The Plant Hunter Defined Kingdon Ward had no illusions about his qualifications as a horticulturist, botanist, or geographer. He had none, in the conventional sense. Indeed, as someone who remained at heart an outsider all his life, Kingdon Ward seems to have relished this fact. In any event, he knew that the essential qualifications for his work were not university degrees, but rather an ability to withstand hardship and an insatiable appetite for the hunt.
If Kingdon Ward had few illusions about himself, he also was keenly aware of the error into which his work could easily stray. It seems paradoxical, but this man who introduced so many novelties into Western gardens reserved his own admiration for those plants that were, or could become, most common.
Here, reader, you will perhaps perceive a hint of solitude. Plant hunting is not like big-game hunting. It is a job, undertaken for bread and butter as well as for love of flowers, and its less pleasant aspects have to be faced as well as its advantages. The plant hunter does not make up a cheery party of congenial spirits, and go off for three months on full pay. He goes alone, and for a year or two; he goes not days, but weeks and months without seeing or speaking to another white man. And sometimes it hurts.
My own qualifications were somewhat vague. Up to the time when I first embarked upon plant hunting as a career, horticulture was one of the things I had not studied. I was more interested in engines than in how to cultivate plants. And my principal qualification for the job I undertook was, that I happened to be on the China coast—almost as far from Yunnan as is London; and that I had made a journey on foot across the width of China. Incidentally I had studied botany at Cambridge. But botany is not horticulture, and plant hunting is neither.
That anyone should earn his bread and butter by looking for new plants is, I suppose, news to many people; it seems to strike them as curious, to judge by their remarks, and yet more by their scepticism.
“What are you?” they ask me, curiously.
“A plant collector!”
“Yes, but what do you do?” in a tone of exasperation.
“Why, collect plants,” I say brightly.
The introduction of new foreign plants into England on a large scale is a comparatively modern development, and may be said to have begun with the Victorian naturalists. The outstanding figures perhaps were Sir Joseph Hooker and Robert Fortune. Charles Darwin of course introduced several notable plants, as did others. Douglas was a pioneer in North America; von Siebold in Japan. Hooker first brought home to Englishmen the glories of the Himalayan Rhododendrons. To Darwin we owe the discovery of Berberis Darwinii—a plant which in flower is far superior to any of the dozens of Asiatic barberries—and other Andine plants (though B. Darwinii was actually introduced by Mr. Lobb later). Fortune and Henry were pioneers in the vast treasure house of China.
The Victorian naturalists were succeeded by a generation of hardy plant collectors. By the opening of the twentieth century, plant hunting had, like everything else, been commercialized. Thus came about the professional plant collector of to-day. When I joined the ranks, plant hunting was still an adventure: now it is a trade; presently it will be a trade union. Yet incredibly huge and difficult mountain regions remain untrodden by the foot of the collector. It is indeed certain not only that we have as yet only skirmished on the fringes of botanical Asia, but that by far the most difficult part yet remains to be taken in hand. We have been up to the barriers which fence off the garden; we have yet to climb over the wall.
But the craze for the new, merely because it is new, is only a whim. It will pass as surely as did the frenzy for orchids in Victorian times.
The worship of new species is mere idolatry. A beautiful flower is still beautiful, whether millions have seen it, or one or two, or none. In any case “new” is a comparative term. There can be few plants introduced into England which have not been seen, and probably remarked, by the people of their native land. The true collector derives just as much joy from finding a plant which is new to him, whether it has already been “discovered” or not. In any case he is bound to keep on introducing old friends, which are continually dying out in England under the ill-treatment of our presumptuous climate.
The greedy scramble for new species, new varieties, new strains, and new hybrids, just because they are new, is both pathetic and vulgar. We all suffer from the disease,—the nurserymen who want the plants, and the botanists who want to name them, just as much as the collectors themselves. Every collector rejoices in a “new” species; he would be less than human did he not. They are the brokerage on his dealings with Nature. But the inquirer into Nature’s secrets, and the creative mind, do not greatly concern themselves with such dubious small change. Besides, the nurseries turn out better ones. Of course the hardened hucksters of England love that sort of false currency. It glitters; and we are a commercial people.
