembered a particular fire where he had to make just such a choice, but he didn’t have a car and the fire he remembered was the Berkeley fire of 1923. Tom was an undergrad at UC Berkeley at the time and the city just north of the campus, where he lived, was on fire. He recounted that he was dragging his trunk, full of as many earthly possessions as would fit, down the stairs of his multi-story flat. He said one of his roommates was yelling at him because he was leaving great marks and grooves on the hardwood floor. Tom said he took no notice and continued dragging the trunk down the stairs and out the door to safety. It seems that particular building, along with almost 600 other houses in north Berkeley, burned down in that fire. So, who cared about some marks on the floor? Right? And of course that story amused Tom as well as the rest of the nervous botany department staff who were a little on edge about the current fire burning out of control in their neighborhood.

By the early 1990’s Tom’s health had deteriorated and he came the Academy less often. In May 1994 he passed away. It was fun to look him up on Google. There he was in glorious black and white, ready to tell us yet another story. I don’t know how many of the scientists I met at the Academy are still there department. I know the entomologist I’d worked for retired. But I noticed the two botanists I had previously worked for are still there. Makes me wonder if either of them have retired, but still have an office in the building. Maybe they still come in and continue their studies of the plants they are so passionate about. I hope so.

Note about natural disasters in California: We struggle with earthquakes, fires, and all too frequent floods brought on by the occasional deluge that races through burned out canyons. And whatever the weather in any given year, you can always count on mudslides and road closures on Highway 1 just around Big Sur—one of my favorite places on the planet. But don’t tell anyone it is my favorite, people will want to come here.

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