Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Reading, Glaciers, and Love in the Botanical Exploration of China's Borderlands

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Reading, Glaciers, and Love in the Botanical Exploration of China's Borderlands

Article excerpt

May your spirit and your virtue serve the meaning of the earth. . . . Man and Man's earth are still unexhausted and undiscovered.

Nietzsche1

1.

Making nature, making places, and making persons are ineluctably social and incorrigibly intertangled processes.2 Making nature, places, and persons in colonial or, better put for the case I will examine here, imperial situations were also, especially in their mutual entanglement, thoroughly textual processes.3 The nature of European imperial possessions and their peripheries came into being through documents: maps, surveys, censuses, and treatises that filled the imperial archives; botanical, zoological, geological, and ethnographic descriptions that accompanied specimens and photographs into scientific institutions; narratives of travel, conquest, and exploration that circulated in the public realm; and letters to family, friends, patrons, and parishioners that made colonized places vital participants in intimate relationships. We know a good deal about how layered taxonomies of beings, regions, and societies emerged through these documents; we have paid much less attention to the ways nature, place, and person became entangled in the practices of documentary production: in the textual practices of writing, revising, and reading, and in the walking, looking, collecting, cataloging, naming, and photographing (to speak of natural history alone) that accompanied these textual acts.

How might documentary production have become a structuring element of natures, places, and persons in imperial explorations? How might specific practices of writing, revising, and reading have organized perceptions of the earth and its inhabitants; how might these practices have worked their way into the social relations that organize such perceptions; how might they have nurtured or circumscribed specific forms of personhood? Here, I want to delimit these questions by casting them as questions about particular kinds of intimacy. First, an intimacy of eye and earth, occasioned by a particular model of reading, in which the eye follows marks on a surface, linking them up into continuous forms, gaining access through them to larger narratives of time and space. second, an intimacy of domestic love and obligation conditioned by that same model, in which traces of debt and gratitude are linked together into lifelong narratives that sustain particular forms of social relatedness. Finally, an intimacy of earth and person, in which readings of the earth and readings of lives twine one through the other, shaping and disrupting each other.

Recalling Walter Benjamin's advocacy of a historical materialism that "blasts the epoch out of its reified 'historical continuity/ and thereby the life out of the epoch and the work out of the lifework" to present "a given experience with the pastan experience that is unique," I want to focus my questions on only a few documents.4 The epoch with which I am concerned is that of the British imperial cataloging of the world's nonhuman beings, specifically of those of one "last white space on the map," a vast mountain region of southwest China, in particular west and northwest Yunnan, west Sichuan, and southeast Tibet, from which British botanists, between 1904 and 1945, in a final exuberant spasm of the epoch's taxonomical zeal, collected, named, and (in many cases) introduced into British gardens an astounding haul of decorative plants, as well as hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and butterflies. The life is that of Frank Ward (1885-1958), who from 1911 to 1948 made twelve expeditions to this region to collect its plants, first for the seed firm Bees Ltd., later for private syndicates of wealthy gardeners, with the active aid of hundreds of the region's human inhabitants. The lifework is that of Francis Kingdon-Ward (Ward's nom de plume), a name attached to twenty-five books and over 650 articles describing the botany and geography of the region, as well as hundreds of letters, diaries, field notes, sketches of maps, and embryonic drafts of unfinished works. …

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