|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. 342 February 2, email@example.com||Victoria, B.C.|
To past and future Botany BC participants:
The evening of Thursday May 26th 2005 marks the start of the 20th Botany BC. This year's event is being held in the thriving village of Lytton BC at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. Botany BC 2005 will continue until Sunday May 29th 2005 and will feature exciting trips into the Stein and Botanie Valleys, scintillating, humorous and educational speakers/presentations as well as other creative activities. Further details, including an itinerary and registration forms will be posted on the Botany BC website http://members.shaw.ca/dmeidinger/botanybc/ by the end of February.
I want to thank the members of the Academy for inviting me to speak here tonight-the first ever keynote address at the Oscars. It is a great honor, and I feel privileged to be in the company of the other incredibly talented nominees. Addressing all you glittering stars here in the Kodak Theatre, and all of you, the billionsome movie fans in the worldwide television audience, well, truly it's stunning!
As you know, I am an educator as well as a botanist, so to introduce my topic I want to start out with a quiz. Please don't get nervous; you'll get to grade yourself! But see if you can identify the movie in which the following botanically oriented character appears:
How did you do, Jack? And you, Nicole?
The answers will follow, I promise.
The function of this quiz is to point out to you how often we don't notice what is right in front of us. Scholars tell us that one of the best ways to learn is to have questions in mind, to always be looking for something.
As a movie lover and a botanist, I notice when plants and botanists show up in film. It's an Aha! moment. And believe me, these moments don't occur as often as I would like. In my remarks tonight, I want to subject the movies to the lens of botanical science-the study of the foundation of all life on the planet.
Without the photosynthetic mechanism of green plants to capture the sun's energy, life on earth would not exist. Their role in our daily lives as food, fuel, fiber, medicine, building material, and aesthetic objects gives them importance as a filmic subject.
Is it just that familiarity breeds contempt? Yet how many people are actually familiar with the plants (or the botanists) around them.
One of our roles as botanists is to name the diversity of plants, and by naming it, make it visible. A first question we all ask is "what is it?" You have to know what to call something if you are to see it well.
Plants of power and mystery do crop up in the movies every now and then. The bloodthirsty plant in Little Shop of Horrors, the tree that kept Merlin captive in Camelot, the edelweiss in The Sound of Music, and the poppies in the Wizard of Oz -these and more populated the movies I grew up with. As my eye for plants developed, I also noticed some botanical howlers. The Southern California oaks and chaparral out back of Los Angeles stood in for "the West" in countless westerns. I saw green clothespins holding on the bean leaves in The Milagro Beanfield Wars. The Last of the Mohicans featured tall shrubs of Rhododendron in what was supposed to be upstate New York. If you film in South Carolina, the botanists in the audience are going to figure it out.
I don't mention these botanical gaffes to demean my colleagues, the "greens" staff whose names are buried in the credits. Their work often creates remarkable and diverse impressions, such as the gardens in Howard's End and A Room with a View, or the topiaries in Edward Scissorhands. No doubt the greens workers, like most botanists, labor under difficult conditions, tight schedules, and budgetary constraints.
Plants in movies are rarely central to the plot, even if they figure large in the setting. The same can be said of botanists in film. Their work seldom drives the plot, unlike that of cops, murderers, and spies. You'll see that botanists frequently portray stereotypes or personify societal anxieties.
Throughout the nineteenth century, botany ruled. Clubs, outings, and specimen exchanges enrolled participants in the tens of thousands. When botany was so popular, it was considered a genteel and healthy activity for girls and women, thus tainting it as an endeavor for boys and men. Botany held less value than more masculine pursuits.
One editorial lamented that "the boy who, having an eye to see and a heart to feel the beautiful in nature, undertakes to master the charming science is taunted as a 'girl-boy' and as unmanly."
By 1887, when botany was shifting from the study of natural history and an emphasis on taxonomy to more experimental work in fields such as plant physiology and ecology, the journal Science published an article titled "Is Botany a Suitable Study for Young Men?" It argued that botany was indeed appropriate for men who were "able-bodied and vigorous brained."
