Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/April 1886/Botany as a Recreation for Invalids


By Miss E. F. ANDREWS.

IN a recent number of "The Popular Science Monthly," the writer of an interesting article, on "Thomasville as a Winter Resort," mentions the want of public amusements there as a subject of regret from a hygienic point of view. The criticism is a just one, and unfortunately applies to most of our Southern health resorts—St. Augustine, with its yacht club and sea-bathing, and Jacksonville, with a few other cities large enough to attract theatrical companies, forming possible exceptions.

Invalids, as a rule, have a great deal of leisure on their hands—more of it than they like—and to fill this time pleasantly is a question involving a good deal more than mere amusement. The importance of mental distraction to invalids is a fact too universally recognized to call for comment here, my object in this paper being merely to suggest a mode of distraction that, in my own experience, has not only been attended with the happiest results physically, but has proved a source of intense and never-failing pleasure. I allude to the study of botany—not the tiresome, profitless study of text-books, but of the woods, and fields, and meadows.

The beauty of this pursuit is that it takes the student out-of-doors, and throat and lung troubles, as has been truly said, are house-diseases. I am speaking, of course, to those who have begun to fight the enemy before he has captured the inner defenses, and who are supposed to be strong enough to do a reasonable amount of walking, and some solid thinking. For botany, though the simplest of the sciences, can not be mastered without some effort. You are met right at the threshold by that fearful, technical vocabulary which must be conquered before advancing a single step—a labor so formidable and repellent, when undertaken according to the old school-book method, that I do not wonder so many have shrunk away from it in disgust or in despair.

But even this task, apparently as formidable as learning a new tongue, can be made a pastime if rightly undertaken. Don't try to learn definitions or commit long strings of names to memory from a book, but get some simple work and take it out into the woods with you. Don't worry with writing schedules or trying to draw outlines of the different kinds of loaves, but gather as many as you can; then, by reference to the book, describe them to yourself in botanical terms, and keep on in this way till you can give a scientific description of any plant you see, without the book. In a few weeks you will find that you have mastered, almost without knowing it, the dreadful bugbear of botanical language, and got a good deal of solid pleasure out of the process to boot.

You are now ready to take up the classification of plants, and to study their habits and relationships—and this is where the real pleasure begins. Don't worry about species at first, but be satisfied for a time with referring the different plants you meet to their appropriate orders and genera; specific distinctions are often perplexing, and can be attended to later. Gray's "Manual" and Chapman's "Southern Flora" are the only hand-books you will need—the latter for Southern Georgia and Florida, the former for more northern latitudes. I have seen Northern amateurs puzzling over Gray in Florida, and wondering that they could find so few of the plants around them described there, never seeming to realize that a manual of the flora of the Northern States would not answer just as well for an almost tropical region.

Florida is a specially interesting region to the botanist on account of the peculiar forms of plant-life to be found there. I wish I had time to introduce the reader to some of my friends of the forest and jungle, though I dare say he will find it more profitable to seek them out for himself. Botanizing in Florida, however, has this drawback: the pine-lands are so poor that, for the most interesting specimens, you must go to the swamps and hummocks, at the risk of getting more malaria than plants, as I can testify to my cost. But in Southern Georgia there is no such danger. The soil of the pine-lands there is richer, and the whole earth becomes, in spring-time, an Eden of beauty and fragrance. There is no need to go into malarious places; you can hardly set your foot down anywhere without treading on flowers. At a place near the railroad, between Albany and Thomasville, I once stood and gathered seventeen different species without moving out of my tracks. The Houstonias, Atamasco lilies, and yellow jasmines, make their appearance in February, and from then on till June the most diligent collector will have had as much as he can do to keep up with the rich succession of plant-life constantly unfolding itself to view.

And, all the while that one is pursuing a delightful study, he is getting abundant exercise in the open air, without the dreary consciousness of exertion for exertion's sake. One can walk for hours on a botanical ramble without fatigue, when twenty minutes of an aimless "constitutional" would send one home fagged out in body and mind. The parlor gymnastics recommended by Mr. Youmans may have their value in some cases, but for myself the most dismal moments I have ever spent were while laboring conscientiously with dumb-bells and Indian clubs in the name of exercise. Physical exorcise, for its own sake, is intense and profitless, and often, I believe, pernicious labor. Give yourself a motive for exertion, and it then becomes exhilarating. The study of plants supplies just such a motive as invalids need. It is too useless (from a practical point of view) to be suggestive of labor, and yet so exceedingly fascinating as to make you ready to undergo any amount of labor in the prosecution of your favorite "fad." I remember once exposing myself to a terrible danger in endeavoring to get possession of a rare and (to me) new plant. I scarcely thought of the risk then, though now the bare recollection of it makes me shudder. This enthusiasm, which the science of botany awakens in all who devote themselves to it, is not its least valuable hygienic factor, for a little genuine enthusiasm will put more life into a sick body than all the drugs in the dispensary.

After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in conclusion I can only urge fellow-sufferers, who have a moderate amount of strength and patience, to try my simple prescription. As an old negro nurse once said to me anent some "doctor's stuff," "If it don't do you no good, it won't do you no harm," and will at least prove a wholesome diversion from the imbecile fancy-work, and still more imbecile gossip, that make so large a part of the daily routine of life at most resorts of health and pleasure.