A Book Review: The Signature of All Things

Organisms classified as mosses.  72nd plate from Ernst Haeckel's "Kunstformen der Natur" (1904, public domain)
Organisms classified as mosses. 72nd plate from Ernst Haeckel’s “Kunstformen der Natur” (1904, public domain)

We have read little fiction in the past few years, as we struggle to keep pace with the scientific literature that is revising conservation biology.  Happily, we were recently given the opportunity to read a charming work of fiction that is firmly in the center of our interest in botanical issues.

The Signature of All Things was written by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Its title refers to a botanical myth about which we have published an article that is available here.  The Doctrine of Signatures seemed a logical botanical belief at a time when plants were one of man’s few medicinal tools and religion was a powerful influence in human society.  The Doctrine of Signatures, which was actively promoted by the church in 17th century Europe, was based on a belief that God had “signed” plants with certain suggestive shapes and colors to inform humans of their medicinal properties.  For example, a heart-shaped leaf was considered God’s message to us that a particular plant would be beneficial to the human heart and this message was strengthened by a flesh-colored flower. Every plant was believed to be useful in some way if man could only discern its purpose.  Else why would they have been created, since the Garden of Eden was created for the benefit of man?  The church encouraged man’s study of plants as a way to worship God’s creation.

After reading a rave review by one of our favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, we were unable to resist the diversion to this story that is inspired by botanical history.  Kingsolver concludes, “The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.”

Signature begins in Kew Garden in London during the 18th Century reign of one of our great horticultural heroes, Joseph Banks.  We featured Banks in an article about the English garden.  He began his career as an intrepid collector of exotic plants when he joined one of Captain Cook’s voyages into the Pacific.  He returned with thousands of plants from all over the world and they became the core of Kew Gardens, one of the greatest horticultural collections in the world.

The hero of Signature is sent by Banks on expeditions to collect valuable plants and his adventures are an historical account of early explorations of the New World.  We learned from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast that the physical hardships of these voyages are not exaggerated by Signature’s fictional account.  The hero of Signature eventually makes his home in Pennsylvania and his extensive garden there is reminiscent of the garden of John Bartram, the Early American collector of plants about whom we have also written.

So you see, Signature covers familiar ground for us and we enjoyed revisiting it in the company of an extraordinary heroine, Alma Whittaker.  She is gifted with a remarkable mind and her equally intelligent parents provided her with the education and tools needed to make life-long good use of her talents.  She “discovered” her own version of evolutionary theory based on a deep understanding of mosses, which model the mechanics of natural selection.

We don’t wish to give away too much of the plot because we hope you will be intrigued to read it.  Readers will have the privilege of eavesdropping on a fascinating (fictional) conversation with Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin.  Although Darwin and Wallace shared a belief in evolution, they diverged on a variety of other topics.  Wallace’s busy mind strayed into spiritualism, hypnotism, and mesmerism as well as left-wing politics.  Wallace was as eccentric as Darwin was sensible and cautious.

Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace

Our heroine, Alma, confides to Wallace that despite a tortuous path in life, she considers herself lucky: “I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world…This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities.” 

Alma’s confession was a welcome reminder of why we persist in our effort to inform the public of the destruction of our public lands by native plant “restorations.”  Although we make little visible progress, we have learned a great deal about nature.  That is our reward.  Thank you, Alma, for the reminder of our mission to understand and inform and to Elizabeth Gilbert for the very pleasant entertainment of The Signature of All Things.