Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nonfiction RC #13

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

In the Land of the Blue Poppies - Frank Kingdon-Ward

Kingdon-Ward (1885 - 1958) wrote many books about his plant hunting in Asia. This book collects his writings about Burma and eastern Tibet in the 1920s and 1930s. He focused on trees in the mountains, the struggling shrubs in screes, and the flowers in the fields. Readers into botany, horticulture, gardening, and travel narratives by the intrepid British will find this enjoyable because the author is genial without being dotty or wooly and observant.

Kingdon-Ward was born in 1885, the son of a professor of botany at Cambridge. He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took honors in Natural Science in 1906. The following year he took up a teaching post in Shanghai. But the passion of instruction was not as strong as a yen for the wild. In 1909 went exploring into the interior of China, which still had large areas that were unknown to Europeans.

He spent the fifty years travelling and plant collecting in the mountains where China, Tibet, India and Burma meet. His efforts at gathering seeds enriched English gardens, though he regretted not making any money from his work. He specialized in rhododendrons, primulas, lilies, gentians and poppies. Of these, he was one to always note a rhododendron.

I must confess that that this book took me out of my comfort zone. I can barely identify a half-dozen flowers so his so his knowledge of and ability to identify plants in the most unlikely places seem to me almost supernatural. Like many veterans of public schools, he could deal with hardship. Without making a big deal about it, he tells stories here about managing through heat, steep climbing, torrential rain and treacherous rope bridges.

True, he’s not terribly enlightened about the local people. Nor is his prose as smooth and erudite as other British travelers. But I think readers into quietly exciting travel narratives would find this enjoyable.

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