In 1850, young Scottish plant hunter John Jeffrey was despatched by an elite group of Victorian subscribers to seek highly prized exotic trees in North America. An early letter home told of a 1,200-mile transcontinental journey by small boat and on foot.
Later, tantalising collections of seeds and plants arrived from British Columbia, Oregon and California, yet early promise soon withered. Four years after setting out, John Jeffrey, and his journals, disappeared without a trace.
Was he lost to love, violence or the Gold Rush? Green Gold combines meticulous research with the fictional narrative of Jeffrey’s lost journals, revealing an extraordinary adventure.
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About the Author
Gabriel Hemery is a tree hunter, forest scientist and author. While researching for his doctorate, he led an expedition to the forests of Kyrgyzstan, collecting walnut seeds. He has planted tens of thousands of trees in plantations and forestry trials across Britain. After leading the development of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, Gabriel returned to forestry and played a lead role in successfully halting the government’s proposed disposal of England’s public forests. In 2009, he co-founded an environmental charity, the Sylva Foundation. His first book The New Sylva was published to wide acclaim in 2014. He writes a popular tree blog: www.gabrielhemery.com.
Read an Excerpt
BIRTH, EXISTENCE AND BEGINNING
* * *
Arnold Arboretum, Boston, 3 September, present day
Professor Benedict Freeman opened the door for Helen and they entered the grove of archived plants together, their footsteps echoing from the boards cut by long-dead foresters. The heavy cedar door creaked shut behind them as they made their way across the main reading room. In a clearing at its centre, a highly polished table stood alone, startled by the bright autumnal sunlight streaming through three high-arched windows. The furniture's patina of sunburst and fiddleback veneer glowed underneath untidy piles of readers' notes and files.
At the edge of the room, panicles of small tables stemmed from the windows, each sharing an eye-catching view over the golden arboretum beyond. At the central cluster, two women conversed enthusiastically. The smaller of the pair blossomed in a bold floral dress. Her tall companion shrank under a pair of smart tailored trousers. Judging by their lack of uniform, Helen reckoned the unlikely pair must be volunteers. They stooped over a large portfolio, open to show a lifelike botanical drawing. Its vivid hand-coloured features were a dazzling reflection of the faded and fragile pressed plant mounted on the loose page next to it. Collected by a botanist long ago, the herbarium specimen's slender brown stem, delicate flowerhead and withered leaves were held in place with tidy stitches, made delicately through the heavy mounting card. Its lifeless form captured forever a discovery, a geography and a taxonomy.
'Hey, Ben, take a look at this,' said the floral woman, holding out a hand lens. 'Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't realise you had company!' she added, seemingly noticing Helen standing beside him for the first time.
The professor registered Helen's look of surprise. 'We're very informal here. After all, we care about plants more than people! You should call me Ben, too.'
Turning his attention to the two volunteers, Ben introduced Helen as the new intern. She was amazed to learn that the pair had 62 years of combined volunteering time between them. Ben's easy-going manner belied his botanical prowess, and their conversation soon moved on to why the anthers seemed longer in the colour plate than the herbarium specimen.
Helen's attention drifted. She noticed how every vertical surface of the room was covered with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, all of them laden with books. Many appeared to be of great vintage, with handsome leather spines and raised bands. Drifting away from the other three, she browsed dreamily along a set of shelves, running an index finger over the books' spines, tracing ridges and embossed lettering, imagining the generations of hands that had studied at the arboretum.
'Sorry, Helen,' interrupted the professor, catching up with her, his long legs making quick work of her dreamy peramble. 'It's impossible to ignore a botanical query like that. I'm stuck behind my computer too much these days.'
He must find time to exercise, though, thought Helen. A cyclist, perhaps. So many other men his age have a paunch. His eyes smiled down on her behind thin-framed glasses, which he pushed up his narrow nose.
They left the reading room together, walking in single file along one of the many narrow corridors leading from the back wall. Books and journals seemed to stretch to infinity, crowding in on both sides. At its end they halted in front of another wooden door.
'So, this is the room we've used to store the few remaining archival boxes of miscellaneous material.' Finding the key among a large bunch on a chain fixed to his trouser waist, Ben opened the heavy door.
As they entered, Helen noticed a brass fingerplate labelled with the name of its wood: 'American White Oak, Quercus alba'. She had expected a small store cupboard. The door opened instead on to a huge echoing space, measuring at least the same size again as the main reading room, yet it couldn't have contrasted more: bare magnolia walls, grey industrial epoxy floor and a lack of natural light lent it a soulless quality. Plastic archival storage crates covered most of the floor, the type with folding crenulated lids, allowing one to be stored on top of another. The boxes sat three-high in rows, forming a grey maze around the room.
