Green Gold: The Epic True Story of Victorian Plant Hunter John Jeffrey
Many of the events in this biographical fiction actually occurred, while all are feasible. Historical evidence partly records an extraordinary, yet little-known, true story of a plant hunter, named John Jeffrey, who in 1850 was despatched by a wealthy group of British investors to North America in search of valuable plants. There were high hopes that this young man would follow in the footsteps of earlier illustrious collectors – among them David Douglas, Scottish botanist and namesake of the Douglas-fir – yet the odds were stacked against him. Much of the territory he travelled through had been explored already by other botanists, while his expedition happened to collide head-on with the Gold Rush as it spread northwards from California.
Insights of the planning and the activities among the expedition’s investors are recorded in the Minute book of the Oregon Botanical Association. It is held in the archives of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, along with the few letters sent home by John Jeffrey, and a catalogue of others written between the expedition’s Subscribers. Short handwritten labels attached to the plant and insect specimens he sent home to Scotland, often included details of latitude or altitude, and sometimes a place name. Together, this evidence provides tantalising, if incomplete, insights into the places he visited, the distances he travelled, and his professional accomplishments. Yet, the full story of John Jeffrey’s expedition, including his personal challenges and conquests, together with his emotional journey, would have been captured in his expedition journals. He was formally contracted to compile a record in these journals, in duplicate no less, but despite repeated reminders from his employers, they never materialised.
Green Gold provides these missing journal entries through fiction, interwoven with a selection of the most significant historical evidence. To help those with an interest in history separate fact from fiction, sections marked with ‘†’ denote that a historical record is quoted. Some of these have been altered, but only ever to a minor extent, to improve readability. Where such notation is absent, it should be presumed that fiction rules, yet I hope readers may be surprised—should they later look into any historical character, language, place, business, or plant—to discover further truths within the fiction.
Arnold Arboretum, Boston, 3rd September, present day
Professor Benedict Freeman opened the door for Helen, and they strode in together, entering the grove of archived plants. Their smart heels, made from the dead of trees, echoed across boards cut by ancient foresters. The heavy cedar door creaked shut behind them as they made their way across the main reading room. In a clearing at its centre, a highly-polished table stood alone, startled by the bright autumnal sunlight streaming through three high-arched windows, motes of book dust lingering in its shafts. The furniture’s patina of sunburst and fiddleback veneer glowed underneath untidy piles of reader’s notes and files.
At the edge of the room, panicles of small tables stemmed from the windows, each sharing an eye-catching view over the golden arboretum beyond. At the central cluster, two women conversed enthusiastically. The smaller of the pair, a veteran apple tree, blossomed in a bold floral dress. Her companion, barely a blade of grass, shrank under a pair of smart tailored trousers. Judging from their lack of uniform, Helen reckoned the unlikely pair must be volunteers. They stooped over a large portfolio, open to show a lifelike botanical drawing. Its vivid hand-coloured features were a dazzling reflection of the faded and fragile pressed plant, mounted on the loose page next to it. Collected by a botanist long ago, the herbarium specimen’s slender brown stem, delicate flowerhead, and withered leaves were held in place with tidy stitches, made delicately through the heavy mounting card. Its lifeless form captured forever a discovery, a geography, and a taxonomy.
“Hey Ben, take a look at this,” said the floral woman, holding out a hand lens. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise you had company!” seemingly noticing Helen standing besides the professor for the first time.
The Professor noticed Helen’s look of surprise. “We’re very informal here, after all, we care about plants more than people! You should call me Ben too.”
Turning his attention to the two volunteers, Ben introduced Helen as the new intern. She was amazed to learn that the pair had 62 years of combined volunteering time between them. Ben’s easy-going manner belied his botanical prowess, and their conversation soon moved on to why the anthers seemed longer in the colour plate than the herbarium specimen.
Helen’s attention drifted. She noticed how every vertical surface of the room was covered by shelves which stretched from floor to ceiling, all of them laden with books. Many appeared to be of great vintage, with handsome leather spines and raised bands. Drifting away from the three of them, she browsed dreamily along a set of shelves, running an index finger over the book’s spines, tracing ridges and embossed lettering, imagining the generations of hands which had studied at the arboretum.
