Renowned plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson was a dedicated and careful record keeper. During his plant collecting expeditions to Asia in the early 20th century, he kept a daily diary of his activities while he was in the field. He tracked all his expenses in account ledgers down to the last penny and painstakingly recorded the seeds, specimens, and live plant material he gathered in far-flung parts of Asia. These precious documents were carried by his porters for hundreds of miles and accompanied him on his journey home to the Arnold Arboretum as a lasting testament to his travels. In an effort to share these materials online, the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum has launched a crowd sourcing project to transcribe these Wilson manuscripts—and invite you to participate.

A Page from His Diary

Wilson’s field diaries are filled with anecdotes and observations from his field work to acquire new temperate woody plant species for the Arnold Arboretum. He was a keen observer of the people he met and the places he visited. His diary entries sometimes reference the photographs he captured along the way, as happened one day in Songpan, Sichuan Province, China (formerly transliterated Sungpan).

It was August 1910, and Wilson had returned to Songpan after an absence of six years. He had visited twice before, in 1903 and 1904, when he was collecting plants for the Veitch Nursery Company of his native England. The mountain town, a portion of which we see in the photograph below, charmed him. In his memoir, A Naturalist in Western China, he said,

Did the fates ordain that I should live in Western China I would ask for nothing better than to be domiciled in Sungpan. Though the altitude is considerable, the climate is perfect…with, as a general rule, clear skies of Tibetan blue.

– Ernest Wilson

On this visit, he brought with him a top-of-the-line camera, custom built by the Sanderson Company, that created negatives on large format glass plates. On August 25, 1910, he captured a series of views of the town from the surrounding hills and images of other points of interest. Perhaps he realized he would never visit there again, and wanted a souvenir to remember his beloved place.

A Lappa man (left) and Sifan man (right) photographed by Ernest Wilson.
The men who visited Wilson. His caption for this photograph says, “Two tribesmen, one to right, Sifan 6 ft. tall with turban, the other, Lappa tribesman from country several days journey west of Sungpan.” Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

That evening, Wilson was visited by a local Tibetan man whom he had met on one of his previous trips to Songpan, who had brought a friend to meet Wilson. In his diary entry Wilson relates,

The 25th [was] largely [given over] to photography—it was a lovely day for the job and I should have some fine pictures of Sungpan. In the evening a Sungpan Sifan with a Lappa from two days west came in and wanted to have their photo taken. The Sifan remembered me from a previous visit and was most amusing with a cheery childish way.

Ernest Wilson

As his comment suggests, Wilson would not have known whether this or any of his pictures had turned out until many months later. Developing his glass plate negatives would only occur when he returned to England, where he had access to the photofinishing laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The photograph that Wilson created is a deeply touching and respectful portrait of two friends. Both men face the camera with self-assurance. They are relaxed and the taller man has turned slightly towards his friend, inclining his head. His hand is on his friend’s back, perhaps as an encouragement to approach the photographer. There is a slight twinkle in his eye that has been captured for the ages.

Were it not for the record of the meeting in Wilson’s field diary, we would never know the backstory to this beautiful photograph.

Stewarding His Manuscripts

For over a century the Arnold Arboretum has carefully preserved and stewarded Wilson’s papers in the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum. This particular field diary is kept in dark, cool storage to protect the delicate paper. In 2008, we were fortunate to have all of Wilson’s manuscript materials digitized as part of a Harvard Libraries initiative called the Open Collections Program. Thus they joined our collection of Wilson’s photographs online, which had been digitized several years previously. The manuscript materials may all be accessed through the guide to his archival collection on our website.

A page from one of Ernest Wilson's field collection books.
A page from one of Ernest Wilson’s field notebooks detailing his collections in the Yichang, Hubei Province area in 1908. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

While we are delighted to make this material available to the world electronically, the rich stories and data they contain are currently accessible only to those willing to spend the time to decipher Wilson’s difficult penmanship. Because there was no way to parse the text as part of the scanning process, these materials will need to be transcribed individually.

View of the village of Paishanying, Sichuan.
A view of the village of Paishanying in the mountains near the Min River in Sichuan. Wilson took this photograph in August 1910. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Wilson’s back-slanted and often indistinct handwriting has proved challenging even for experienced scholars. One can imagine him exhausted at the end of a day, balancing his diary in his lap with a pencil in hand, quickly jotting down his memories of the day’s activities.

Many decades ago, the library was fortunate to have a volunteer who could read his script. She completed a number of Wilson manuscript transcriptions for us—in particular, his letters and the collection notebooks from his 1917-1919 expedition to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan—yet the bulk of his manuscripts are not deciphered.

Wilson Manuscript Transcriptions

Poplar tree on the road south of Songpan.
A large poplar (Populus cathayana) photographed by Ernest Wilson on August 27, 1910, beside the Min River south of Songpan, Sichuan. The tree still stands and is in good condition. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

For this project the Arboretum is partnering with FromThePage and its online software for document transcription and collaboration. Its services are already being employed by the Colonial North America (CNA) project, a groundbreaking initiative across Harvard libraries to digitize all of Harvard’s handwritten archival materials from this period. Utilizing crowd sourcing, FromThePage will bring transcribers from around the world to participate and contribute to our work on the Wilson manuscripts. We have uploaded images of all of Wilson’s manuscript items to our FromThePage interface, and transcriptions have begun.

You Can Help

Want to help? It’s easy taking part in our transcription project from the comfort of your home. Just register with FromThePage and steer your browser to our interface. Enjoy both the excitement of discovering Wilson’s adventures for yourself, and sharing what you find with the library and the plant enthusiasts around the world.

Dig Deeper

Learn more about the Arboretum’s long history of plant exploration.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.