When Alma Whittaker was born in Pennsylvania in 1800, her father ‘did not mind that the infant was not a boy, nor that it was not pretty’. Thus Alma’s journey to understand herself, the form of natural things, and her place in the world began.
Defying the maxim that a woman’s place was in the home, Alma’s love of botany saw her story intertwined with that of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and the European age of naval and scientific exploration.
Alma was fascinated by those metaphors for human society, mosses, whose achingly slow growth she maps. She was also enthralled by orchids, drawn so exquisitely by Mr Ambrose Pike, an unexpected guest whose spiritualist approach to life changed Alma forever. But it was the orchid’s exotic cousin, Tahitian vanilla, that posed a set of puzzles Alma followed half-way round the world.
A tribute to all scientific women, this lyrical account of Alma’s quest for knowledge is likely to start you on your own journey for the signature of all things.
The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert, 2013