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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

On This Day, 8 October; birth of William Swainson - parrot and goose

William Swainson, a passionate and skilled English naturalist and artist, was born on this day in 1789. Unfortunately his passion seemed to blind him to his own limits at crucial points of his career, a myopia which can either lead to greatness, or – as in his case – a tumble into something malodorous.

At the age of 14 he followed his father into the customs service, but already the lure of natural history was loud in his ears and in order to travel he joined the army (not as a combatant, but on the staff of the Commissary-General) and spent years immersed in the plants and animals of the eastern Mediterranean. Unspecified illness forced him from the army at age 26 on half-pay to pursue his real love, which by now was further empowered by discovering and developing his considerable skills as an artist. Crucially this happened at just the time that the new process of lithography was being introduced, enabling an artist to draw directly onto a stone printing block (with a waxy pencil, to which oily inks adhered) rather than having to rely on an engraver to accurately interpret the artist’s work on a copper plate. Teams of colourists hand-coloured the books, following the artist’s colour template. This was a revolution akin to modern publishing software, allowing artists to self-publish. 

Swainson did just that, pioneering the technique among naturalists, following a trip to Brazil which he undertook almost as soon as he left the army. He was not the first or last naturalist to succumb to the call of the tropics. Nor was he the first or last to have trip to the tropics disrupted by political upheaval, but he collected enough to begin a series of subscription-paid books of Brazilian birds, and of shells, on which he had become an authority. They were published in sections, each section subsidising the next.

Several bird names were published by him, including some Australian ones. He was sufficiently respected for the French ornithologist Anselme Desmarest to name a particularly spectacular Australian parrot in his honour.
male Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra.
Additionally, bird species from Africa and the Americas were also named for him, though not all the original names have survived.
Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus, Mindo Valley, Ecuador.
This species was named by the US-based English ornithologist Thomas Nuttall.
Meantime, most unfortunately, he had enthusiastically espoused the new classification system developed by WS MacLeay, the Quinary system. (MacLeay had already been a diplomat and judge in the Spanish-English slave abolition commission in Cuba and went on to play a major role in Australian entomology.) It was a serious attempt at classification, but from our perspective it was also seriously loopy. Groups of animals were allocated to one of three circles, containing respectively ‘typical’, ‘subtypical’ and ‘aberrant’ members of the group. The ‘aberrant’ circle was further divided into three circles (hence the five of the quinary). Associations of species in different circles were linked with lines. The leading biologists of the day took an interest – then shied away from its utter arbitrariness and irrelevance to the real world. Not Swainson though. He was excited by the evident links between tigers and zebras, on the basis that both are ‘striped and impossible to tame’. Or baboons and whales with ‘head very large, little or no tail’, or macaques and rodents with ‘tail relatively long, hare-lipped’. This did not enhance his standing, but it didn’t totally destroy it either.

Cheaper book printing processes also developed at this time, and Swainson contributed to the revolution in learning which accompanied the availability of affordable books by writing for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia series. He produced 11 volumes on a wide range of topics before the difficulties of working with Lardner got too much for him and he emigrated to New Zealand. The question of the relative contribution to this move of his problems with Lardner and the fall-out from the Quinary episode is unclear; both are cited as reasons.

He should probably have stayed in New Zealand, though Maori land claims over ‘his’ estate meant it wasn’t an entirely happy time. However, for reasons and in ways not at all clear, he was head-hunted in 1853 by the Victorian government to work on the colonial tree flora; as far as I can determine he had never published or even shown any particular in botany before. Beware the late arrival in a field. With explicit disdain for those who had gone before, he listed in his report 1520 Victorian ‘gum trees’ and 213 casuarinas (where we now recognise about 14). He would have done more but ran out of names… 

He died two years later back in New Zealand. He predicted ‘surprise and almost incredulity amongst the botanists of Europe’. Indeed. Sir William Hooker of Kew – a man noted for his tolerance and tact – wrote to von Mueller “in my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first rate naturalist, and of a very first rate natural history artist, and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.”

Given this, the existence of the Australian pea genus Swainsona might seem surprising, but in fact it honours William’s much older cousin Isaac, botanical garden owner, herbalist – and purveyor of apparently quack medicines.
Swainsona galegifolia, Liverpool Range, New South Wales.
Perhaps William should have left the plant side of biology to him; it’s probably better to be remembered as a parrot than a goose.



Flabmeister said...

I am unsure of the accuracy of the statement "ignorant as a goose" when it comes to botany. My guess is that geese are pretty much on the ball wrt botany, especially on the matter of the edible/inedible divide.

I suspect that vultures don't really care too much about plants. However "ignorant as a vulture" seems to lack something.


Duncan McCaskill said...

Google UK celebrated William Swainson yesterday with a "Doodle" - I can't recall any previous ornithological doodles. Australia missed out. Guardian on Swainson Google Doodle .

Ian Fraser said...

Excellent contribution - thank you Duncan. And of course, thank you too Martin for your unfailingly helpful contributions...

Duncan McCaskill said...

Re Martin's comment: I would think that geese would lump all "gum trees" and casuarinas together with most other trees as "inedible, of no interest".