Experiences at the Western Australian Herbarium

Part One: Sardonic

For uni, we’re to examine a particular species of Western Australian flora. Typically, the species is rare, endangered and endemic. Our mission is to go to the WA Herbarium, find the particular specimen(s), examine, document and find as much information on the plant as possible. The point of all this is to produce a series of botanical illustrations to prompt us to think about bio-regions at a local level of detail.

I’d planned to meet a fellow student Henry there at midday. In the brief research conducted the night before, it came to my attention that a delectable garden of native Australian trees, shrubs and wildflowers surrounded the building. Therefore, I gave myself half an hour to search through the garden before Henry arrived.

It seemed that the garden was created sometime in the seventies, and no one had cared to maintain it since. All of the plants were over grown, all of the bricks in the paths had fallen apart and covered in dirt. The plaques which identified particular specimens (as part of the overarching scope of the herbarium) were scattered un-strategically over the ground. Jean clad, in boiling 38 degree sun, I stumbled through this garden, dead leaves everywhere, in the vain hope of finding Pimelea Sulphurea. As part of the ongoing program of the Enlightenment, I sweated bullets like all courageous explorers. Instead of finding the plant, I disturbed an urbanised fox, which gingerly shot away into the pines.

Slightly disoriented and feeling the effects of too many alcoholic beverages the night before, I decided to take the long, unknown path back to the Herbarium, via the Department of Agriculture. By this time my legs were roasting, underwear gaining a rather tropical disposition. I’d flanked the Herbarium from the east. I could see its scaly demountable excuse for a building but an eight foot high chicken wire fence hooded by barbed wire stood in my way.

When accosted, an unsuspecting worker sitting in a Rodeo, sucking down a cigarette with the windows down and the air conditioner on informed me that I either return the way I came or jump the fence. I told him about the fox. He said someone else had seen one earlier in the week. His expression suggested a kind of nonchalance that led me to conclude that it was unlikely that he’d do anything about it.

Hot and dehydrated I poked my notebook under the fence and scaled the fence. I figured it must have been about midday by now. I opened the door that said WA Herbarium. Inside it was relatively freezing. The first thing I did, before even gathering my thoughts and breathe was approach the front desk.

“Hello,” I said, “How are you?”
‘I’m very well’ the beady eyed, glass wearing, tardy-clothed post-menopause woman responded.
“I think my friend is already here” I continued, “we’re here to look at some plants” still cooling down. Before I’d even finished properly she chimed in:

“Yes, you’re very monosyllabic, aren’t you?” happy with herself, in her mind already rehearsing the four syllable adjectives she’d employ later (about the dumb uni students that came in that day) to whoever would listen, probably her closest work ally and her sympathetic half deaf husband.

To tell the truth she rendered me non-syllabic; speechless. In the next five seconds, which seemed a lifetime, all I could muster was a sissy-like sniff. I’d not realised or even suspected that I’d entered a vocabulary test. Regrouped, though still leaning on the counter for support, I asked: “You mean I only use words with one syllable?”

Although she sat forward and attentive, metaphorically she was sitting back in her armchair, hands collected effortlessly behind her head, a cocktail of some description, probably a
daiquiri, balanced perfectly in her lap.
“Yes, that’s correct” she smugly retorted.

Part Two: Sanguine

That day I spent about four hours at the Herbarium. I pottered around between the reference and specimen library attempting to collect as much information as possible. The first hour was used up trying to get a feel for the place and avoiding the reject primary school teacher at the front desk.

Henry was already in the reference library, basically wanting to bust out of there as soon as possible. The reference library is your standard library filled with books and shelves. At the herbarium it’s a kind of self-serve affair. From what I could gather the assistant only comes in at the end of the day to shelve returns.

Often self bound and self published, the work of many people and countless hours exists on the pages. Vegetation maps to masters thesis’ on topics like Specimen Conservation Best Practise, Planning Policy Guidance: Nature Conservation and, my favourite The future of phosphite as a fungicide to control the soilborne plant pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi in natural ecosystems lined the shelves. I could feel the kind of love and pathos that drives certain people to spend a large portion of their lives to a specific genus. In the flesh these people came and went from the library, checking and rechecking facts and opinions.An earnest excitement distilled the air.

