Photo: Lupines at Svínafellsjökull, Iceland (photo S. Heard). Book cover, Miss Rumphius, Viking Press, fair use. Georg Rumpf, portrait from his Herbarium Amboinense (1741), public domain.
This is my 100th post on Scientist Sees Squirrel. You’ll notice it hits some of my favourite themes (but not statistics; everyone needs a break sometime). I hope you enjoy it, as I hope you’ve enjoyed a few others of my first 100.
I should hate this book, but I can’t.
“This book” is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius (Viking Press, 1982; links below) – a picture book for young children that’s both lovely and profound. I read it to my son perhaps a hundred times, and if it weren’t for him thinking he’s outgrown the book (and being read to), I’d read it to him a hundred times more. I flinch every time I read it, but I keep coming back. I’ll explain both.
Miss Rumphius begins as the story of a little girl who hears her grandfather’s stories and tells him that one day she, too, will visit faraway places and that she, too, will live by the sea. “That is all very well, little Alice”, her grandfather tells her, “but there is a third thing you must do… you must do something to make the world more beautiful”. Alice grows up (as Miss Rumphius) to travel the world – from the highest mountains to tropical islands, from jungles to deserts; and later she settles in a cottage by the sea. “But there is one still more thing I have to do”, she realizes. “I must do something to make the world more beautiful”. She’s a gardener, and she loves lupines in her garden (as I do), and so she settles on ordering five bushels (!) of lupine seed. She “wander[s] over fields and headlands, sowing lupines…scatter[s] seeds along the highways and down the country lanes…around the schoolhouse and back of the church…into hollows and along stone walls.” The book ends with the now aged Miss Rumphius instructing her great-niece to also do something to make the world more beautiful. “All right”, says the great-niece (the narrator), “but I do not yet know what that can be”.
It’s a beautiful story. But here’s the thing: one thing the great-niece could arguably do to make the world more beautiful would be to rip out all the lupines Miss Rumphius sowed. You see, lupines over much of the world (including Maine, where the story is at least implicitly set) are an invasive species. They’re one people love, and that arguably deliver superb ecosystem services; but they’re invasive nonetheless. They establish near-monocultures, disrupt local communities, alter rates of succession, displace native species, and spread uncontrollably.
So what to do with Miss Rumphius? I’m an ecologist and I work in part on invasive species, and I know the damage they do. I know that well-meaning gardeners and other beautifiers are a major conduit for invaders. I spend time and effort trying to spread this message. So logically, I should hate Miss Rumphius – but I can’t. The story is too enthralling, the illustrations too lovely, and the message too inspiring. I can’t be the wet blanket that takes Miss Rumphius away from a child, or for that matter from an adult*.
But there’s another reason I come down on the side of loving Miss Rumphius, and I only stumbled across it the other day. “Rumphius” is an odd name, isn’t it? In the Paris Review, Sadie Stein suggests that the character was inspired by the 17th-century naturalist Georg Rumpf, who preferred the Latinized version of his name, Rumphius. Rumpf, who was blind for most of his career, spent decades on the island of Ambon (in the Molucca archipelago of what is now Indonesia), cataloguing and describing plants for his masterwork, the Herbarium Amboinense. Stein doesn’t give any documentary evidence for the connection between Rumphiuses (Rumphii?), but it’s certainly plausible: a Google search doesn’t lead me to any other candidates, and Miss Rumphis travels to a tropical island that sounds a lot like Ambon. If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel, you may have noticed my enchantment with early naturalists – like Maria Sybilla Merian, Pierre Magnol, and Patrick Browne. They were working at a time when science was wide-open and its conventions hadn’t yet set, and their lives and work are fascinating. Rumpf’s story is no exception. It’s well told here, but I’ll tease you with the idea that he described the Pausengi tree that, he said, grew from the ocean floor at the axis of the world and doomed any ship that sailed too close. He also gave plants names including the Mountain Fish-slayer Tree, Hair of Nymphs, the Astonishment Plant, and the Nude Tree**. I’m a big fan of accidental learning and obscure connections, so the two Rumphiuses, for me, are even more than the sum of their parts.
So: Miss Rumphius (the character) shouldn’t have planted those lupines. But Miss Rumphius (the book) makes the world a more beautiful place. I’ve settled on loving it; perhaps you will too.
© Stephen Heard (email@example.com) April 4, 2016
You should read Miss Rumphius, to yourself or to a child. Or both. You can get a copy at your local library or bookseller, or from
- More about lupines: Invasions, beauty, and ecosystem services
- On deliberate introductions: Vultures for England: a modest proposal
- Stories of early naturalists: Maria Sybilla Merian, Pierre Magnol, and Patrick Browne
- Graphic design, error, and accidental learning
- A time when scientific conventions hadn’t set: The golden age of weird papers
*^I can’t even be the pedant who seizes a teachable moment in Miss Rumphius. Well, OK, you’re right, that is exactly what I’m being here. More precisely: I can’t be the pedant who seizes a teachable moment while reading Miss Rumphius to a child. Later, after they’ve grown up, then perhaps we can discuss Miss Rumphius, as we’re doing now
**^And a few more I won’t mention here, because my 9-year-old son often reads Scientist Sees Squirrel and I don’t want to explain them.