II – The Botanist

On the web, like in Borges’ labyrinths, one textual corridor must always lead to another, incessantly. This is especially true when you suffer from, or indulge in, sleep procrastination. The apparition of the eugenia leaves on my iPad that Thursday morning before dawn created a sense of euphoria that made me keep clicking on one link after the other. I should have gone to bed, but I wanted to know what else I’d find about La Reunión, what kind of plant the specimen preserved by Harvard was, and who, exactly, was E.L. Ekman, whose name was neatly printed at the bottom of the Harvard Herbaria label. The botanist’s identity was easy to determine, for Erik Leonard Ekman boasts a Wikipedia entry in seven different languages, and there’s quite a bit about him elsewhere on the web as well. Like Linnaeus himself, Ekman was a native of Sweden. I read all this with fascination, as I had never heard of him before and could not but instantly like such a handsome man — there were photos to be seen — and serious scientist. After all, he had left Scandinavia not in search of chocolate treats on sweet St. Lucia, but in pursuit of plants on a new and wild nation. Indeed, the Republic of Cuba was little more than a decade old when debonair Ekman sailed into Havana harbor.

My own grandmother, Carmela, born in 1904, was just two years younger than the country of her birth. She used to tell the story that as a schoolgirl — but when did she go to school, if she was raised at La Reunión? — she, like all other children, would draw Cuba’s coat of arms on the first page of all her notebooks. She once showed me how children folded the page in half to ensure their tiny patriotic drawings would exhibit a perfect symmetry.

1912 - Maria y Carmen de Granda Vidaud2Here is a picture of my grandmother taken in 1912, when she was eight. Sitting next to her is her oldest sister, María de Granda Vidaud. She grew up to be a schoolteacher and died at a relatively young age, in 1950, if I’m not mistaken. A perfect Christian, she was never married and died in the odor of sanctity, according to Carmela. She was also a pretty girl, and, at least in this image, a figure less brooding than her younger, darker sister.

In March 1916, when Ekman collected his Eugenia oxysepala Urb. at La Reunión, Carmela was just eleven years old. Could they have met? I’d like to think it’s not altogether impossible, but there’s of course no evidence to suggest a wilderness encounter between those two. Then again, who is to say that Ekman didn’t stop for a cup of coffee or chocolate at Alberto Vidaud’s house? One can easily imagine a conversation on scientific and political subjects. A war was raging in faraway Europe, Cuba was an island full of mysterious noises — those two gentlemen must have had much to talk about.  One can easily imagine Carmela, not much of a child anymore, listening in from behind a door as those two discussed Germany’s might or the flora of the Sierra Maestra.

Ekman, who originally wanted to go to Brazil, never returned to Sweden, and never in fact did he leave the Caribbean. He spent seven — or was it ten? — years in Cuba, and from there went on to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He died in Santiago de los Caballeros, at the age of 46, having made a monumental contribution to the study of plants on the island of Hispaniola. In 1991, the Svenska Stiftelsen Instituto Ekman was founded to promote cultural and scientific exchanges between Sweden and the Caribbean. They don’t seem to have a website. I’m not sure exactly how Ekman’s Eugenia oxysepala Urb. ended up in New England, but I imagine some kind of collaboration between Harvard and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. The specimens are still preserved at the university’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1980s, I would from time to time take the T from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain, where my only relatives in the city lived. I haven’t been on the Orange Line in years, but I think I remember a view of the Arboretum from the train window — the foliage so radiant in the fall, all of nature white or gray on winter afternoons. This branch of the family had chosen coldest Massachusetts over other states because government benefits were more generous there. The paterfamilias was Fernando de Granda Vidaud, my grandmother’s younger brother. I remember on one occasion he was deeply moved when I brought over a copy of a book his father, Manuel J. de Granda, had written in the 1920s, and which I had dug out from the depths of Widener Library. I now wish I had known then about Ekman’s eugenias at the Arboretum. Although he did not grow up at La Reunión, Fernando would have appreciated the fact that, not far from the drafty old house in which four generations of Grandas lived together in Exile, there were plants from Oriente — a province that, incidentally, existed only in people’s memory, as it had been divided into several smaller administrative regions sometime after the revolution.

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