'Now, don't be dismayed,' said the professor, seemingly reading her mind. 'I realise this must look daunting, but we always make sure interns experience plenty of variety. We thought working through some of these materials would be a perfect task when we're too short-staffed to supervise you in the field, like we are today, or when the weather's foul. Essentially, everything in here has been removed from long-term storage elsewhere – including various cellars, cupboards and storerooms – from right across the whole site. Nothing has been sorted through yet.'
'So where do I begin?'
'I suggest you start there,' he said, pointing to the far corner. 'We need to clear that area first, as these boxes are almost blocking access to the fire door. If you can simply sort contents into these different categories.' He handed her a notebook and pen, together with a crumpled list from the pocket of his linen jacket. 'I'll leave you to it, then. One of us will check back in an hour or so.'
Helen stood alone in the bleak room, surrounded by countless grey boxes, the hum of the overhead strip lights supplanting Ben's fading footsteps. What am I doing here? she wondered. She knew the answer well enough, really; it was a dream internship, one she'd had to work hard for, one she'd competed against more than 200 other students to win. It was worth her making every possible effort over the next six months.
Of the three crates in the corner, the first two were heavy, but easy enough to move further into the room where the light was a little better. The last one she couldn't budge, and so fate decided this would be the first box she explored. There seemed to be no order or logic to its contents; sheaves of handwritten notes intermingled with heavy books and journals, and even some beautiful hand-coloured illustrations of a purple iris showing its flower, details of its reproductive parts and its tuberous roots.
Helen set about sorting the items according to the categories the professor had provided, trying not to become overly distracted by the myriad interesting contents. Nearing the bottom of the crate, her hand fell upon a worn leather notebook, which on closer inspection she realised was bundled with several others, each tied shut with a long leather lace. The outer covers were worn and deeply stained, their margins frayed and tattered. Tucked under the laces were one or two folded sheets of paper that looked to be letters.
Untying one of the laces, she gingerly lifted the corner of the uppermost notebook. Bold loops of thin ink writing bounded across the page. She spotted a date that caused her to hold her breath: 1852. She'd never held something genuinely that old before. Curiosity overcame her, so she untied the ribbon fully and began to read.
Journal: Shasta Valley, California, 25 October 1852
I remember there was an unusually big sky that evening, and it was lonely of clouds – surely forewarning a sharp night. I raised a modest fire and added an extra layer of springy branches under my bedroll as a spectacular red sun descended between two giant boulders before me. Thus prepared I drifted to sleep, lying with some satisfaction beneath the canopy of another fine specimen of the magnificent new pine I had discovered days before (No. 731). A myriad stars flickered between the long needles on its gently swaying branches. I was reminded of Humboldt's analogy – of the blooming, fecundity and withering of stars and planets – and the form of the great garden of the universe which now lay open before me. God had revealed his infinite mysteries.
Sometime later, while wrapped tightly in a meagre HBC blanket, my hat drawn deep down over my head, such was the cold, I was woken by a great weight upon my chest. It has been more than one month since I last enjoyed close human comfort, and I was confused, before becoming immediately alert.
Yet, before I could much react, a terrible pain lanced my cheek, and I found my face to be held in a foul stinking vice. Despite finding myself quite blind, and with one arm caught under my blanket, with the other I managed to strike out. My bare hand encountered solid fur-clad muscle. So short was the coat of my foe, there was no handhold. I thought then that I was confronted, not by a grizzly, but most likely a mountain lion. I raised my legs to grapple with its body and rolled over to one side. I felt the flesh on my face tear open even as I felt for my gun. With the stock I aimed a blow blindly at its body and, on making satisfying contact, felt its jaws loosen. Yet still it did not retreat, its claws holding fast to my body. I fought viciously, with every limb and ounce of my strength, for what seemed many minutes, but must have been mere seconds, before it fled. By the time I had torn the remains of the hat off my head, I managed to glimpse only its long tail disappearing between the same two boulders between which the sun had earlier retreated. Yet there it paused to turn and stare. I feared for a moment it was to return, its unblinking eyes reflecting two startling full moons, yet it evidently decided that discretion was the better part of valour. With a turn of its head it was eclipsed by the night.
I immediately sought to rekindle the fire, which had faded to a pitiful glow. With my knife now permanently in one hand, which trembled terribly and quite without control, I heated water to tend to my face and other injuries. I slept for none of the remainder of the night, gripped, I admit, by terror, and suffering a most fearsome throbbing pain.
Naturally, I have no glass with me, so I was obliged to wait until the sun had risen before I could inspect my face on the surface of a pool in the creek. Being without the excitement of a fight to mask the pain, applying the crude stitches to my cheek hurt more than the beast's canines.
After attending to my wounds I believe that I became quite delirious. I woke many times to find myself surprised that it was day rather than night, or vice versa. My body was often drenched with sweat and I found myself shivering, even at noon when the sun was at its zenith. My fire, however, I kept burning day and night, even though the usually simple act of gathering kindling and logs was a great burden on account of the pain.
