The Weeping Goldsmith

By W. JOHN KRESS

“One of my jobs,” writes Smithsonian Institution botanist Kress, “is to travel to remote areas to document the remaining unknown plant diversity.” To wit, his typical day in the salt mines is spent surrounded by wildflowers — the “weeping goldsmith” being one such — in an exotic locale. Poor baby. Kress further activates your envy bone by returning with achingly spectacular photographs of landscape and flora, and an old-fashioned field journal of everyday marvels that he will polish into a book, carefully retaining the freshness of being there: sheltering under a giant fig tree from the monsoon rains, cresting a pine ridge to discover a rare ginger in bloom, pounding a local brew in the afternoon’s 113-degree heat. In this instance, “there” is staggeringly beautiful Myanmar, where, nevertheless, not all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Myanmar’s government — a corrupt, crackpot junta of homicidal golfers with a talent for social control and immiseration, and a pathological determination to keep the rest of the world at a cool remove — throws one obstacle after another in Kress’s path. Yet despite the bureaucratic restrictions, he manages to cover significant ground. The country is indeed a biodiversity hotspot, as Kress’s photo documentation attests; it is also a place of great otherness when approached from the West, a land where you can’t throw a betel nut without hitting a gilded pagoda. In an agreeably formal, slightly antique voice, Kress draws the country out for the reader: its cloud forests, bamboo villages, and waterways; rice paddies, temples, and rattletrap river towns; Bengal tigers, mountain spirits, and true jade. Through all the strange weather and government flapdoodle, the ethnic complexities and swarms of mosquitoes — not to forget the day he inadvertently lunched on a hallucinogenic plant — shines Kress’s passionate mission to catalog the country’s plants, the most loving gift this taxonomist could give to the Myanma people.