Botanists of various stripes have been popping up in films since the 1920s, and in the first half of the twentieth century they reflected this idea, that botany wasn't quite a manly profession. This attitude shows up in films such as Local Boy Makes Good (1931) in which a timid, bookish botany major pines for a beautiful coed. He is a proverbial ninety- eight pound weakling, but one who overcomes his limitations (and his interest in botany) to win a track meet and get the girl. In the French film classic Grand Illusion (1937), Erich von Stroheim plays the stern and upstanding German commandant of a World War I prisoner of war camp, complete with monocle and stiffly buttonedup uniform. He summons an imprisoned aristocratic Frenchman to his office. When the Frenchman observes the one bright spot of color in the prison, a potted geranium on the windowsill, the commandant says scornfully "We are not just botanists here." As if to say, botanists could not be soldiers, could not be men.
In Ball of Fire, a 1941 movie starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, this botanist-as-wimp stereotype reaches its peak. Cooper plays Professor Potts, an awkward but handsome grammarian who lives with seven other scholars, including a botanist (Richard Haydn). Cooper recruits Stanwyck, a lounge singer named Sugarpuss O'Shea, to help him with his research into slang. The botanist is the only one of the scholars who is a widower, not a bachelor, so he is considered a man of the world, and capable of giving Cooper/Potts advice on love. But our botanist wears an old fashioned (even for the 1940s) high starched collar, a wing coat, a white bushy mustache, and pince nez glasses that hang from a chain. He walks with his chin thrust forward and his rear stuck out behind, slightly stooped and clearly silly. His voice emerges from halfway down his throat, as if he were gargling with marbles, and he enunciates his words with overelaborate care.
Toward the end of the film, when the road to true love isn't running smooth for Sugarpuss and Professor Potts, the botanist tells about his long ago honeymoon in the Alps. He compares women with the trembling windflower, Anemone nemorosa, enunciating this scientific name carefully in a cascade of syllables. He emphasizes that a woman must be treated with utmost delicacy, or like an Anemone nemorosa that has been visited by an unruly bee, all will be lost.
During their honeymoon, he says that his bride produced a collection of fourteen excellent watercolors, and that each evening he kissed the palm of her hand. Even now he is stunned at his boldness.
The botanist's name? Professor Oddly.
After World War II, the climate in American films shifted for botanists. While still all male and white, they could be botanists and consummate heterosexuals. In 1949's Family Honeymoon, the "bachelor botany professor" is plagued with a scheming ex- girlfriend after he marries a widow with three children. The Snow Creature (1954) features a botanist adventurer whose collecting expedition to the Himalayas nets not only plant specimens, but an abominable snowman who escapes captivity to murder and pillage in New York.
All that Heaven Allows (1955) features Jane Wyman as Cary Scott, an upper middle class suburban widow who falls in love with her gardener. Rock Hudson plays Ron Kirby, the gardener who is "taken with trees." He points out to Cary that she has a Koelreuteria, or golden chain tree, growing on her patio, and that the Chinese say a house will be full of love with that species growing nearby. Their relationship really takes off when he asks her "Do you want to see my silver- tip spruce?"
Kirby/Hudson is tall, dark, and handsome, with a deep voice and a well-groomed pompadour. He wears khaki pants and plaid shirts open at the neck, showing a clean white undershirt beneath. A friend of his says that Kirby "doesn't read Walden, he lives it!" A member of Cary's country club calls him "her nature boy." What a dreamboat! He's sensitive, his own man, and an ardent lover. What delicious irony that Rock Hudson, a gay man, plays this masculine heterosexual hero-a war veteran who pulls corks out of Chianti bottles with his teeth.
Ron Kirby/Rock Hudson has such a way with those Latin names! He's very botanically oriented although he defines himself a gardener and a nurseryman. He lives in a room next to his greenhouse. Botanists in film all tend to work in greenhouses or in the field. While in real life botanists do work in those settings, we also work in labs, libraries, herbaria, museums, and offices. You members of the Academy may not know that botany can encompass all branches of plant science, from plant physiology, plant anatomy and morphology, to the study of algae (phycology), fungi (mycology), and mosses (bryology), just as filmmaking involves everything from costume design and catering, to accounting and acting.
Botanists can study ecosystems, whole organisms, cells, or molecules. Some botanists never set foot in the field, but most will work in a laboratory at some point, or collaborate with someone who does. Labs and offices are less picturesque than greenhouses or jungles, and I can understand why you filmmakers rarely or briefly show them in most movies.
