Cover of book: The Wasp and the Orchid

Danielle Clode
The Wasp and the Orchid

The subtitle promises “the remarkable life” of Edith Coleman, but remarkable how? As Danielle Clode tells it, it comes across as remarkable in the sense of noteworthy, rather than extraordinary. Which is fine – by all means, let’s take note – but is there a book in it?

Clode, now a zoologist and award-winning science writer, was a young graduate researching the then Museum of Victoria’s natural history collections when she first heard of Edith Coleman. Over the next 20 years, she says, “something kept drawing me back”.

Edith – following Clode’s lead, we’ll stick to her first name, “the only name that is hers alone, not her father’s or her husband’s” – wrote about nature as she observed it in the bush and in her garden. “The bush”, when she was writing, was as close at hand as the end of her street in suburban Blackburn. From the early 1920s until her death in 1951, Edith’s writing appeared regularly in The Victorian Naturalist, the journal of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, as well as in the nature study pages that were then a popular feature of daily newspapers and women’s magazines.

She was, on the face of it, a middle-class suburban housewife pursuing a genteel hobby, an impression not entirely dispelled by the selections from Edith’s oeuvre that interleave chapters of The Wasp and the Orchid. Not surprisingly, they reflect the mores and stylistic tics of their period, relying heavily on anthropomorphism and a tone pitched between grandiloquent and jolly, often landing as twee on a modern ear. For instance, Edith invites readers to join her on a magic carpet ride, “no farther than Bayswater”, where they may:

follow the exquisite scent with which Nature compensated the sweet-leeks, the Cinderellas of the orchid family, for their modest apparel and their topsy-turvy habit of growth. Or, if we wish, our carpet shall take us toward the coast, where the wedding-bush will soon be a dream of soft, creamy loveliness.

It was a style common to popular natural history writers of Edith’s day, and one that still has its attractions. She and her contemporaries were expert at drawing in the lay reader with stories of nature in all its variety, right in their own backyard. No wonder nature study was a “thing”. This was edutainment, pre-David Attenborough.

But Edith would be best known and remembered (insofar as she is remembered) as the discoverer of – wait for it – pseudocopulation. Native orchids were her especial passion and, in 1927, when “visiting” the small tongue orchid (Cryptostylis leptochila) at Healesville, she observed “certain remarkable actions on the part of a wasp”.

It entered the flowers backwards instead of in the usual manner of nectar feeding wasps, the tip of the abdomen appeared to be embedded in the stigma of the flower, and in every instance, the insect freed itself with a jerk, which shook the stem …

Having observed the behaviour over two seasons, Edith concluded that the wasps – always male – were mating with the orchids, which used sexual mimicry to attract them. In effect, the orchid offered sex in return for pollination, the randy wasp conveying pollen on his abdomen from one flower to the next. Published to acclaim in international scientific journals, Edith’s findings solved a mystery concerning the fertilisation of orchids that had first been posed by Darwin.

So, this was her claim to fame. But, insists Clode, “there was more to Edith than just pseudocopulation”. She considers Edith’s extensive publishing record, from Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London to The Australian Woman’s Mirror, as making a case for nature writing in its pure form. “It’s not that Edith’s writing … lacks lyricism,” writes Clode. “What it lacks is the personal.”

This gets to the heart of the book, and its paradox. As a scientist, Clode applauds Edith’s absence from her nature writing while, as a biographer, she’s frustrated by how few personal traces Edith left behind. She scours Edith’s writing for signs of influences – Gilbert White? Thoreau? – to whom she surely owed her love of the natural world. Clode seems disappointed to have to concede, “She did say, I suppose, that it was her father who inspired her interests, and that, in any case, the answers lie in the patient observation of nature, not in books.”

Clode herself is defiantly scientific in her approach to nature writing. She rebukes Thoreau, the poet Mary Oliver, and proponents of the “new nature writing” for seeing only the surface of nature, and themselves reflected in it.

Sympathy without insight feels like a lack of empathy to me. It feels locked within the human experience, constantly looking inward, checking on our own perspective, reflecting our own views and values onto the outside world. It is an imprisonment I long to shed.

Her bold defence of scientific nature writing (“If I cannot name it, by species, by structure, by system, how can I speak for it?”) reads like a manifesto and shows the author at her most passionate and assured. But it concludes with a rueful Clode speculating that Edith would disapprove of her refusal to forsake objective science, even momentarily, in favour of “a wild orgy over unadulterated beauty”.

As a biographer, Clode seems to have been stymied by a thinness of material documenting Edith’s personal and inner life. In compensation, she gives us gentle fictionalised interludes, but also tries to broaden Edith’s story by passing it through a rigid mesh of current-day issues and preoccupations. Was the value of Edith’s work marginalised because of her gender and amateur status? Why was Edith, born 1874, denied a university education? An immigrant, did she consider Indigenous interpretations of Australia’s natural history and her own status as an invader? Lengthy considerations along these lines read as if ordained by some cast-iron academy and seem to have less to do with Edith than with her biographer. In fact, they detract from the actuality of Edith’s experience and achievements.

Could that be why Edith Coleman’s life, while noteworthy, seems less remarkable than the book’s subtitle and heft would lead us to expect?  FL

Picador, 432pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "Danielle Clode, The Wasp and the Orchid".

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