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Nature General

Field Study

Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium

by (author) Helen Humphreys

ECW Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2021
General, Botany, Social History
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2021
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Sep 2021
    List Price
  • Downloadable audio file

    Publish Date
    Nov 2021
    List Price

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“[A] delightful mix of memoir and field study.” — Publishers Weekly STARRED review

Award-winning and beloved author Helen Humphreys discovers her local herbarium and realizes we need to look for beauty in whatever nature we have left — no matter how diminished

Award-winning poet and novelist Helen Humphreys returns to her series of nature meditations in this gorgeously written and illustrated book that takes a deep look at the forgotten world of herbariums and the people who amassed collections of plant specimens in the 19th and 20th centuries. From Emily Dickinson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s collections to the amateur naturalists whose names are forgotten but whose collections still grace our world, herbariums are the records of the often-humble plants that are still with us and those that are lost. Over the course of a year, Humphreys considers life and loss and the importance of finding solace in nature.

Illustrated throughout with images of herbarium specimens, Humphreys’s own botanical drawings, and archival photographs, this will be the perfect gift for Humphreys’s many fans, nature enthusiasts, and for all who loved Birds Art Life.

About the author

HELEN HUMPHREYS’ last novel, The Reinvention Of Love, was a national bestseller. Coventry was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. Humphreys won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Afterimage and the Toronto Book Award for Leaving Earth. Her much-loved novel The Lost Garden was a Canada Reads selection. The recipient of the Harbourfront Festival Prize for literary excellence, Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Helen Humphreys' profile page


  • Nominated, Council on Botanical & Horticultural Libraries’ Annual Literature Award
  • Nominated, Foreword Indies Award
  • Commended, The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design

Excerpt: Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium (by (author) Helen Humphreys)

The autumn leaves floating down over the field look like brightly coloured birds falling to earth. We have just left the pine wood and are on the path that my walking companion calls Carnage Alley, because there are often feathers, or blood, or bits of dead animal on this route. The victims of coyotes perhaps, or the owls that hunt above this field at dusk. Easier to catch something in the open than in the tangled wrack of forest trees, and even now there is a northern harrier skimming the tops of the asters and milkweed. …It seems otherworldly, an owl’s head on a hawk’s body, the elegant drift of its hunger.

This place of woods and meadow and marsh is paradise. My paradise. Where I walk every day, all through the seasons. It always seems to be teeming with wildlife and plant life, but things have changed even in the handful of years I have been coming here. Now there are deer ticks on all the forest paths and in the open fields. The toxic wild parsnip is creeping through the meadows, and an invasive feathery reed, phragmites, is choking out the wetlands. The bobolinks and meadowlarks, who used to be plentiful every summer, are now virtually non-existent.

Habitat loss, pollution, climate change, human overpopulation and encroachment — these are some of the main reasons for the decline and changes to ecosystems. Much of the damage is irreversible, and the prognosis for the future is grim. And yet, I believe there is still a profound need within human beings to connect to the natural world.

How to reconcile these two things?

…I am interested in exploring this relationship, to write from a place that doesn’t look away from the environmental changes wrought by humankind and that also celebrates the connections that still exist between people and nature.

To do this, I have chosen to concentrate on the phenomenon of the herbarium. These libraries of dried plant specimens — some hundreds of years old — seem the perfect crucible in which to examine the intersection of human beings and the natural world through time. Each herbarium specimen is mounted on a sheet of paper with a label affixed by the collector, providing details of the plant and the location where it was found, but also including information about the person who preserved the plant. In this way the herbarium becomes a place, a landscape if you will, where the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed. I cannot think of another place where it is possible to look into the past and see the moment an orchid was plucked from the forest floor or a willow frond was cut from a branch. A visit to the herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel. And by learning more about the intersection of people and nature in the past, I hope to gain some understanding of where we can go from here.

Editorial Reviews

“[A] delightful mix of memoir and field study … In beautiful prose, Humphreys describes her experience acquainting herself with plants … Readers who appreciated Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders will revel in these gorgeous explorations.” — Publishers Weekly starred review

“Her pages glow with plant samples, lichen as lacy-bright as the day they were found, orchids sadly faded to brown.” — Toronto Star

“A beautiful volume to appeal to the armchair gardener and historian alike. Based on a year studying plant samples collected over decades, she connects plant lovers from over the centuries and offers insight into nature’s tenacity.” — Toronto Star

“Beautifully illustrated, it will be a perfect companion when you slouch in your armchair next to the Christmas tree for an evening read. A meticulously researched story of plants collected and people behind them; all based on herbarium labels, margin notes, scribbles, sketches, drawings and old photographs, but mostly the plant specimens themselves.” — Field Botanists of Ontario

“This book changed my perspective on herbaria … Humphreys sees the space as one where people and plants come together very intimately.” — Herbarium World

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