Savoring the Inconspicuous
By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by Joel Martinsen
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

Botany is an approachable subject for a popular science book. No irritating technological or economic issues, an academic background in math or physics isn’t a prerequisite, and you don’t need reference materials on hand to illuminate the unfamiliar science. Plants are our food, our neighbors, and our friends – and the most intimate of strangers. Perhaps the fact that audiences can easily find things of immediate relevance to their lives has led to a sustained output of translations of botany-related nature writing and popular science from publishers in Taiwan, as well as the attention local experts have received in recent years for books like Isle of Healing and The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plants that combine nature writing and botany.


Arriving on this tide of interest in native plants is Plant Collectors’ Notebook, a graphic novel featuring plant collectors during the Japanese colonial period. Although the name might suggest this is a non-fiction guide, botanical information is actually only a supporting character in a plot motivated by the collectors’ troubled history, their social interactions, and their coming of age.


The book’s three protagonists each carry wounds of their own, and as they work with their colleagues collecting plants and producing specimens, they gain new experiences of both plants and life.


The main protagonist Hsu Liang-Shan is the only son of the proprietor of an herbal pharmacy. Distraught over the death of his younger sister to a heart ailment, he no longer believes in the efficacy of plants as medicine. But when he starts work at the Taipei Herbarium, not only does he recognize the value of his storehouse of herbal knowledge and realize that plants are useful in far more ways than he ever imagined, he starts coming to terms with the loss of his sister as well.


Liang-Shan’s supervisor, the botanical research assistant Matsuo Haku, is swift and decisive at work. As the story progresses, the reader discovers the link between his self-sacrifice on the job and the sense of inferiority and worthlessness stemming from his frail constitution. What he doesn’t realize is that his enthusiasm for plants is a quiet inspiration to those around him.


Joining the Herbarium team shortly after Liang-Shan is Wu-Tsao, an orphan raised in a village of mountain bandits. Illiterate but dexterous, she hopes that botanical knowledge will help her face the nightmare of being abandoned as a child. And whether it’s Liang-Shan helping her adapt to a new way of life, or Haku teaching her to read, she’s constantly making new discoveries.


Concerning scientific nomenclature, Liang-Shan notes, “Whether or not a plant has been given a scientific name, its essential nature doesn’t change. It still grows naturally through the passage of the seasons, and still flowers at the appropriate time!” However, when a plant encounters a collector and is identified and named by a botanist, its fate may still be altered. When a collector searches for plants, they may also be searching for a place of their own within the sphere of botanical knowledge.


With a collector’s day-to-day life revolving around plants, the graphic novel can’t avoid explanatory dialogue, but author Ejan strategically confines single-purpose descriptive content to two-page spreads that simplify complex topics into plain text. Taken together with the plot and art, the reader can gain a bit of knowledge without feeling like reading is a chore.


Further reducing the burden on the reader, as well as ensuring consistency with historical and scientific facts, the author sought the assistance of botanists and historians in the outline phase. By the final draft, every branch and leaf of every plant in every panel was reviewed by experts – and possibly revised in response to feedback. In the chapter introducing Wu-Tsao, the bandits don’t just rob travelers; they grow poppies and refine opium in a hidden encampment. A simple decision of what plants the bandits would use for their criminal activity had to take into account what plausible during the Japanese colonial period. This represents significant effort on the author’s part, as well as time spent on verification by editors and botanical and historical advisors.


Ejan says, “The name of a collector doesn’t go down in history like a botanist, but their work is the foundation for all further research.” Her collaboration with botanists and historians is itself a veiled tribute to that unacknowledged work. Perhaps that is something Plant Collectors’ Notebook has in common with readers: its protagonists silently support the work of botanical research – and plants silently support human life – in the same way that ordinary people like you and me contribute to the day-to-day operation of the world.