Incidental botanist sightings occur in a number of films. In E.T.-The Extraterrestrial (1982) the space creatures come to earth to collect botanical specimens-that is what E.T.'s parents are doing when he gets separated from them. They are hurriedly gathering species in the dark, a difficult working situation for any botanist. In Jurassic Park (1993), Laura Dern plays a palaeobotanist. She has just a little time to ooh and ahh over some living examples of extinct plants before she starts running for her life.
In Cousin, Cousine (1975), a French romantic comedy, cousins by marriage start a relationship with each other. Ludovic (Victor Lanoux), the male cousin of this pair, is a free spirit; he changes occupations every three years. The job before last was as a mycologist; he found a prize specimen of Boletus parasiticus. When I saw this film, the college-aged audience laughed knowingly, in a way that reminded me that most people think of fungi primarily as mushrooms, and that "mushrooms" can have a psychedelic connotation. This character's charm depended in part on his dilettantism, although in real life a three-year long acquaintance with fungi is hardly sufficient time to develop the proficiency he claims. Botany attracts a certain number of dilettantes, as do other fields, but botany also draws many obsessive-compulsive personalities. How else could people find themselves specializing in phallic and foul-smelling corpseflowers and stinkhorns?
Silent Running (1971) is one film in which botany is central to the plot. Bruce Dern (father of Laura Dern) plays Lowell Freeman, a scientist who continues to maintain his spaceship- greenhouse in opposition to the rest of his crew and contrary to orders from the authorities. He is trying to save Earth's plant life after the planet has become too polluted to support it. Freeman sets his spaceship greenhouse loose into the outer beyond, and his only companions are the small robots and the plants on board his ship. The robots take on more and more endearing qualities, but the dialogue devolves into a series of monologues from Dern's character, with some chirps and squeaks from the machines. At least he doesn't talk to the plants.
This free man, a man of conscience, is torn over losing human companionship but he commits himself to preserving what remains of Earth's plant life. He'll never know the ultimate fate of his space- bound, photosynthesizing cargo. In this way, his circumstance echoes our own, whether we are botanists or not, as stewards of life on this planet with a responsibility not only to our own species but also to life as it has evolved here. This life that may be unique in the universe, despite the hundreds of science fiction films that posit otherwise.
Freeman grows long hair and a beard, and he wears a series of oh-so-seventies caftans. Although he's a man of principle, his taste in clothes strikes us now as laughable, even embarrassing. What to wear in the field is always a troubling mix of practicality and fashion.
Another botanist with sartorial difficulties emerged in the 1971 film, A New Leaf. Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a monumentally selfcentered rogue who has run through all his own money; to stay solvent he must marry a rich woman within six weeks. The object of his scheming is the marvelous Elaine May playing Henrietta Lowell, a socially inept and clumsy botanist and heiress who forgets to clip the tags off her new clothes. She is a fern expert, a pteridologist. The script enhances its botanical credibility by having May's character speak excitedly about receiving correspondence from "Wagner in Michigan." The late W.H. Wagner was an eminent American pteridologist at the University of Michigan for some forty-plus years. Any botanist interested in ferns will recognize his name. In the movie, Matthau's character succeeds in wooing the toothy, spectacled taxonomist. Then, on their honeymoon, he attempts to murder her by pushing her off a cliff.
Before her rescue, while clinging to the rocks, she finds a fern species new to science. She names it after her new husband.
The character of Henrietta Lowell interests me for several reasons. Despite the "gentility" of botany and thus its suitability for women, May's character is the earliest female botanist in film that I have found. Elaine May wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, but in 1971, during the second wave of feminism, she made Henrietta awkward and mannish. This perhaps follows a comedic imperative, but it also expresses society's uncertainty about women's roles during that time.
Still, the character is ultimately, determinedly her own person, with a vocation and a marriage. We see her doing what taxonomists do: finding and naming and classifying life on the planet. Her interest in science is not predicated by any ideas of usefulness for human beings, or any conservation urgency, or any spiritual calling. She doesn't give a reason for her engagement with her study; she doesn't feel that she needs to.
Early in the 1990s, as a working botanist, I had a brush with the film industry myself. At the University of Washington Herbarium I received a call one day from an assistant set dresser for the film The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. The movie was being filmed in Seattle. My heart beat fast, my face flushed, I was all atwitter-was this the start of my career as Botanist to the Stars? Little did I know I would end up here on stage in front of you tonight!