Plants, like politics, are best left, and ultimately must be left, to the judgment of the public. If the advocate can make out a good case for his pet plant before the bar of public opinion, the public will listen. If they condemn it—so! They are right. Popular plants are the best plants. Those who dwell in their little shrines, prostrate before rare exotics, worship false gods. chapter ii
Good-bye to Civilization Departures were a time of great excitement for Kingdon Ward, but also of considerable tension. He always preferred to hire servants and helpers from the local populations, believing that to bring along outsiders invited conflict with the indigenous peoples. This meant, however, that in a matter of days he had to re- cruit and select personnel on whom he would depend not only for the success of his work but also for his own survival. In addition, though Kingdon Ward preferred to travel light (and could not afford to do otherwise), the last few days at the jumping-off point were a last opportunity to take stock of his equipment and repair any gaps.
What is clear from all his descriptions of leave-takings was Kingdon Ward’s joy in leaving behind civilization of the European variety. All his life he referred to England as “home,” and his books all feature the obligatory statements about his desire to return. But his descriptions of departures, of the marches out from some colonial outpost into the wilderness, always have the high-spirited tone of a boy escaping from school on a long-anticipated holiday.
The next few days were not idle ones. I was anxious to start and pushed on with our preparations, for there were many things to be attended to before we launched ourselves into the sea of hills. Most important item, I had to engage a cook, also to hire transport for eighteen days’ march to Fort Hertz.
Should I take an Indian Mug or a Burmese to cook? The Mug would be the better cook without a doubt, but he would also be more of a foreigner. Burmese servants, on the other hand, are horribly superior persons. I once had a Burmese “boy” who, on a night when I had friends to dinner, was wired for by his sister. He started at once, before we returned from the Club. It seemed she was dying. After dinner we went to see a native dance in the neighbourhood. The first person I saw in the crowd was my “boy” strutting about to the admiration of all the village maidens and the envy of the men; for with him was an extremely pretty girl, not, I gathered, his sister, who by this time was dead. He was cutting a figure in my best Trilby and twirling a silver-mounted rhinoceros-hide walking-stick, also my property. Walking up to me, quite unabashed, he said with a low bow: “Your hat and stick, sir! I thought you might want them!”
It was not so easy to find a cook in a village like Myitkyina. Every native cook in Burma has a friend or relative looking for a job; and as all government officials living on the frontier tour round during the cold weather, anybody signing on as cook knows what to expect. Service with Cranbrook and me, however, was a rather different proposition. We were about to tour, not for a month, but for a year. All the comforts would fall away. From the time we left Fort Hertz to the time we returned, we should be sleeping in tents or in native huts or, if need be, under the stars. Nor were we touring merely in the “open” season when the jungle tracks and dirt roads are passable: that is, in the cold and usually dry weather between November and May. We must be out all through the rains, too, a season when most people stay at home.
Not only is there the discomfort of the heavy rainfall itself but also during the warm summer months everything grows prodigiously, and noxious life is twice as powerful. The deadliest guardians of the Burmese jungle are not tigers and Russell’s vipers, deadly as they are, but battalions of leeches, blister flies, ticks, mosquitoes, sand-flies and horse-flies, all avid bloodsuckers, whose bites cause fevers, festering sores and a crazing irrita- tion. Consequently even the unemployed were a bit shy of us.
However, a young Burman named Ba Kai, ambitious to travel, was found willing to go, and although I had scruples on account of his youth he stayed with us throughout the journey, acquitting himself most creditably. Unfortunately he knew no Hindustani, and as I spoke very little Burmese we were occasionally at cross-purposes. It was easier for Ba Kai to learn Hindustani than it was for me to learn Burmese.
The transport problem was more easily solved. Chinese contractors supply Yunnan mules and drivers by the hundred to the local Government during the open season, for work on the frontier. So I called on my old friend Fan Li San, the govern- ment mule contractor, who had made a fortune gambling in jade (quarried and sold on the spot in large angular lumps which reveal no hint of their value until cut open) and smuggling opium into Burma concealed in hollow wooden mule-saddles. From him I hired thirty mules for the journey to Fort Hertz.
It is here that common sense comes in. Plants—the best plants—do not flourish in the desert; therefore the country we are bound for must be to some extent inhabited. Therefore food of some sort must be procurable in the neighbourhood—it may be a week’s journey or month’s journey to the nearest market; but since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China. The country must be either agricultural or pastoral; since it is mountainous it is probably both. At any rate it is not industrial. Arguing thus, you arrive at the conclusion that the staples of life, flour (or maybe rice), fowls, eggs, and probably meat, can be obtained. The rest is easy—jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky, are the first choices of a limited purse. Why? Because jam makes any pulp palatable, and whisky is antiseptic.
