Well, admittedly this isn’t a garden visit, but one thing I realised when walking round the gardens in Kent – the Garden, after all, of England – is how little actually comes from England. The ideas, the plants, even the gardeners. So here’s a poem about plant collectors that I spliced up with history (and home made seed packets) for an installation in the wonderful reconditioned light vessel (now arts facility) LV21.
If you’d prefer the poem ‘pure’, you can hear me reading it here:
Down in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.
When I think of plant collectors I think of Sir Joseph Banks. Although not the first – Chinese botanists were collecting roses more than 5,000 years ago – he might have been the richest. His second voyage was with Captain James Cook of the Endeavour to record the transit of Venus across the sky in 1768. It must have been like a trip to space. Strange to think that there has only been one other pair of transits between then and recently. The next two will be in 2117 and 2125.
He counts his catch, tucks each seed
up in its own hand-written box, an ebony
cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
Anyway, Joseph Banks caused his own sensation by refitting his quarters on the Endeavour and funding the expedition at a cost of nearly £10,000 – nearly three times what the boat originally cost to build and a sum which would translate into millions today. He was only 25 but luxurious in his tastes. Plant collecting seems to have been the equivalent in coolness to owning a football club – although more dangerous.
He dreams of growing a fresh desert
one day, of these dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.
Lucky Joseph Banks made it home safely and with most of his collection intact. Others weren’t so fortunate. Francis Masson, sent to Madeira by Banks many years later, was drafted into the local militia to defend against French attack. Then he was caught and imprisoned by the French, and lost most of his specimens. He was eventually freed but on the way back to Britain, a hurricane destroyed the remainder. On another trip he was caught by a French privateer, and nearly starved to death before being transported to New York. From there he went to Canada, still amazingly collecting, but he froze to death near Montreal.
His bones ache as he waters
the dust, while on the deck above,
Or not. Even if the plant collectors faced danger, their conditions were still easier than the crew, many of whom will have been pressganged. Another collector sent out by Banks was David Nelson who travelled with William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. It’s said that the crew partly mutineered because the plants on board were given all the fresh water. Before the captain and Nelson were left, thousands of plants were thrown over board. Revenge can be sweet.
the wooden mast dances
in perfect tune with the winds,
until reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance.
Masts at that time would have been made out of the trunk of a conifer – one single piece. The Bounty had one single purpose – to transport Breadfruit from Tahiti to the British West Indies. It was cheap and therefore the perfect food for slaves.
like baby gowns, christen the sea.