“Sorry Helen,” interrupted the professor catching up with her, his long legs making quick work of her dreamy peramble. “It’s impossible to ignore a botanical query like that. I’m stuck behind my computer too much these days.”
He must find time to exercise though, thought Helen, a cyclist perhaps. So many other men his age have a paunch. His eyes smiled down on her behind thin-framed glasses, pushing them up his narrow nose.
They left the reading room together, walking in single file along one of the many narrow corridors leading from the back wall. Books and journals seemed to stretch to infinity, crowding in on both sides. At its end they halted in front of another wooden door.
“So, this is the room which we’ve used to store the few remaining archival boxes of miscellaneous material.” Finding the key among a large bunch on a chain fixed to his trouser waist, Ben opened the heavy door.
As they entered, Helen noticed a brass fingerplate labelled with the name of its wood: ‘American White Oak, Quercus alba’. She had expected a small store cupboard. It opened instead onto a huge echoing space, measuring at least the same size again as the main reading room, yet it couldn’t have contrasted more; bare magnolia walls, grey industrial epoxy floor, and a lack of natural light leant it a soulless quality. Plastic archival storage crates covered most of the floor, the type with folding crenulated lids, allowing one to be stored on top another. The boxes sat three-high in rows, forming a grey maze around the room.
“Now, don’t be dismayed,” said the professor, seemingly reading her mind. “I realise this must look daunting, but we always make sure interns experience plenty of variety. We thought working through some of these materials would be a perfect task when we’re too short-staffed to supervise you in the field, like we are today, or when the weather’s foul. Essentially, everything in here has been removed from long-term storage elsewhere—including various cellars, cupboards, and storerooms—from right across the whole site. Nothing has been sorted through yet.”
“So where do I begin?”
“I suggest you start there,” he said, pointing to the far corner. “We need to clear that area first as these boxes are almost blocking access to the fire door. If you can simply sort contents into these different categories.” He handed her a pair of lint gloves, together with a crumpled list from the pocket of his linen jacket. “I’ll leave you to it then. One of us will check back in an hour or so.”
Helen stood alone in the bleak room, surrounded by countless grey boxes, the hum of the overhead strip lights supplanting Ben’s fading footsteps. What am I doing here? She wondered. She knew the answer well enough really; it was a dream internship, one she’d had to work hard for, one she’d competed against more than 200 other students to win. It was worth her making every possible effort over the next six months.
Of the three crates in the corner, the first two were heavy, but easy enough to move further into the room where the light was a little better. The last one she couldn’t budge; and so fate decided this would be the first box she explored. There seemed to be no order or logic to its contents, sheaves of handwritten notes intermingled with heavy books and journals, and even some beautiful hand-coloured illustrations of a purple iris showing its flower, details of its reproductive parts, and its tuberous roots.
Helen set about sorting the items according to the categories the professor had provided, trying not to become overly distracted by the myriad of interesting contents. Nearing the bottom of the crate, her hand fell upon a worn leather notebook, which on closer inspection she realised was bundled with several others, each tied shut with a long leather lace. The outer covers were worn and deeply stained, their margins frayed and tattered. Tucked under the laces were one or two folded sheets of paper which looked to be letters.
Untying one of the laces, she gingerly lifted the corner of the uppermost notebook. Bold loops of thin ink writing bounded across the page. She spotted a date which caused her to hold her breath; 1852. She’d never held something genuinely that old before. Curiosity overcame her, so she untied the ribbon fully, and began to read.
Journal: Shasta Valley, California, 25th October 1852
I remember there was an unusually big sky that evening, and it was lonely of clouds—surely forewarning a sharp night. I raised a modest fire and added an extra layer of springy branches under my bedroll as a spectacular red sun descended between two giant boulders before me. Thus prepared I drifted to sleep, lying with some satisfaction beneath the canopy of another fine specimen of the magnificent new pine I had discovered days before (No.731). A myriad of stars flickered between the long needles on its gently swaying branches. I was reminded of Humboldt’s analogy—of the blooming, fecundity and withering of stars and planets—and the form of the great garden of the universe which now lay open before me. God had revealed his infinite mysteries.
Sometime later, while wrapped tightly in a meagre HBC blanket, my hat drawn deep down over my head, such was the cold, I was woken by a great weight upon my chest. It has been more than one month since I last enjoyed close human comfort, and I was confused, before becoming immediately alert.