Taxonomists and botanists are enlivened and excited by the prospect of finding a new connection between plants, of possibly disproving a previous nomenclature. For example,
discovering that the Qualup Bell is part of the Pimelea family is as exciting for the taxonomists as catching a twelve foot marlin is for a game-fisherperson. All these findings are documented and recorded in conjunction with an international Herbarium, giving wider recognition and importance to the taxonomists.

After about an hour, Henry departed, satisfied with his level of effort, displaying the kind of riffraff glint in his eye that suggested only one thing: beach.

About half an hour later, a chubby, dark haired, middle age woman entered. Walked to the shelves transfixed on a piece of paper in her hands, as if she’d walked that room a million
times before. She went to the shelf, got another book and returned to the desk that I was working on, though did not sit down. My intuition told me something big was about to happen, although I didnt give that away by doing something silly like looking up.

Suddenly, she ejected a little chuckle to herself, followed by silent, non-animated pats-on-the-back and departed the room. Soon after she returned with a man, slightly chubbier than herself. They poured over the books. The conversation went something like this:

“Harrison is wrong about blah blah blah. He argues that blah is part of this genus, but it’s not, its part of this genus.”
‘Yes, I think you’re right,’ the man said, stroking his hairy chin, most likely thinking of cheese pie.
“I’ve only been working on it for the last twelve years,” she beltched.
“Well done” he said, and left the room.

And that’s it.Sulphurea

Pimelea Sulphurea distribution map: taken and changed from here

(Bisexual flower tearing up native bushland.)

Part 3: Kensington

The first project was coming to an end. I still hadn’t confirmed an official live citing of the Pimelea Sulphurea. Two factors hindered that progress. The first was that it was March. The plant was not in flower. Three trips to Kensington Bushland with photos and sketches did not confirm a citing. The leaf structure looked very similar to all of the other Pimelea’s. The clippings that I had taken were not very useful for a botanical illustration anyway. The guilt regarding further clippings was intensified by research claiming the rarity of the species.

(Taking over our cities)

From an anthropological point of view, I started to wonder whether the plant actually existed. Seeing the decaying specimen at the herbarium felt like seeing a dead loved one before their funeral. I phoned the herbarium to see if someone knew an exact location of the specimen.

“Hello, how are you?”
I’m ok, how are you?
“I’m good. I am wondering if there is anyone there who can help me locate a specific Pimelea specimen?”
Yes, I’ll put you through to Barbara.

“Barbara from the Western Australian Herbarium here, how can I help you?”
“Hello Barbara, my name is James, I’m from Landscape Architecture at UWA. I was wondering you could help me find a live specimen of the Pimelea Sulphurea?”
Well, I don’t know of any exact locations myself. The plant is very rare.
“Yes, I have the distribution map here.”
A lot of those locations are questionable, she said curtly. Pimelea Sulphurea is one of those plants that hasn’t faired well. Nearly all of them have been killed.

I couldn’t tell if she couldn’t be bothered taking to me or she was actually quite pissed off. I suspected the latter.

“Do you have any other questions?” she asked.

Startled, I responded no, and said goodbye. Reflecting on the short, jejune conversation, I too become enraged, and probably slightly irrational. I wondered whether it was our inability to save these rare and endangeredspecies, habitats and environments that perturbed me more that the fact that it was us humans that were the cause of their destruction. Helpless to save, preserve or resurrect exposes and highlights our powerlessness. In a word; our weakness. The failure of science and humanity. Destruction is merely short term power.

Rare and endangered species represent a threat; a threat to science, a threat to ecology and bio-research. Rare species represent an even greater threat to those responsible for their extinction. Extinct plants and animals present to us the collective pussy wound of our conscience. Appararently, the further we drift from nature, the further we depart from God. In light of the anthropocentric, perhaps it is the extinct plants fault for our shortcomings. Perhaps their fragility, their speciality, their lack of overt iconography or symbolism is to blame. How else can we accept their destruction? How else can we perceive it as something that ‘just happened in the past’? If it was not their fault, no-one would ever sleep. Our guilty conscience would not let us. The mission now, is to re-will, the non-willed past. As if we were all present when the mistakes occurred and are hence directly responsible.


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