I write now, I believe, some two days after the attack. It is unusual for me to stay more than one night in the same place, but I have felt little able to do much more than rest and attend to the fire. While my symptoms were at their height, I experienced vivid and hallucinatory dreams. In many of these I found myself with Prof Woody, and other noble gentlemen, among extraordinary variations of the Edinburgh gardens. What would they think now of my sorry situation? If they could witness my immediate circumstances they would surely experience a similar sense of bewilderment, yet their vision would be no dream. I am a battered man, with a grizzly face, which surely masks completely the youth they despatched with such optimism but two years ago.
I recall Mr Anderson explaining the habits of the various beasts which might prove a threat to us. I have encountered many bears, both black and grizzly, during my travels thus far, and shot more than I can now remember. In fact, meetings are commonplace with these giants, and it is second nature to take measures to counter their curiosity when establishing an encampment. Yet I can recall seeing only two mountain lions in all my time traversing this vast country (the last one about one month past). On both of these occasions, they have been some distance away. I was well informed that a mountain lion will only rarely attack a man – a child being much more common fare – unless it is surprised, or if that man is a coward who presents a fleeing back. I will remember to inform my old guide of these experiences, if we are fortunate enough to meet again.
Earlier, I followed the path that the animal took between the boulders, and just beyond them, along the banks of the stream in the soft mud among its rushes, I found several footprints. Each was the size of the back of my hand. The rear of the main pads had three lobes, a feature I have not seen before. It may confirm my suspicion as to the beast's identity.
I have determined that I will start back northwards tomorrow, to find company as soon as possible in case my wounds fester, although I now feel a little more myself. The snow-clad peak of Mount Shasta exerts a dominant presence in this place, its foothills providing fertile hunting grounds for the botanist. Before me tall pines, all of the same new species that I found these days past, grow between massive boulders, extending without interruption down the valley and far into the distance. This land is a paradise so rich it would see the same gentlemen emptying their purses to secure more collectors. Yet their ambitions might be cruelly shattered by my appearance.
I inadvertently started this entry on the inside of the cover and front end paper of this, my third journal, which is already half-filled. I am usually so diligent about my record-keeping. I hope the spattering of blood and other marks across the page will be forgiven. At least the hand with which I write is mostly undamaged; I cannot say the same for my other.
Arnold Arboretum, Boston, 3 September, present day
Raising his glasses, Ben rested them on the savannah of his expansive forehead.
Either this required deep thought, or he needs reading glasses, mused Helen. Only the rustle of each page, slowly turned, stirred the silence as they sat side by side on the hard floor. Several increasingly awkward minutes passed before he spoke again.
'I'm almost lost for words, Helen,' he said softly, cradling the journal in front of him in both hands. 'This is something quite special you've discovered here.'
'There are more than one of those, too, and I think they're all written by the same person,' said Helen. 'Do you know who?'
He turned the journal over, tracing its tattered leather edges with his fingers, finally persuading his eyes to explore the collection of similar journals and papers in the box by his side. If there was a reply, it escaped him silently in a long exhalation. The professor seemed dazed.
Helen reached forward and removed, one by one, five more journals, some in good condition, others tattered like the first. Among them were several sheets of neatly folded cartridge paper tucked loosely in between some of the journals, and a larger volume of papers tied in a separate bundle below. 'These all seem to be letters, but from the quick look earlier, I think they're written by several different people,' she said, holding one out to him.
Ben looked at it, regarding it with obvious curiosity, but both his hands remained fixed on the book, as if it held all the answers to the mystery before them. 'You know,' he said finally, 'I think I might have an idea what these could be, and if I'm right, they could unlock a mystery that goes right back to the golden age of plant-hunting.'
Helen stood awkwardly, both legs now painfully numb from the hard floor. 'So ... you didn't know these were here, and you think —'
'I can tell you, Helen, this has really got me thinking ...' Ben paused while he struggled to stand, wincing in obvious discomfort. 'I'd like you to work on this, if you don't mind, as a special project for us. It would mean you'd have fewer opportunities to work across different disciplines in the arboretum, as I'd promised, but this could turn out to be a really big deal.'
Helen couldn't think of any reason to refuse such an offer, and this might mean she could visit other places as part of her research.
Ben had evidently already read her mind. 'Have you ever been to Scotland?' he asked.
Email: Arnold Arboretum, Boston, 4 September, present day
I was pleased to hear that you've got some bench space organised, and you're now on our email.
I am convinced that the author of the journals is John Jeffrey. I looked up a few articles about him in the library and came across this (below). Do make sure you meet with the librarian soon, as I know she will be only too pleased to show you how to search through our databases, catalogue etc. Also, Beatrix and Hanna (the two volunteers you met) really know their way around the stacks and archive, and are always keen to help.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Green Gold"
Copyright © 2019 Gabriel Hemery.
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