Yet, before I could much react, a terrible pain lanced my cheek, and I found my face to be held in a foul stinking vice. Despite finding myself quite blind, and with one arm caught under my blanket, with the other I managed to strike out. My bare hand encountered solid fur-clad muscle. So short was the coat of my foe, there was no handhold. I thought then that I was confronted, not by a Grizzly, but most likely a Mountain Lion. I raised my legs to grapple with its body and rolled over to one side. I felt the flesh on my face tear open, even as I felt for my gun. With the stock I aimed a blow blindly at its body and, on making satisfying contact, felt its jaws loosen. Yet still it did not retreat, its claws holding fast to my body. I fought viciously, with every limb and ounce of my strength, for what seemed many minutes, but must have been mere seconds, before it fled. By the time I had torn the remains of the hat off my head, I managed to glimpse only its long tail disappearing between the same two boulders where the sun had earlier retreated. Yet there it paused to turn and stare. I feared for a moment it was to return, its unblinking eyes reflecting two startling full moons, yet it evidently decided that discretion was the better part of valour. With a turn of its head it was eclipsed by the night.
I immediately sought to rekindle the fire which had faded to a pitiful glow. With my knife now permanently in one hand, which trembled terribly and quite without control, I heated water to tend to my face and other injuries. I slept for none of the remainder of the night, gripped I admit by terror, and suffering a most fearsome throbbing pain.
Naturally, I have no glass with me, so I was obliged to wait until the sun had risen before I could inspect my face on the surface of a pool in the creek. Being without the excitement of a fight to mask the pain, applying the crude stitches to my cheek hurt more than the beast’s canines.
After attending to my wounds I believe that I became quite delirious. I woke many times to find myself surprised that it was day rather than night, or visa versa. My body was often drenched with sweat, and I found myself shivering, even at noon while the sun was at its zenith. My fire, however, I kept burning day and night, even though the usually simple act of gathering kindling and logs was a great burden, on account of the pain.
I write now, I believe, some two days after the attack. It is unusual for me to stay more than one night in the same place, but I have felt little able to do much more than rest and attend to the fire. While my symptoms were at their height, I experienced vivid and hallucinatory dreams. In many of these I found myself with Prof Woody, and other noble gentlemen, among extraordinary variations of the Edinburgh gardens. What would they think now of my sorry situation? If they could witness my immediate circumstances they would surely experience a similar sense of bewilderment, yet their vision would be no dream. I am a battered man, with a grizzly face, which surely masks completely the youth they despatched with such optimism but two years ago.
I recall Mr Anderson explaining the habits of the various beasts which might prove a threat to us. I have encountered many Bears, both Black and Grizzly, during my travels thus far, and shot more than I can now remember. In fact, meetings are commonplace with these giants, and it is second nature to take measures to counter their curiosity when establishing an encampment. Yet, I can recall seeing only two Mountain Lions in all my time traversing across this vast country (the last one about one month past). On both of these occasions they have been some distance away. I was well-informed that a Mountain Lion will only rarely attack a man—a child being much more common fare—unless it is surprised, or if that man is a coward who presents a fleeing back. I will remember to inform my old guide of these experiences, if we are fortunate to meet again.
Earlier, I followed the path that the animal took between the boulders, and just beyond them, along the banks of the stream in the soft mud among its rushes, I found several footprints. Each was the size of the back of my hand. The rear of the main pads had three lobes; a feature I have not seen before. It may confirm my suspicion as to the beast’s identity.
I have determined that I will start back northwards tomorrow, and to find company as soon as possible in case my wounds fester, although I now feel a little more myself. The snow-clad peak of Mount Shasta exerts a dominant presence in this place, its foothills providing fertile hunting grounds for the botanist. Before me tall pines, all of the same new species that I found these days past, grow between massive boulders, extending without interruption down the valley, and far into the distance. This land is a paradise so rich it would see the same gentlemen emptying their purses to secure more collectors. Yet their ambitions might be cruelly shattered by my appearance.
I inadvertently started this entry on the inside of the cover and front end paper, of this, my third journal, which is already half-filled. I am usually so diligent about my record keeping. I hope the spattering of blood and other marks across the page will be forgiven. At least the hand with which I write is mostly undamaged; I cannot say the same for my other.