The Poison Chronicles: Bryony – Deadly Margins

I’ve written a blog post on White Bryony for the Manchester Museum Herbarium.

Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

WP_20170307_08_08_25_Pro Margin Illustrations from The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. Image Source.

The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is one of the most famous and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. It is a collection of prayers and psalms for each of the hours of the medieval religious day made for the personal use of the Queen of Navarre somewhere between 1328-1343. The book is lavishly and elegantly decorated with images of saints and angels framed by a naturalistic border. This curling foliage has been referred to as ivy, but was identified by Christopher de Hamel actually white bryony, Bryonia dioica.

Bryony is a notoriously poisonous plant, so the scenes the illuminator painted are far from idyllic. As de Hamel writes in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts,“The world in the medieval margins is not a comfortable place, any more than the gilded life of Jeanne de…

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Book Review: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths

tristamania

Writing a good memoir of mental illness must be like navigating rough seas. It is easy to have your boat buffeted by the storms of trite melodrama, glamourising of sickness (or accusation of), boring the reader with the wasteland of depression or a scaring them off by a display of wounds still bleeding. But with her latest book Tristimania, Jay Griffiths sails as if on a smooth lake. She at once conveys the raw truth of her experiences of mental illness and synthesises it into a network of literary and cultural associations to form an effortless whole.

The book is subtitled A Diary of Manic Depression, evidently added by the publisher to make plain the subject of the book; the term “tristimania” is a now obscure 18th century term for manic depression. Referring to the book as a diary is probably to fit it into the market for confessional non-fiction writing. The book does have a large element of this, but anyone expecting it to be a journal written in an acute hypomanic episode will be misled. As Griffiths would no doubt point out, the word “diary” derives from the Latin diarium, translating as daily allowance. Tristimania has few dates and the this retrospective charting of a rough chronology of a recent year of hypomania is frequently interspersed with exploration of the figure of the manic-depressive in culture. She draws upon myths of Mercury, the trickster and the shaman and explores etymology and Shakespeare. The book shows a mind agile and eager to make sense of herself in the world, but this does give the narrative a sense of disjointedness..There is not a clear tug of narrative through much of it; it meanders and I found myself flicking through the book to see where exactly this was going and little would have been lost by excising some discussion of Mercury and trickster. But such nebulous writing is rather like acute mental illness itself. A spell of illness is a break from the narrative flow of life as planned, in its place are days that all run into one another, which is why sculpted mental illness narratives so often ring false. The book is complicated and knotty, it is not a matey autobiography of a comedian or a celebrity self-help memoir, but much more can be learnt from this than something more easily digestible.

Griffiths has mixed-state manic-depression, an under-discussed condition where mood cycling is rapid and rather than the summit of mania, there is hypomania in the foothills. She acknowledges her hypomania and depression is not as dramatic and destructive as it can be for some. A more pedestrian telling of her experience would be rather dull, she spends the year hunkered down at home with friends and her wonderful doctor, no gambling, promiscuity or drug use. Eventually the medication starts to work and whilst she is still rallying she sets out solo to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is not a story of a miraculous recovery; she is incredibly fortunate to have a good doctor that leads her out of her acute spell of madness as well as meds that work and supportive friends, as well as of course the written word.

She takes a romantic, humanistic approach to mental illness. She doesn’t dwell on her brain misfiring and neurotransmitter imbalance, instead talks of the psyche, myth and etymology, digging down into the hidden histories of the words in our mouths. She is a writer enraptured with words, their meaning and importance. She is most luminous on metaphor: “’Meta-phor’, in its etymology, means a carrying-across of attributes from one thing to another. […] If a person uses a metaphor, they are carrying themselves over, towards the listener, but in madness this need becomes infinitely more intense. In a manic-depressive episode, metaphors are heavy with meaning, and the metaphors one chooses must carry an almost unbearable weight. This, I think, is why people are so stubborn about repeating the precise metaphors which tell their truth.” She places her doctor’s following of her metaphors as key to her recovery. The book is profoundly literary, though naturally my library has shelved it in the “Shelf Help” section, as this is rapidly becoming the NHS mental health services. But worthy of the librarians’ decision, this literarity is tied to a belief in the healing power of words, texts and stories.

The retrospective layering of scholarship and intertextual references is making plain what all recollections of a personal spell of madness are, a reconstruction. The prose is not from the eye of the storm, she makes it clear she would have not been able to, but at a few years’ distance. What struck me within the first fifty pages was the poeticism of the prose, and surely Griffiths writes “What does it want, this madness? Language. In my case, specifically, poems.” She yearns for and writes poems during her months of hypomania, and on the Camino de Santiagio de Compostela reads and gives out poems to fellow pilgrims from an anthology compiled by friends. After the prose testimony, where we leave Griffiths “small but alive”, there are a series of luminous, acute poems written during hypomania. The poetry and prose deal with the same events, such as the night thoughts of suicide were scuppered by the cat bringing in a dead treecreeper from the snow, but with different aspects of authorial mood, form and temporal relation. It is an interesting exploration of the two forms, but the unexepected appearance of the poems could lead the prose to feel superfluous, especially to the reader bored by Griffiths banging on about Mercury and The Winter’s Tale.

