Saturday, July 28, 2012

L.H. Bailey, The Indiana Jones of Botanists

L.H. Bailey with daughter, Ethel and their burro Socrates.
After his retirement from Cornell University in 1914, Liberty Hyde Bailey inaugurated a career as a plant explorer with the sole objective of increasing knowledge of the world’s plants. In 1929, Bailey undertook an exploration with his daughter Ethel to the Los Llanos (the plains) of the Orinoco River. Featured here are personal photos and a journal segment of this trip.

We had been a long journey and were now on the llanos of the middle Orinoco. We had seen ranges of mountains and alluring summits, rain-forests choked with tropical verdure and punctuated with gaudy-colored birds, sights strange and fascinating, and had tramped in many places where the vegetation was striking and abundant for we are botanical collectors. Today we were far away on our burros and had dismounted in the shade near a stream that was cool and refreshing in this torrid climate. It was a tributary of the mighty Orinoco River, and in comparison was tame and unexciting. We found good things along the shore. Then we spied a tiny islet in the stream, a bit of flat land that had been surrounded by high water. It had no attractive vegetation as we saw it from the shore, merely a green cover of grass-like things. When I reached the islet I found it was three feet wide and ten feet long. Under my feet I saw strange leaves and stems. I got on my knees and began to gather diminutive things that I had not found before. Some of them were only a inch or two high. Once apparently the area has been grazed, perhaps before the high water came. The plants had adapted themselves to this circumstance by blooming and seeding at these puny dimensions, and this was the first of the wonders. About a dozen distinct kinds of plants I overtook on that minikin world, and of one of them I discovered but a single specimen and the only one of its kind I found in Venezuela. It is a pigmy thing, as thin as a thread and less than four inches high, so frail that you could not measure its worth in gold. I suppose the reason why I found it here and not elsewhere was because my eyes were close to the ground and I was intent on every tiny object. Often indeed we look to far away for our treasures and stand too much aloof from what in our superiority we call the trivial things. Yet far away in that lonely bit in South America where probably no collector ever went before or will ever go again that little plant lived its own life successfully, made its seeds and trusted them to the kindly earth, and was blessed by sun and night and rain. That islet will always be a green place in my memory for the things I found and the emotions I felt: it is my Treasure Island. -L.H. Bailey to Russel Lord, December 16, 1929

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