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In Praise of Francis Hallé

by Mary Jasch

My words cannot do better than a read through Francis Hallé’s wondrous book, Atlas of Poetic Botany. Not poetry in the usual sense, nor botany in the usual way.

Hallé’s writings and drawings represent the natural world at its most exotic, mysterious, musical and accurate. He is a French botanist, biologist, artist, explorer and cherisher of tropical forests.

His writing and drawings stir my brain and soul with truth about “in the moment writing” (plein air writing?) and absorbing the creature before me – a lesson reinforced from his intuitive, yet factual, book.

His words about photography vs. sketches express my feelings about my own occupational hazards as a writer and photographer. I once wrote my “good” profiles of gardens and landscapes onsite as I observed and reflected while putting pen to paper. Since acquiring a smart phone that takes great photos, that has changed. I haven’t been able to write well ever since.

When visiting gardens I want to profile, my phone is always in my hand, ready to capture that perfect shot among many. As in plants competing for space, the phone physically took the space of my pen and notebook. It took up both my hands.

I thought a photo would make me remember it all – the plants, the gardens, how I felt, what I thought. It didn’t. And that is not how I write. I lost touch with myself with the fast and easy touch of technology. Its lull – insidious. My writer’s block went on for a year or so until one day I realized the cause – my cell phone!

Hallé on sketching: “The extended time required for drawing … amounts to a dialogue with the plant: it opens up space for reflection, which is absolutely necessary when one stands face to face with an alien. Drawing represents the work of human thought; the exchange with the object rendered plays a key role, and if questions arise when contemplating the alien, the interview ought to last long enough for an answer to emerge.” - excerpt from Atlas of Poetic Botany

Exactly how I feel about writing. Technology took me away but I have returned.

Months ago at an art exhibit, I admired a tree painted by a watercolor artist. I admitted I could not capture the strength and majesty of some trees in a photo. Her advice: “Sit for a while. The tree will tell you.” Contemplate. Like Hallé.

I am grateful for my awakening, I will return to a camera around my neck, pen in right hand, notebook in left.

Thank you, Francis Hallé!

Read this marvelous book: Atlas of Poetic Botany (The MIT Press 2018)
Photo courtesy of Forest Art Project
See my review here.
Meet Francis Hallé here.
See the glorious way he studies the equatorial canopy here.




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