What is so often left out of the “miracle recovery” mental illness narratives is how even illnesses that can manifest so acutely as Griffiths’ does cannot be comparentmentalised from the self. As she writes: “To me, the experience of having manic depression can never be separated from my sense of who I am. It runs through me like wine through water: everything is coloured (or tainted) by it.” She certainly doesn’t glamourise her hypomania, it makes her dependent and physically weak, but also takes a rather culturally relative stance on the nature of illness and society. In the right environment, the manic-depressive aspects of her personality that are always there can be an asset; in the past they were for the court jester, the shaman and to an extent the modern artist. As she writes “it seems to me that we, the bipolar-mad of today, take the role of the unemployed court jester, crying for our demeaned status as living ruins when, in the remains of magic, mystery and majesty, we are reduced to pathology. If we do not have a role worthy of our wodness [an Old English term, referring to a frenzied madness] , then we will be ill, for illness is the only category which our culture allows us in this age of literalism […]”. The task of society is not to ameliorate the dysfunctioning mind, but to make viable ways for these people to apply themselves to what they do best, art or magic or both, for the sake of the wellness of all in society. Those with the skill, vision, bravery and honest of Griffiths must tell their stories and reveal their minds in order for us to inch day by day closer to such as world.

Book Review: Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin

flower-hunters

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last six months in the quiet corridors of the Manchester Museum Herbarium, helping with a lengthy transfer of packets of the General Moss collection from filing cabinet to boxes. Sifting through sheets and packets, I can trace the patterns that the personalities of the different collectors etch in the collection. I see the differences in packeting; ‘stuffers’ who see the size of the envelope as the minimum target and the ‘folders’, who encase tiny scraps in tissue-thin paper, the localities visited and the specimens selected which different personalities pick. It is inevitable that any Herbarium collection is filtered through the collectors’ passions and whims. Therefore, when I found a copy of Mary and John Gribbin’s Flower Hunters in the library, I picked it up out of a desire to learn more about the collectors whose specimens fill the shelves of herbaria throughout the world.

The book traces a history of botany up until the 20th century, when there still existed territories unaltered by human hands. There is a distinct horticultural slant, but does cover scientific and economic botany which interests me more. There is also more of a stress on Hunters than Flowers; biographic minutiae trumps botanical detail. I would have liked to have seen more on the bryophytological loves of Richard Spruce, for example, to get a feel for his mind and passions.

Across the biographical chapters of individual botanists, what piqued my interest was how class influence how these collectors could practice and were rewarded for their work. Whilst all suffered on arduous, years long journeys around the world, the gentleman (and gentlewoman) naturalist had a retinue and global connections. Their resources permitted the intellectual freedom to see global patterns in vegetation, which fueled evolutionary and ecological thinking. In contrast, working-class commercial plantsmen were sent out on their own and expected to keep their heads down, looking for the economically not intellectually fruitful, but only seeing the smallest slice of the profits their seeds and plants made.

The book is structured roughly chronologically, with each chapter on the life of a plant collector (or collaborating pair), hence showing the changing shape of science and adventure. The structure works well in the beginning, the early classification system of John Ray (1627-1705) is followed by the more familiar classification of Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). I was surprised to learn that Ray’s somewhat cumbersome classification based on essential features of the plant (such as the dicotyledon/ monocotyledon division still current) blended with Linnaeus’ user-friendly classification system based on somewhat arbitrary features (Crytogamia, anybody?) to create the bones of modern plant taxonomy. Linnaeus is not the origin of plant taxonomy, he had his own forerunners as well. We then move to Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), the de facto first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and friend of George III who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour. Here scientific curiousity is inseparable from imperial ambition, Banks saw the land and flora of the Pacific as ripe for “improvement” and exploitation.

Then follows the plantsmen, sent as the somewhat disposable employees of private companies into unmapped territory. These include David Douglas (1799-1834) sent alone on starvation pay by the Royal Horticultural Society to discover and collect plants including his eponymous fir and the Sugar Pine in North America. Expected to live on the land and employ local guides, his health was ruined, losing most of his vision and becoming rheumatic. He died in a bizarre, tragic manner; on Hawaii, his poor eyesight caused him to fall into an animal trap where he was gored by the trapped bull.

We then move onto a pair of similarly intrepid plantsmen, William and Thomas Lobb, who also brought large trees back to their employers. But with the later plant hunter, Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the voyages become more routine. His work involved trading, officially and unofficially, with other plant breeders in China. His notable achievement was in service of the British Empire, he was the first to take viable tea seeds out of China to establish successful plantations in India, ending China’s monopoly on tea. Though economic considerations went into even Linnaeus’ botanising, consideration of profit becomes more naked and unscrupulous.

