“A weed is simply a plant whose virtues has not been discovered”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In anticipation of the exhibit, Micrographia, at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, in Fall 2016 at I had the pleasure of paging through two copies of Theatrum Botanicum, one at UNC’s Wilson Library Rare Books Room and the second at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, in Chapel Hill and Durham respectively, close to where I live in North Carolina.
Theatrum Botanicum, written by John Parkinson in 1640, was also known as An Herball of Large Extent, which describes it very aptly. Containing descriptions of approximately 3800 plants, it is illustrated with concise woodcuts and expansive descriptions of each plant. After two full days of turning pages, reading, photographing and examining illustrations and watermarks, I had so much left to explore.
The author John Parkinson, describes the book in the title page:
Theatrum botanicum: The theater of plants. Or, An herball of a large extent: containing therein a more ample and exact history and declaration of the physicall herbs and plants that are in other authours, encreased by the accesse of many hundreds of new, rare, and strange plants from all the parts of the published by any before; and a most large demonstration of their natures and vertues.
What struck me in reading through the descriptions of these plants was a sense of intimacy and reverence for the plant world that I don’t often find in contemporary culture and certainly not in the botanical books and field guides that I make use of to identify plants and learn more about them. Mr. Parkinson will describe the “vertues” of a particular plant for several pages; explaining ways the plant can be used medicinally, to cure an ailment or affect mood or well-being of an individual.
To craft a response to Theatrum Botanicum, I began considering the virtues of plants. As a plant person and gardener, this was not unusual for me. But, the book and the Micrographia exhibit gave me both permission and inspiration to renew my interest in examining the environment and spaces surrounding me, and see what I’ve been overlooking lately.
I found several plants proliferating around my studio (in a warehouse area near the train tracks in Raleigh, NC) that I hadn’t noticed before. White Clover growing in the sandy soil parking lot, Passion Flower in the waste area near the old truck scale, and Showy Partridge Pea in the field near the beehives, and a few more. I collected samples of these plants and researched their uses and growth habits. Considering the composition of the pages in Theatrum, in particular, the relationship between plant illustrations and text; I arranged the samples of each plant in a decklebox full of flax pulp to create small, bookpage-sized herbals or herbariums. I added collaged text from an old Latin book and wrote descriptions in pencil onto the pages.
I hope these plant pages express a similar sense of intimacy and reverence for the plant world that I found in Theatrum Botanicum. This project certainly inspired a closer investigation of the plant life around me and provoked a renewed interest in the voices and volumes of those who have assembled this knowledge so profoundly in past centuries.