This was written a month ago:
Here I am, in Boston, after a number of years. I’m reading a paper at a conference at Harvard, so even though I’m staying at a hotel on Tremont Street, much of my time is spent across the Charles River in Cambridge. I did my graduate studies at the university, and I know the place as intimately as a student can. But time hasn’t stopped still — not at Harvard. My old haunts are still there, but there are several new modern buildings, and even the old ones have been transformed. The old Fogg Museum, an Italianate structure from the 1920s among whose paintings and sculptures I always felt at home, has been renovated and expanded by Renzo Piano. Gathering items from two other art collections, the place is now known as the Harvard Art Museums. Transparent, grand and intimate, it feels to me like the happiest place on earth. But I digress.
On Thursday — which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day and the conference’s first — I had to attend an event at a new handsome structure with the rather Hitchcockian name of Northwest Building. I knew it wasn’t far from Richards Hall, the Gropius-designed graduate dorm where I once lived, so I resorted to Google Maps, hardly expecting what I found. Close to the digital marking of the said building, a rectangle popped up on the tiny bright screen elegantly marked as the Harvard University Herbaria. It was located at the northernmost end of Divinity Avenue, a place I was familiar with from my first semester at the university, when, a budding and soon-to-be fading scholar of medieval Spain, I took a course in advanced classical Arabic at the Semitic Museum. But I digress, yet again.
Faithful readers of this blog may recall its origin well over a year ago in yet another act of serendipitous googling. Searching for the coffee and cacao farm in Oriente province where my grandmother had spent her childhood, I had typed in La Reunión and an image come up. It pictured a few modest leaves and twigs collected in those distant hills, purportedly belonging to my second great-grandfather, by E.L. Ekman, a Swedish botanist, in 1916. They were specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb. — tiny and modest, perhaps, but a direct link to a mythical location in the lore of my French-Cuban ancestors. The image, as I now remembered, also showed an oval seal of the Herbarium of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Did that mean, then, that they were across the river in Boston, where the Arboretum is located — or could they, perhaps, be housed right there on the Harvard campus? Would I be able to find their actual location and perhaps even see them in all their botanical atemporality?
I decided to investigate. On Friday just before noon, finding myself again not far from Divinity Avenue, I crossed the threshold of the Harvard Herbaria. At the reception desk, a silver-haired woman greeted me with friendly efficiency and perhaps a measure of curiosity. It didn’t seem they were used to many impromptu visitors. When I awkwardly explained what I wanted, showing her a picture of Ekman’s specimen on my iPhone, she immediately went in search of a curator who might be able to help me. After a few minutes she came back with a dark-haired man. He too turned out to be intelligent and sympathetic and invited me to his office, where he consulted his computer for a few minutes. It indicated the leaves and twigs were housed in the very building we were in. The search then entered the very real world of the actual collections. We climbed stairs and traversed long corridors on several floors, lined with endless rows of enormous, hermetically sealed cabinets, labeled with botanical terms such as Melastomateaceae and Astronidium and geographical appellations such as Mexico and C. Am., South America, Australia, Polynesia… After a couple of false starts, we finally found what we wanted. From a cabinet that read Myrtaceae, Calypranthes and West Indies, the curator extracted a large red file and took it to a table, where he then proceeded to reveal its contents.
There they were, those beautiful leaves and twigs, our precious Eugenias gathered at La Reunión one-hundred years ago, neatly preserved at the Harvard Herbaria, as if waiting for me to show up one cold Friday afternoon in the very late winter of 2016 to see them. And here you can see them, once again in digital form. But I saw the real thing, lovingly cared for by men and women devoted to the arts of botany. And there they must have been too, in the flesh, back in September 1982, when I had just arrived on campus and walked for the first time to my Arabic class, a few hundred feet away in the Semitic Museum. If only I had known of their existence back then, when I was a stranger in a new place, one student among many. I remember my sense of alienation that afternoon. In a small seminar room to which I had finally come after crossing several rooms full of inscriptions and sarcophagi, sitting right across the table from me, there was another student. As we all waited for the professor to arrive, she was speaking with another student. I detected a foreign accent. Not without timidity, I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Cuba. That was the short version of her provenance, as she had previously lived in Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, and, as a doctoral student in the history of Islamic architecture, had traveled through much of North Africa and the Middle East… Now that I think about it, my little leaves too, like María Luisa, had probably traveled far and wide. After all, Ekman was Swedish and the specimens in front of me featured, just below the seal of the Harvard Herbaria, a label that read “Musei bot. Stockholm,” a passport stamp of sorts that suggested a Scandinavian sojourn before a transfer back across the Atlantic to the so-called New World.
After patiently allowing me to take all the pictures of Eugenia oxysepala Urb. that I wanted, the dark-haired botanist asked me if I was interested in seeing what the envelope contained. I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t really paid much attention to the small pocket-like thing, discreetly devoid of colors and words, neatly tucked in the lower right corner of the red file. I said yes, of course. Delicately, he unfolded the fragile white paper thing, revealing a tightly packed collection of tiny desiccated leaves. I don’t know for sure, but they appeared to have remained airless and unseen for many years — modest exiles from the tropics, silently abiding in the company of other such exiles from far-flung provinces of the vegetable kingdom in a well-secured site in these United States. The botanist looked relieved and smiled when I said I wouldn’t run my fingers through them, or throw them in the air, even if such actions appeared tempting. I was overjoyed by the unexpected apparition — my fellow migrants, sad confetti from another world. But all I could do was to take their picture and replant them here on the soil of the digital forest, knowing their story will continue to grow.