19 June 2018

Time's River - Reflections on a Research Trip


πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει" καὶ "δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης
-          Heraclitus (c.535 – c.475 BC), quoted in Plato’s, Κρατύλος

I caught a glimpse of Arthur’s Seat looming overhead as the train pulled slowly into Waverley Station. The thought then struck me – that it had been something like fifteen years since I’d last visited Edinburgh. That seemed hardly possible. It didn’t feel like it was that long ago. Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities, and my memories of previous visits there seemed so fresh and clear. I’d been there three times before, each time for work. Twice working at the National Museum, and once at the Museum of Modern Art. On my last day at the Museum of Modern Art I got the job finished nice and early and so had some time to kill before my flight home. It was a nice day, weather-wise. One of the staff there who I’d been working with suggested I walk back into town along the Water of Leith ... Sounded interesting. I had no idea what an enchanted suggestion this was until I found my way down to the little wooded track and began to wander downstream, beside the winding brook babbling its way over stones, under a leafy green bower of arching trees. It was a gorgeously sunny late spring / early summer’s day. A sun-gilded day that remains etched in my memory. The solace of a solitary walk. Breathing fresh air. The sound of water, and the dappled dance of sunlight green filtered through trees, filled with birdsong. I had no idea then that this was merely a taster of my next trip, nearly fifteen years on.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh

I’ve just spent a wonderful week immersed in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Getting to know the great plant hunters of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands of the early twentieth century through their own words. Trying to work out what they thought of each other; hoping to map out their networks of rivalry and reciprocity. Seeing how they balanced their pursuit of pure science and commercial prospecting; pleasing syndicates of eminent professors, wealthy aristocrats, and the financially astute seed barons of the big nurseries (Veitch, Bees, Caerhays) who had sponsored their collecting trips; journeys in which they intrepidly “travelled off the edge of the map.” 

The Science Building at the RBGE

Menconopsis 'Slieve Donard'
The archives of the Botanics really are a treasure trove, and, like the best of all archives, one which provides the researcher with a quiet calm oasis in which to sift and ponder one’s subject in peace and comfort. No matter how much time you spend in places such as these, it’s never enough time. There’s always plenty more to read through than you can humanly manage. You’d need a lifetime to do it all real justice. So many tangents tantalisingly present themselves as you go, carefully sifting and gleaning your way through pages made brittle with the passing of time; like peering through a slit in the curtains of memory, offering a glimpse into an intimate world long gone and altogether removed from our own. 

One of George Forrest's campsites, near Lichiang (Lijiang), Yunnan, with stone weighted flower presses in the foreground (RBGE/RHS)

At first there’s a strange feeling as you begin to delve and sift. A strange frisson of excitement and fear. The sheer quantity of words, all written in unfamiliar scrawls, seems utterly overwhelming. How on earth are you ever going to process, absorb, and assimilate all of this primary source material in the time allotted to you? – But the only thing you can do is start at the beginning, and simply begin to read. Slowly your eyes adjust. Slowly, you get to know the distinctive handwriting of your subjects. Gradually, you get to know the people they are addressing. Soon enough, you start to perceive the nuances of character. Hierarchies of class, social standing, formalities, connections, intimacies, expectations, gratitude, grudges, jealousies, friendships – all these aspects begin to emerge, bit by bit. Layer upon layer, you begin to build your own thoughts and perceptions of these people. But you should never forget to check yourself. You should never assume too much. For example, in this instance people in these archives may begin as rivals but later on, years and years further down the line, they can end up as esteemed colleagues, friends even. And you must always be mindful to the fact that there might be something you’ve missed. Things are bound to slip through the mesh. You may not be able to examine all seven metres of shelving as forensically as you’d wish. Sometimes other researchers are poring over boxes you’d love to get your hands on. Inevitably there will be boxes you’ll have to pass over on this particular trip, hoping you’ll get a chance to come back again at some point further down the line, to check your sources and refine your first siftings – it can feel like you are panning for gold in a river where all of the sand equally glitters and sparkles.

The Himalayan Blue Poppy (Menconopsis 'Slieve Donard')

The Hankerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata)
I’m a museum person by trade, I suppose. And in many ways that makes me a terrible researcher. All museum people tend to be hoarders, and we all have an innate tendency to invest great and equal importance to all aspects of the past. To us the most mundane remnants of the past can assume as great a weight as the most momentous things. A plain and humble undecorated pot sherd can sometimes tell us far more than the dazzling golden and exquisitely inlaid turquoise trophy statuette of some long dead king, and so we obsess over the minutiae and get bedded down in the details when time should be of the essence. I’m a completist. I want to assimilate and absorb it all. 

