Albert Bonniers förlag, 2011. ISBN: 9789100125776
Reviewed by Helena Forsås-Scott in SBR 2011:2
A leading novelist, well known for her interest in the natural environment, and an emeritus professor of the history of ideas have written a book about plants. The essays cover topics ranging from taxing expeditions and scientific intricacies to plants in cultural history and literature. And this is not one of those jointly authored books consisting of separately written chapters: as dedicated amateur botanists Ekman and Eriksson have made most of their discoveries together, just as they have conducted their discussions and done their writing together, with one of two stylised flower symbols identifying the ‘jag’ (I) at any one point in the text. The result is a book conveying a unique mixture of curiosity and enthusiasm, science and scholarship, with the addition of an acute awareness of cultural and environmental change as Ekman and Eriksson celebrate what Linnaeus termed ‘scientia amabilis’, the science most deserving of our love. The impact is enhanced by the generous quotations from both literary and scientific texts and the many wonderful illustrations, with Ekman’s photos in particular often forming exquisite compositions. Scientific precision is fundamental to the botanist. A flora, a magnifying glass and a herbarium may all be needed to identify a plant, and as we know there is a direct connection between seeing and naming. When Ekman and Eriksson were growing up, Swedish schoolchildren had to collect and press a certain number of plants every summer, learning their names in Swedish and Latin. But already by the late 1950s, this activity had become voluntary; and there has been nothing to compensate for the loss of knowledge that followed its disappearance soon afterwards. As Ekman and Eriksson also remind us, the botanical mapping of Sweden was a lengthy and frequently arduous undertaking, and they trace some of the often very difficult journeys to Lapland undertaken from the seventeenth century onwards by scientists such as Olof Rudbeck the younger, Linnaeus, Göran Wahlenberg and Sten Selander, adding to the flavour of the conditions by interspersing the narrative with an account of a trip to Badjelándda (Padjelanta) by Gunnar Eriksson and his brother Henry in 1957, complete with a list of the provisions and equipment they had to carry. In the account of Ekman and Eriksson, the sense of enthusiasm and excitement uniting these travellers across the centuries becomes palpable, irrespective of whether the find of a rare plant provides an opportunity to name it after the then king, as it did to Rudbeck the younger in the late seventeenth century, or the platform for a theory about the survival of plants during the most recent ice age, as it did to Selander in the mid-twentieth century. To Ekman and Eriksson field edges and rubbish dumps can be as interesting from a botanical point of view as remote mountain locations. As they explore the spread of a rare Centaurea, brought to Sweden by Finnish immigrants several centuries ago, or trace a species of grass that reached northern forests in the hay fed to horses pulling timber during the winter, or investigate the surprising flora to be found along the country’s oldest power lines, they illustrate, again and again, humankind’s dependence on plants. This dependence is reinforced, in a different key, by the numerous examples of the role of plants in literature, from Icelandic sagas to work by poets such as Goethe, Stagnelius and Harry Martinson. Ekman’s and Eriksson’s illustrations, of all categories, often also provide reminders of changes over time and so help strengthen the environmental concern that is such a central thread in these essays. Inspired and inspiring, this unusual book is also an important one, and the generous bibliography provides plenty of ideas for further reading.