The set dresser asked me to look around and tell her what I saw. What was on the walls of my office? Surely I had some botanical prints they could rent for their set? I told her about the dull brown metal bookshelves, stuffed with fraying nineteenth century books. I described the smudged white walls that surrounded me, and how ranks of seven-foot tall cabinets filled most of the room. I explained that I sat in a windowless basement, with a ten- dollar wildflower calendar hanging above my desk.
In The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), Annabella Sciorra plays Claire, who is building a greenhouse in her backyard. The house she shares with her picturesque family sits in one of Seattle's tonier neighborhoods. Unlike my office, her home is clean, bright, cheerful, and tastefully decorated with art prints and area rugs. My input didn't appear to have had much effect.
Claire also volunteers at a city park greenhouse (filmed at Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory), which provides another colorful backdrop. She says that the Conservatory is "one big botanist family" that talks about "root rot and the drainage properties of shredded bark." I think the script consultant who talked with my colleague at the University greenhouse paid better attention than the set dresser; drainage and root rot are big topics. In the film, Claire and her husband hire a nanny, the toogood-to-be true Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay). This woman proves to be a psychopath, and she uses the backyard greenhouse to commit a grisly, glass shattering murder. The botany here is subservient to the plot's expression of societal tension. The film demonstrates a profound misogyny, in keeping with 1990s apprehensions about yuppie women "having it all." While purportedly showing Claire's fulfilling life with her loving husband, cute kids, affluence, and satisfying avocation, the real message is that Claire should stay at home with her children. She shouldn't need a nanny.
The early 1990s were a hard time to be a woman botanist in the movies. In Green Card, Andie MacDowell plays Bront‰ Mitchell, a New Yorker desperate for an apartment that includes a greenhouse. This is no little rooftop hothouse built from a kit, with listing shelves of vegetable seedlings. Rather, it's reminiscent of a Victorian conservatory, with high arched ceilings and mature plantings. To be able to lease this apartment, she must convince the building's board that she is married, which is how she hooks up with Georges Faure (Gerard Depardieu), a French musician who wants to stay in the United States. At the beginning of the film, Bront‰'s occupation is the nicest thing about her: she facilitates the provision of garden spaces in the city. Otherwise she is a hard driving hardass, selfish, self-centered, dishonest, and unethical. During the course of the film, the sensitive artist Georges teaches the rude scientist Bront‰ how to be nicer, more genuine, and more compassionate.
Then consider the treatment of Dr. Rae Crane (Lorraine Bracco) in Medicine Man (1992). This film intends to show the environmental urgency of rainforest destruction-how the tropical rainforest is the repository of so many of the planet's resources, and yet we don't know or understand all that lives there. Sean Connery plays Robert Campbell, a botanist who has requested a research assistant from the private foundation that funds him. He's been incommunicado for the past three years but now he seems to have found something important, although he's not saying what. Rae Crane's occupation isn't explicitly stated although her self introduction implies that she is a plant biochemist. She journeys to Campbell's rainforest compound, bringing with her a gas chromatograph and the other supplies he requested.
Campbell is by turns rude, arrogant, demanding, mysterious, and officious. He expresses scorn for Crane on all levels. He ridicules her expectations for food and a place to sleep. He jeers at her boots and her lack of field experience. And he derides her gender. Bracco's character shrieks and gesticulates, repeatedly demands a bath, and threatens to withdraw funding for his research program. Clearly, they deserve each other.
All this bad behavior must be for dramatic effect, of course. We moviegoers rarely reward films in which people are nice to each other with blockbuster attendance records. In my experience, however, most scientists in remote field locations go to great lengths to extend courtesies to one another across divides of culture, gender, age, and nationality. If field biologists are new to a location or a culture, they will go without rather than presume. If they are hosting visitors, they will try their utmost to provide information and comforts to new arrivals. Incivility and arrogance can certainly be found in plant science, but among botanists in the field I have rarely encountered it.
Despite his rudeness, Connery's character is deeply, almost fanatically, committed to his research, to the rainforest, and to the people he is living among. Early in the film he subjects Crane to a medical exam so that she won't infect the native people with any diseases she might be carrying. A noble sentiment, profoundly at odds with historical precedent, but made ludicrous by the superficial medical knowledge portrayed in the exam; it is the screenplay's excuse for Campbell to probe Crane and to set up the inevitable love-thang between them. Unfortunately, this begins a long series of scientific inanities in the movie. When Connery's character says, in his mellifluous brogue, "I found the cure for cancer, but I lost it," he is giving voice to farcical popular misconceptions about science. The idea that one scientist, working alone in a rustic, palm- roofed, field station, could know that he had a cure for anything-let alone cancer, which is really many different diseases.well, that is so ludicrous that I choked, laughing, on my popcorn.