I often think though how lucky (and in some ways how cursed) I am that I left it so late to start my PhD – because now we have all the advantages of the digital age, things that simply didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate; where we can search through library databases, collating lists of obscure journal articles which we might never have stumbled upon otherwise; and likewise, when in the archives, we can scan and photograph reams of material which we can take away and pore over at length afterwards, outside the archive. Accruing for ourselves an endlessness to our quest which can beguile and overwhelm us by turns all the more oppressively. I’m often left wondering: where and when will I know to draw the line? Where and when to say here and no further: This is as much as I can humanly do at this moment ... My subject will always be evolving. I may need to revisit and revise the things I think and the things I write now further down the line. But then is then, and now is now. You can only cross those bridges further down the stream when you eventually come to them. It’s impossible to look at everything, to read it all and to take it all in, and know it all completely. As Heraclitus observed, you can only step into the same stream once, because it is always changing, always flowing … πάντα ῥεῖ

Archives seem static, but really they too are rivers, rivers of memory. Everyone will take different things from dipping into those same waters. That’s why it is also fascinating to bump into other researchers in such places, people looking at the same material as you. Others obsessed with the same historical characters as you are. Chatting to them reveals nuances you might not have seen otherwise. (I was very lucky on this particular research trip. It was like my bibliography had come to life! – Magically enabling me to make some great new academic friends, quizzing them directly on things I’d read in their published works). Similarly, consulting the same archives other scholars have worked on and written about before you may well cause you to revise your own thoughts and the opinions you’d made from reading their works. The things which may have seemed definitive may well begin to crumble, or, seen in a new light, they begin to change their reflections as you read around the passages those other scholars who have gone before you have quoted from these same letters, reports, extended diary entries, and the like. We are lucky these places exist.

Rhododendron campylogynum (Forrest 27357)

Rhododendron forrestii (sadly not in flower)
I was doubly fortunate on this particular trip. Reading through the words of the plant hunters, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward, Reginald Farrer, Joseph Rock, George Sherriff and Frank Ludlow. The men who had stepped “off the edge of the map” (Kingdon Ward’s phrase, yet often echoed by many of his fellow explorers, “the first white men” to wander up these valleys and mountain passes). Some of their papers still contained packets of seeds they’d sent back. Seeds which had been cultivated at the RBGE, successfully propagated, and then sold to the public by commercial nurseries such as Bees and Caerhays, introduced to everyday gardens across the country. My inadvertent luck was timing. For this was the time of year when many of those plants they’d first brought back to the UK were now in flower. Each day after the library closed there was still a couple of hours left where I could wander around the gardens of the Botanics (which, unlike Kew Gardens, is free to enter!), hunting down those same plants. The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Menocopsis Slieve Donard. Augustine Henry and Ernest Henry Wilson’s tree of "ghostly handkerchiefs", Davidia involucrata. George Forrest’s Rododendron forrestii, and Rhododendron campylogynum. Kingdon Ward’s Rhododendron pemakoense.

Rhododendron pemakoense (Kingdon-Ward 6301)

In many senses, it seemed a perfectly rounded research trip – studying these men who were themselves so fascinated by nature, hunting through their words as they’d hunted for plants in the foothills of India, Burma, Tibet, and China. Each day began and ended with a walk by the Water of Leith. Time in which to think through ideas inspired by the words I was reading in the archives, planning out what material I hoped to examine that day, and reflecting on the things I had found so far. All the while listening to that relaxing sound of water babbling over a tumble of stones. Catching glimpses of birds down by the water’s edge or up in the leafy boughs overhead. Dippers, Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds, Mallards. Meeting dog-walkers and their dogs gleefully happy to be out on the same riverside walks as me, feeling just as gleeful and happy myself. It hardly seemed credible that I was in a major city, with all this abundance of nature, wildlife, flowers and fresh air. A serendipitous discovery after dinner one night was the fact that the restaurant I’d dined in was the birth place of the artist, David Roberts – another explorer of a different sort, who in the early nineteenth century painted so many magnificent views of the ancient ruins in Egypt – his house built in 1605.

The House where the Artist, David Roberts (1796-1864), was born in. Built 1605.