It is evening. The last caravans have come jingling through the teak jungle, and the dust has settled down again over the long white road that leads to China. In the bazaar the oil lamps are already lit, and the doors of the little wooden houses stand wide, emitting a pungent complex smell of paraffin, durian, and dirty linen; and the alleys are choked with charpoys on which semi-naked figures lie outstretched. A glutinous atmosphere presses like a hot poultice on the whole native quarter, and through it the terrifying throb of a war drum sounds deep down and far away, like a hurt artery.
Outside the bazaar the air blows clean and sweet from the hills, which are dimly sketched on the faintly luminous sky. The pagoda bells tinkle; and from far down the river, comes the hoot of a steamer. There is a suspicion of mist, just enough to thicken the air, so that the stars shine without lustre; and insects are ticking loudly in the scrub—sure signs that the hot weather is approaching. Under the trees by the placid river—so calm and still that the water appears to be motionless—the Panthay muleteers sit round their fires. Some are talking and laughing; others, rolled up in their blankets, are asleep. The mules are tethered alongside in rows.
The start is always late, and it is ten o’clock next morning before the muleteer arrives with half a dozen moth-eaten mules, which he hobbles inside the bungalow compound. He says the others are coming. Then he proceeds very leisurely to tie up the loads.
Most of the heavy stuff—tents, collecting and instrument boxes, and so on, was tied up the previous evening, so there is not much to do; and at last all the mules, with the muleteers and the owner, are assembled.
The loads are lashed one on either side of a wooden frame, with such a multiplicity of bends and hitches that you feel it can never be undone again. This frame, or pack-rack, fits into the grooved saddle, and can be lifted off without untying the loads separately; a useful enough method when short halts are called, and there is not much to unpack at the journey’s end, but exasperating when you have to camp each night, or the marches are long. For the tying and untying of each load takes much time.
The harness of the Chinese mule is a simple affair—a wooden pack-saddle made in two halves hinged like the covers of a book, with a flange in front and another behind to keep the pack-rack from slipping off on the steep ways; a chest band of raw hide; and a wooden crupper. There is no girth.
The Indian Government mule harness is provided with two iron hooks on each side, and the loads are attached by slings, so that each can be unhooked separately. But the leather and iron harness of a Supply and Transport mule would crush in the ribs of a knock-kneed, flea-bitten, prick-eared mule of Yunnan; it weighs about as much as the ordinary Chinese pack mule can carry. However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes.
It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff. They never do it when you happen to be looking, and unfortunately are rarely able to repeat the performance.
And now we are ready to start on our big journey into the cold heart of Asia. The last load is tied on, the last chest band adjusted, and the mules file out and—head for the bazaar, with their tails pointing towards China. A well-aimed stone, flung by an incensed muleteer, turns the leader, and a volley of oaths whistles round his ears as he trots along mulishly in the right direction. We are off.
Five minutes later half the loads are, too. A race by the leading sections, and in a moment there is a jam. Jostling mules kick out valiantly, packs are shot out of their saddles, and everything given over to two minutes’ sabotage; there is dust and heat and blasphemy; and then, with triumphant leer, out of the turmoil gallop two mules,—empty, while the remainder dance on the wreckage.
Half an hour elapses before perspiring muleteers lead the truants back by the nose, with blood-curdling threats as to what will happen next time; and harmony is soon restored. The loads being salved, the caravan proceeds on its way without further incident; and we soon settle down to the two miles an hour of Asian progress. What a contrast to the hurry and roar of modern tourist travel! We are back in the Middle Ages. Travel in Yunnan has not changed in a thousand years. It will never change. Opium, cotton, and walnuts were being shifted from place to place on pack saddles, similar to these, on equally skinny and galled mules, when the Ming emperors sat on the Dragon Throne! They will be so carried a thousand years on.
Because of inevitable delays, the first march is never a long one. The setting sun flares across the plain, where a string of slow-moving bullock carts is raising clouds of dust. In the gilded twilight a golden haze envelops the tamarind trees, and we enter a Burmese village at the foot of the hills.
Night comes down with a run; a hot, still night, our first night alone. It is very quiet in the bungalow. After dinner we sit out on the veranda, and listen to the strident rasping of cicadas, and the occasional croak of a big bead-eyed lizard in the thatch who breaks in with his monotonous tuck-too! tuck-too!
Excerpted from In the Land of the Blue Poppies by Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Christopher. Copyright © 2003 by Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.