Now, my point here is not that I am so much smarter about the workings of science than the screenwriters who developed this script. I understand that drama has exigencies of its own, and that a Hollywood film is primarily about entertainment and not education-although we all learn from movies, whether that is their intention or not. The plot of Medicine Man disappoints me precisely because it has so much potential to say something true, or at least pertinent, about the tropical rainforests' importance to humans and to the planet.
At least in Medicine Man the botanist's work is central to the story, which isn't the case in almost all of the other movies in which botanists appear. You could replace "horticulturist and greenhouse" with "photographer and darkroom." Or "botanist on an expedition" with nearly any other kind of field scientist (e.g., geologist, zoologist, entomologist). The occupation of most of these botanically oriented characters is secondary to the main drivers of the plot, which are usually love, murder, mayhem, or all three.
With Chris Cooper's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as John Larroche in Adaptation (2002) to start off the century, I have great hopes for botanical presence in films to come. Are you listening Harvey Weinstein? How about you Steven Spielberg? And you, Martin Scorsese? John Larroche is worlds away from Elaine May's timid pteridologist, but he too follows his own way. He is disrespectful of authority, convinced of his own righteous opinions, but he has a painful past that makes him sympathetic. He's no better than he has to be, but he's awfully good at what he does.
Adaptation works on many levels, but John Larroche fascinates Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the journalist who is writing about him, precisely because of his passion. It's his passion she's hot for. Well, maybe it's the drugs, too. But her urban jadedness contrasts with his rugged, working-class enthusiasms, in a tradition that can be traced at least as far back as Lady Chatterley's lover. The cross-cultural romance is one of film's stocks in trade. Certainly the class transgression is part of the draw in All that Heaven Allows. We see it also in Greenfingers (2000) when sexy lout Colin Briggs (Clive Owens) and his fellow prisoners create a garden that attracts the attention of horticulture diva Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren in some fabulous hats). Clive Owen and the diva's daughter start a romance, and the diva herself takes up with one of the other gardener-convicts.
Beyond being a working class hunk, what John Larroche does in Adaptation is find and grow orchids. He tantalizes Susan Orlean with his obsessive curiosity. When she meets him, his interest is orchids. Before that it was fish. And will be something else. But when he is interested in something, he gives it his all. That rings true for me. The botanists I know tend to be impassioned about their subject. This can be lucky for them, to be so committed and engaged in their work when so many others have less passion about what they do.
Perhaps it is similar to a mania for filmmaking? In Adaptation we see screenwriter Charlie Kauffman (Nicholas Cage) tormented as he wrestles with the unwieldy but fascinating material of Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Ultimately he opts for the conventions of cinematic storytelling, with drugs, guns, car chases, and murder. This serves as a commentary on his creative struggle, but more importantly it slyly scrutinizes-and lampoons-the expectations of Hollywood and the movie consumer.
Well, this consumer loves a movie that makes me laugh and cry! Your industry understandably focuses primarily on the human condition. But while some movies do show concern for issues of social justice, more often they dwell on sensationalistic crimes, infidelities, and explosions. Film is another medium where we as a species show our almost complete focus on ourselves. This anthropocentrism may be our ultimate undoing. I suggest that the intersection of humans and nature at large-and not just big animals with sharp teeth-offer a fertile ground for the practitioners of your art.
Botanical and other scientific adventures can be exciting and rich. There are big stories to explore here. Spectacular stories could be told about the science of plants: their discovery, their use, the tragedies of habitat loss and the extinction crisis. I'm thinking about Erin Brockovich-type stories of halting development to preserve biodiversity.
I'm thinking about the heroism of Soviet scientists who literally starved to death rather than eat the seeds they were charged with preserving during World War II. I'm thinking about larger than life, colorful characters:
These are just some of the possibilities. You are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences! I invite you to consider how your art, your science can interact with the green life that supports us all. There are a million stories in the naked herbaria, laboratories, and greenhouses of the world.
What would happen if you make plants and our planet more central to your art? The winner would be ... all of us.
Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
BEN is archived at http://www.ou.edu/cas/botany-micro/ben/