The Lotus Quest by Mark Griffiths

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The Lotus Quest by Mark Griffiths

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The epic search for the roots of the sacred Lotus: some heavy hacking through the undergrowth needed in places, but overall an intriguing trawl through middle and far-eastern history, with some side alleys much closer to home.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1845951009

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Mark Griffiths is one of Britain's leading plant experts. I know this because his brief biog in the front of The Lotus Quest tells me so; just as it tells me that he is the editor of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening the largest work on horticulture ever published. His prior works list includes five other plant book credits, three of them for the RHS. I shall take all of this on trust, since attempts to find out more about the author and his background through the usual internet search mechanisms has failed miserably. He remains as elusive as the sacred flower that is the subject of this latest work: the lotus.

Not just 'a' lotus, you understand, but 'the' lotus – the original, the sacred, the Buddha lotus. This is the object of the quest.

Plant quests have an air of the 19th century about them. They chime with the age of imperial expansion and exotic discovery. Of course many of our now common varieties came to us from earlier voyages of discovery, particularly in the renaissance age, but somehow the idea of a gentleman setting off in search of plants is intrinsically Victorian.

In true Victorian fashion, that Hollywood could not have scripted better, Griffiths' first inspiration for his quest alights in a strong room beneath the exhibition rooms of London's Burlington House, home of the nucleus of the collection of the Linnean Society of London.

The 18th century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (Latinised as Carlos Linnaeus) is the founder of modern taxonomy – the naming of living things. He it was who determined the hierarchical structure of kingdoms, orders, genera, species, etc. And he it was who determined that each new discovery should be named by reference to the already known, and each should be referenced by description and preferably by sample. The details have changed over the years, but the principles hold fast, and the starting point for anyone interested in a particular plant is still to go back to that very first registry lurking in the bowels of Piccadilly.

Griffiths finds himself in this hallowed ground by virtue of his connections and experience. These have led to him accompanying one Taeko Goto, a Japanese scholar dedicated to the lotus, to see the plant specimen originally ascribed that name by Linnaeus himself. The interesting thing about the specimen is the degree to which it differs from the more usual wild or event cultivated form of the plant as it is known today and as it has been recorded in eastern historical records and art.

In thanks for his assistance in gaining access to the vaults, Taeko-san sends Mr Griffiths a few lotus seeds, which he tenderly nurtures and brings to bloom. It is a year or so later that he discovers they came from a famous plant, a plant germinated from seeds found on an archaeological dig and carbon dated to between 1,000 and 3,000 years old.

I'm not a plantswoman, but even I can see why such news might spark an obsession. The obsession initially leads Griffiths into the libraries and galleries to trace the recorded history and love of the lotus, but cannot be quenched until he has traced its origins back into the ancient history of Japan, by following in the footsteps and seeing the remnants and still thriving plantations for himself.

It is this journey that is shared in The Lotus Quest.

To begin with we first have to determine what might be meant by Lotus: anything it seems from an arable weed [a kind of clover] to a water lily, from a spice [fenugreek] to a source of hardwood [a relative of ebony], not to mention various relatives of the pea family and the birds-foot trefoil. None of these are the true sacred Lotus. This is Nelumbo nucifera.

Then we set about the historical quizzicals: analysing the texts, visiting the sites, looking at the artefacts, interpreting, re-interpreting. Griffiths is generally an adept guide: the kind willing to share every snippet of knowledge and not afraid to ask the apparently dumb or insolent questions. He talks us through Pythagorean theory, and ancient Egyptian medicine. We get lost along the Nile (or maybe not the Nile) with Alexander the Great. Through Ur and Babylon the lotus raises its scented head. Ancient temples bear stylised motifs of the flower, as does a parish church in Oxfordshire. Everywhere, through time, across religions and power-bases the Lotus wanders and leaves traces.

Its roots, however, lie firmly in Japanese soil and there it is that most of the quest unfolds. From the ancient seeds found on that 1950s dig back to the dawn of the written record, Griffiths leads us ever backwards through Japanese history following the flower.

The Lotus Quest is a hard book to define. Publishers Vintage have listed it as Gardening/Travel, but I was more taken with it as a history book.

The gardening element will appeal to those who already have a passion for the art generally or a specific interest in the Nelumbo, but for those of us with fingers shaded away from the green area of the spectrum the instructions wash past as a spring rain that can be ignored: not unpleasant, not intrusive, safely ignored.

As a travelogue, it wouldn't work at all. There are too many tangents and in depth investigations for the trail to be "the thing" – which is not to say that there aren’t some lesser known destinations, brilliantly, enticingly, described that any traveller worth their passport might want to secrete away in the hope they stay out of the tour guides a while longer.

Where Griffiths really captures me is in the telling of the Japanese back-story. The tales of Emperors and Shoguns and lesser officials, of court intrigue and clan rivalry, of major battles and lone last stands. This is where he spins a proper yarn, building suspense, personalising characters, creating understanding. Importantly, this is where he is also a novice, learning it even in the retelling of it. The result is that these episodes are told simply and stand strongly for that.

When he feels the need to analyse, to explain the art, he loses me in his erudition. Unfamiliar words and over-constructed sentences leave me floundering. One rainy afternoon I may feel the need to go back and count the number of times syncretic (or variations thereof) is used. In the meantime, I shall simply have to go look it up.

Elsewhere, he cleverly, succinctly, and with an ease of style explains concepts which are self-evident in Japanese but scarcely existent in English, so it isn't that the academic slant is required to make sense of it all. His exploration of different English renditions of a single Haiku serve to illustrate the difficulties he faced, so I appreciate the author's dilemma. I do think, though, that I'd have found it an easier, more enjoyable read if some of the dense undergrowth were removed.

Not sure I will re-read the whole, cover-to-cover, but appropriately indexed as it is, I can see it becoming a well-thumbed reference copy for purposes probably unintended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for further insights into Japanese culture try Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane – or for a much more up-to-date look at the use of garden planting try On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries by Richard Reynolds.

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