Saturday, November 16, 2019

Toast, joints, mulberry trees

Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish explorer and botanist, died 140 years ago today. He’s best known for being one of Carolus Linnaeus’s students, and for spending several years in North America seeking out seeds and plants - not least the red mulberry - to bring back and improve agricultural possibilities in his home land.

Kalm was born in 1716, in Sweden, where his Finnish parents had taken refuge during the Great Northern War. His father died weeks after Kalm was born; and a few years later his mother and he returned to Finland (but academics argue over Kalm’s exact nationality). He studied sciences at the universities in Turku and Uppsala, and was a student of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (dubbed the ‘father of modern taxonomy’). Kalm became much interested in the useful application of botany in agriculture and industry.

During the mid-1740s, Kalm was engaged in field research in Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. Then, in 1747 he was appointed Professor of Economic Natural History at the University of Åbo in Turku. Very soon after, though, he set off on a mission, planned by Linnaeus, to collect economically-useful plants - particularly red mulberry for silk worms - in North America.

On his journey, Kalm spent six months in England, before arriving in Pennsylvania in 1748 where he met the leading American naturalists. He made the Swedish-Finnish community of Raccoon (now Swedesboro in New Jersey) his base of operations. There, he acted as a substitute pastor in the local church, and even married the widow of the former pastor. Two major trips took him north, firstly to New York, Albany, Lake Champlain, and Canada, and, secondly, to Canada again.

Kalm returned to Turku in May 1751, where he remained for the rest of his life, teaching and writing. He died on 16 November 1779. Wikipedia has a good short summary of his life, as does one found at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Here is how the latter concludes: ‘Kalm was one of the outstanding utilitarian Linnaean botanists, one genus and 90 species of plants being named for him. His major legacy, his book, stimulated natural history in Sweden and provided Europeans with an accurate and wide-ranging account of North American conditions and customs. Kalm’s descriptions of Canadian life and mores are among the best found in travel literature concerning the country.’

Kalm’s diary of his journey was first published in Stockholm in the 1750s as En Resa til Norra America. This was translated into English by John Reinhold Forster and sold in England in three volumes in the early 1770s. The full English title reads: Travels into North America; containing its natural history, and a circumstantial account of its plantations and agriculture in general, with the civil, ecclesiastical and commercial state of the country, the manners of the inhabitants, and several curious and important remarks on various subjects.

Original copies are available through Abebooks costing hundreds or thousands of pounds, but a 1970s reprint can by bought much cheaper. However, the full texts are freely available at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts taken from volume two of Kalm’s original volumes as found at Internet Archive. (These are relatively short diary entries though most are much longer with detailed descriptions of the flora/fauna, culture and society he finds).

14 April 1749
‘This morning I went down to Chester: in several places on the road are saw-mills; but those which I saw today had no more than one saw. I likewise perceived that the woods and forests of these parts had been very roughly treated. It is customary here, when they erect saw-mills, wind-mills, or iron-works, to lead the water a good way lower, in case the ground near a fall in the river is not convenient for building upon.’

24 April 1749
‘To-day the Cherry-trees began to fhew their bloffoms; they had already pretty large leaves. The Apple-trees likewife began to bloffom; however the Cherry-trees were more forward: They likewife got a greenifh hue from their leaves. The Mulberry-trees were yet quite naked and I was forry to find that this tree is one of the lateft in getting leaves, and one of the firft which gets fruit.’

6 May 1749
‘The Mulberry-trees (Morus rubra) about this time began to bloffom, but their leaves were yet very fmall. The people divided them into male and female trees or flowers; and faid that thofe which never bore any fruit were males, and thofe which did, females.’

22 May 1749
‘The locusts began to creep out of their holes in the ground last night, and continued to do so to-day. As soon as their wings were dry, they began their song, which is almost sufficient to make one deaf, when travelling through the woods. This year there was an immense number of them.’

4 June 1749
‘I found vines in several gardens, got from the old countries. They bear annually a quantity of excellent grapes. When the winters are very severe, they are killed by the frost, and die quite to the ground; but the next spring new shoots spring up from the root.’ 

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 16 November 2009. 

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