Bucking the arch of the narrative is the figure of Marianne North (1830-1890). A wealthy woman, she circled the globe without the expected chaperone, not plant hunting for profit or for a scientific institute (as none would employ a woman to do so) but for her art. She was an incredible prolific botanical artist who, unusually for the time, painted plants in situ. She worked rapidly and in oils, producing what the Gribbins describe as not highly detailed but more importantly accurate. They are not plants “murder[ed] to dissect” but alive in their habitat, an ecological not an anatomical painter. I am hesitant to criticize the inclusion of North as I admire her as an intrepid artistic woman. But she does stick out of a narrative trend of increasing commercialization of plants precisely because she was not a plant hunter, with all it’s masculine connotations. She did not bring back the plants themselves as trophies, but her own impressions of the plants and their environments captured in the paintings. If her story was in the context of a discussion of the growing ecological understanding, amongst the stories of Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russell Wallace for example, it would make sense. But here it feels like she was shoehorned as “the woman” in a history of a period and profession which was more or less uniformly masculine. The best way to appreciate women’s contribution to science is to place them in their intellectual context, not to include them in a place where their lives seem superfluous and dismissable.

The final story is that of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), who I know best for the Bentham & Hooker System of classifying seed plants which the Manchester Museum Herbarium (and many other herbaria) arrange their specimens by to this day. This is not discussed in the book, sadly, as it would make a nice narrative circle from Ray and Linnaeus to Hooker. The focus is instead upon Hooker’s botanising in the Himalayas. He was one of the earliest Europeans to explore the Tibetan Plateau, and is largely responsible for the flourishing of rhododendrons in the gardens (and countryside!) of Britain. Less destructively, his collections form integral parts of many herbaria in Britain, including Manchester’s.

A book such as this does run the threat of superficiality and glaring omission (Darwin is conspicuously but understandably absent, but aside from Linnaeus there is an absent of the non-Britons). But more important is cohesion, which it ultimately lacks. It doesn’t make any conclusions about the state of botanical science in this period, merely presenting fascinating stories.  A book which treated the hunters and their plants on the same level, giving biographical and evolutionary detail alongside each other, would have made maybe a more enjoyable, tightly structured book.

 

The Poison Chronicles: Calabar Bean – A Life-Saving Ordeal

Another of my posts on the Manchester Museum Herbarium blog, on when an ordeal can become a remedy.

Herbology Manchester

calabar-bean-1 Calabar beans and seed cases from the collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium. 

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

For much of human history, people have sought to find a way to prove or disprove a person’s guilt. Today, we hope evidence and a fair trial will do this, but people have always wanted a quick and definitive way of doing this. This is where the idea of the trial by ordeal came in. Most people are familiar with the practice of dunking suspected witches in bodies of water in parts of 17th century Europe; if they floated they were guilty and if they sunk they were innocent. But in what was then called the Calabar region (now North-East Nigeria) in the 19th century, a particularly poisonous seed was used in these trials by ordeal. This plant, known as the Calabar bean, Physostigma venenosum, became notorious as a…

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The Poison Chronicles: Cyanide -Cassava’s Built in Pesticide

Another post on the Manchester Museum’s Herbarium blog, on cyanide and cassava.

Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

wp_20170109_11_56_21_proManihot esculenta leaf sewn onto this Herbarium sheet.

I remember hearing as a small child the rumour that swallowing a single apple seed would kill you. Whilst I later learnt that this was false, it is true that the cyanide in apple seeds means that theoretically, chewing a large number could cause poisoning.

Cyanide is a simple chemical produced by many organisms, often as an unwanted by-product. But cyanide is found in relatively high levels in many plant species, including the seeds of many common food plants, such as peaches, almonds, and legumes.

cassava Manihot esculenta tubers, sold as cassava or yuca. Source.

The cyanogenic plant I will focus on here is cassava, Manihot esculenta, also known as yucca. It’s tubers are a major carbohydrate source throughout the tropics due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil. It is probably most…

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The Poison Chronicles: Hemlock

I wrote a post about Hemlock for the Manchester Museum Herbarium Blog.

Herbology Manchester

wp_20170123_15_44_17_pro Herbarium Sheet of Conium maculatum from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Guest Post by Laura Cooper

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the most notorious of poisonous plants. It’s best known as the poison that killed the philosopher Socrates, and may even be indirectly responsible for the deaths of quail eaters, but even this species has been used as a medicine.

wp_20170123_15_44_31_proConium maculatum achenes from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

Conium maculatum is in the family Apiaceae. Many species in this family resemble hemlock as they possess white flowers in umbels, branches of the stem which form a flat surface, and pinnate leaves, resemble parsely (Petroselinum crispum) and wild carrot (Daucus carota). This has lead to foragers accidentally poisoning themselves, but most are put off by the “mousy” or foetid odour and bitter taste. This and red spots that appear on the base of the plant in spring…

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The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Nightshade — Herbology Manchester

Guest Post by Laura Cooper Binomials can be a pain to learn, but they often have a hidden poetry. Deadly nightshade’s common name stresses its notoriety as a poison. But it’s binomial, Atropa belladonna, is far more beautiful and apt. The genus name is derived from Atropus, one of the three Fates of Greek Mythology, […]

via The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Nightshade — Herbology Manchester