Book Review – Field Study by Helen Humphreys

“In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, collecting and pressing plants and flowers was a popular pastime the world over. Amateur and professional collectors gathered their specimens into notebooks and cabinets, preserving the botany around them for posterity.” 

I read this book in one sitting and it felt as though I had spent the afternoon with author Helen Humphreys. The book is an intimate account of her time spent at her local herbarium as she sought to find connection to those long gone. Humphreys set out to spend an entire year studying the contents of the herbarium. She describes her visits as “… an exquisite kind of time travel. And by learning more about the intersection of people and nature in the past, I hope to gain some understanding of where we can go from here.”

I love the concept of visiting the past via herbariums. Plants were collected for years by botanists and amateurs alike. The collections in a herbarium tell us a lot about what a certain area was like during that period of time. It also allows us to study plants that may no longer be around. Humphreys’ writes, “the herbarium is a catalogue of dead plants, but perhaps it also tells us, equally, about what it is to be alive – that the dead and the living not only share the same space but are, in fact, equal.”  

The collection and preservation of plants has been around for centuries and is still practised to this day. I really enjoyed learning that many of the submissions at the herbarium Humphreys was visiting were done by people living in the area. These people, usually women, would find plants in their yard and send them to the herbarium to be submitted into the collection. This level of naturalism is important to keep a record of a local area, even to this day. 

The descriptions of the plants in the herbarium are a delight to read. Humphreys shares descriptions of plants that people submitted along with their specimen and they vary from scientific and detailed to poetic and whimsical. 

Throughout her book, Humphreys encourages the reader to not lose hope and to appreciate what lives and thrives around us. She stresses the importance of taking climate change seriously but acknowledges that the constant stress and worrying about the outcome of the planet can be taxing. It’s important to focus on what is around us and what we have to protect. It’s a nice message, and one of the more optimistic ones I’ve read in a book that touches on climate change. 

There were a lot of women mentioned in this book and a recurring theme is that it used to be unsafe for a woman to go out adventuring and plant collecting on her own, so many women kept to smaller areas (like their backyards) to collect and observe plant specimens. It’s a fascinating insight to what the world was like in the nineteenth century, particularly for women. 

Humphreys talks about a woman named Mary Treat, one of four women botanists in America who were published before 1880. Mary was self-taught and well respected by professional botanists and scientists, including the likes of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray. I was surprised to learn that Mary didn’t travel far to collect and study her specimens. Like many women at the time, she spent most of her time in her own yard.  “The smallest area around the well-chosen home will furnish material to satisfy all thirst of knowledge through the longest life.” 

Overall, Field Study was an inspirational read. It really spoke to me on multiple levels.I appreciate Humphreys honesty and emotion in her writing and how lyrical her prose is. It was a short read, only took me a night to get through, but its impact was lasting.  I love plants and learning about them, and this book inspired me to continue on my journey and remind myself that the smallest of contributions to the scientific community can make a big impact. If you enjoy plants and learning more about the history of plant collection and the role that herbariums play for conversation, this may be a good read for you.