That first afternoon when I arrived in Edinburgh I began by strolling up the Mound, past the Castle and then down into Grassmarket, in search of a second-hand bookshop I remembered from my last visit to the city – but sadly it was gone. Evidently long gone. Now a trendy eatery. Like all the other trendy eateries along that road. But happily I did find another second-hand bookshop near the Botanics, and perusing its musty basement I found a gem of a souvenir to compliment my trip – and more importantly to compliment the reading material in which I had been engrossed for the week or so prior to my trip: George William Usill’s Practical Surveying – A Text-Book for Students Preparing for Examinations or for Survey Work in the Colonies (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1900). The books of Frank Kingdon Ward’s protégé, Ronald Kaulback, and his friend and fellow explorer, John Hanbury-Tracy (the subject of next month’s post here on Waymarks) are filled with passing references to mapmaking in these regions. Hence I’d long been wanting to hunt out a contemporary book such as this one, which might lend some insight into the rudiments and the mechanics of the scientific instruments and the survey methods which these rum chaps (their books are particularly humorous too!) would have been using on their long and arduous treks through the borderlands of India, Burma, China, and Tibet.

Dalrymple-Hay's Curve-Ranger

Plane Table

Transit Theodolite (fitted with a supplementary level)

All in all it was a highly productive and useful trip. Unexpectedly relaxing and refreshing, it was exactly what I needed to reboot my flagging mind and faltering stamina. It’s flipping hard trying to write a PhD part-time! – Trying to sustain concentration, snatching an hour here, half an hour there, in my lunch hour, in the evenings, and at the weekends; whilst still having to contend with day-to-day chores and the demands of an often very demanding full-time job. I seem to be permanently tired all the time, and often find I can’t help falling asleep after eating. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life; but my PhD is a real labour of love, and that’s why every day I sorely wish I had the luxury of focussing on it full-time. 

As I found my seat on the train heading home late on the Friday evening at the end of my trip I realised that the carriage was full of teenagers, sixth formers in their final year, who’d all been visiting the University at Edinburgh – “checking it out” as one of their prospective choices after they complete their A-levels ... It startled me somewhat to do the arithmetic in my head and realise that many of these kids were born around the same time I made my last few trips to Auld Reekie! … For a moment I envied them starting out, studying full-time. But then it occurred to me that I was just as lucky as them, in that even though it’s taken me a long time to figure out what area of history I wanted to specialise in, I’m very fortunate that the system allows people like me to come back into the education game (thanks to Birkbeck!). The stresses and strains for me are no less than they are for these kids; of course, some are the same (time, money) and some are different (work, life). But it’s all part of the process. That river of time somehow speeds up in some ways as you get older, but in others it also slows down. Time waits for no one, even when it dawdles. The Water of Leith seemed no different last week to how I remembered it on that sunny summer’s day all those years before (… before those prospective students were even born!) – the same river, but also a completely different one – archived in my memory, yet still flowing from the past into the future. 

I’ll get there in the end, and there will come a day when I look back and wistfully say to myself – “When I was writing my PhD … blah, blah, blah.” – It will be the golden times such as these, my research trips to the libraries and archives at the Botanics, the Royal Horticultural Society, the National Archives at Kew, the Royal Geographical Society, the British Library, and a whole host of other magical places that I will remember most fondly. Because it’s in these places where we are able to wander “off the edge of the map” and really begin to explore. The last part of the challenge though, as for all explorers, is writing it all up, tying it all together and charting our route through, so that others might follow where we have been and see the things we’ve seen, reinterpreting them anew.

Special thanks to Leonie and Graham at the RBGE’s library for all their very kind help and interesting chats about the wonderful archives in their care, their deep knowledge of which is truly fantastic. The RGBE’s library is certainly one of the most welcoming and comfortable research libraries I’ve ever visited. 

If you happen to be in Edinburgh next month and you are interested in hearing more about the plant hunter, George Forrest, do go to hear Leonie Paterson’s talk at Lauriston Castle on July 19th, 2018. 

Also on ‘Waymarks’

to 2005 << << << Rewind


  1. Good to read this and particularly about very familiar territory. (Once lived in Stockbridge). Love the blue poppies.

    1. Many thanks. Sorry for the late reply, blogger seems to have stopped sending notifications saying a comment has been posted, so only just seen this, FifePSY. Stockbridge is lovely. One day, if/when I have a garden or balcony I'm going to try growing blue poppies.


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