Whereas the rest of our PNW tour was a rollicking, high-energy, roll around various National Parks and sights of Twin Peaks significance, this stop in the pastoral San Juan Islands National Monument I intended to be a peaceful meanderment during which I might catch up on long-overdue reads and we might sit tranquilly staring at white sailboats bobbing in the surrounding clear blue waters framed by picturesque mountain-clad Islands in the background.
Alas, upon disembarking from the ferry to Orcas Island I found myself bereft of the dozen or so books that I was reading before the newly-minted bride and I departed St. Louis thus I was delighted to encounter Darvill’s.
Initially, I searched in vain for The Expurgated Version of Olsen’s Standard Book Of British Birds. You know, the one without the gannet. But although there seemed to be a lot of books in the store, the gannet-less Olsen’s was not to be found
After a brief search my gaze alighted on a small book with a beautiful cover and an odd title:
The book, written by Jonathan Drori, a former BBC documentary filmmaker, takes us on a journey that begins with the London Plane and travels Eastward ending in the Americas. Along the way, Drori provides an intriguing 1-2 page description of the history and unique biology of 80 obscure to seemingly mundane trees, outlining the vital roles the various barks, leaves, fruit, seeds played in human religion, medicine, industry and culture. Each page is accompanied by 1-2 pages of illuminating and pleasant illustrations by Lucille Clerc.
In Madagascar (where most non-human species are endemic and unique) we learn about the Traveller’s Tree or fonsty which is “half glorious, half ridiculous and all spectacular”
I love Drori’s descriptions of these trees: “the pale yellow flowers of the traveller’s tree..emerge from tough and boringly beige-green bracts that resemble pelican beaks stacked in the centre of the foliage.” And I desperately now want to travel to Madagascar, in part to observe the black and white ruffed lemur with its “permanently startled expression”
On my way to Madagascar I hope to stop off in Malaysia and taste the fruit of the Durian tree which is the size of a rugby ball and covered with spines.
Next up on our itinerary would be Indonesia to view the upas, a tree nineteenth-century European travellers reported was so “abhorrently toxic that just to look upon it was gravely dangerous.”
Although the upas’ latex contains deadly cardiac glycosides which the indigenous Indonesians applied to make poisonous blowpipe darts its dangers were overhyped by Victorians.
I found this paper (wonderfully entitled “Vegetable monsters: Man-eating trees in fin-de-siècle fiction) which notes that the legend of the fearful toxicity of the upas came from the overblown tales of a Dutch surgeon: “As a result of Foersch’s widely-circulated narrative, the word “upas” was rapidly incorporated into the English lexicon; writers such as Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens use the upas as a metaphor for a person, object, or idea that has a poisonous, destructive atmosphere.” See here for some upas literary quotes.
Around the World is chockablock with pithy stories of how humans have interacted with trees in various ways. Often, the story goes along the lines of humans find useful substance from tree, exports and activity harvesting the substance increase exponentially outstripping natural resources, then synthetic substitute discovered. The rubber tree is a fascinating example of this.
I found this book to be a wonderful read. Consider buying this at a local bookstore, hopefully like Darvill’s, and gift it to the tree-lovers in your life.
N.B. Jonathan Droi, CBE is a Trustee of The Eden Project, an Ambassador for the WWF and was for nine years a Trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and The Woodland Trust. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society and the Zoological Society of London, and a former documentary filmmaker with the BBC.
N.B.2 I referenced Monty Python’s Bookshop sketch above. The history of the sketch is outlined here. I was previously familiar with the Python version from their contractual obligation album which is awesome but Marty Feldman did an earlier version with John Cleese which is well worth watching.