Soon after the IAS Fellows arrived in Durham for the Michaelmas Term from all corners of the globe, a group of us went on an outing to Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. Amongst the wonderful treasures we saw (a gold mouse, silver swan and a whole room full of Laura Ashley dresses!), I was kindly shown Lady Mary Eleanor Bowes’s specially commissioned Botanical Cabinet. She was John Bowes’s grandmother and married John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore, in 1767. Mary Eleanor was a keen amateur botanist and maintained hothouses at Gibside, Northumberland, and at her London house, Stanley House, Chelsea, close to Chelsea Physic Garden.
In the 1770s she commissioned William Paterson, a Scottish botanist, to collect exotic plants for her during his expeditions to the Cape of Good Hope between 1777 and 1779. The cabinet, made of oak, kingwood and box, was intended to house her collection of botanical specimens. Inside the cabinet’s legs are hidden lead pipes and taps, possibly designed to regulate temperature and humidity. The cabinet itself contained part of Mary Eleanor’s collection of dried plants until the 1850s, but they were probably destroyed when it was sold in the 1920s.
Now my sojourn in Durham is coming to an end, it occurs to me that much of my work here has been about finding ways to store and save my own precious ‘collection’ of specimens, observed on my year of botanical journeys – the experience of the plants themselves and my ‘translations’ of them into words. I want more than anything for these poems to leave an abiding impression on the reader of the pricelessness of what grows on our beautiful green and blue planet. That seems like enough. I’ve written some new poems here and have also been working on refining the collection, building my cabinet. I have a sense there are other possibilities for this work I will explore next year.
So these three months in Durham have themselves been rare and precious. Having time to dedicate to my own research, thinking, reading and writing has made an immeasurable difference to how much new writing I’ve been able to manage and how wholeheartedly I’ve been able to immerse myself. I’ve also benefited here from the multi-layered culture of the IAS and the University at large. I feel as if I’ve been invited into doorways opening onto the deep past (via Cambrian fossils) and deep space (via the Hubble telescope) – with passing adventures in 18th century optics, the memorialisation of our Romantic poets, the persistence of nationalism, the true nature of light and the human fascination with darkness (courtesy of my fellow Fellows). I’m left with the feeling that in a library or waiting room I’m as likely now to pick up a copy of the New Scientist as the London Review of Books. For me that’s quite a leap, a profound and precious transformation.