mostly words

My winter pile of plant and seed catalogs contains one that doesn’t fit the usual model. Instead of page after page of gorgeous soft-core pornographic photos and drawings of plants in brawny full leaf and buxom full bloom, the J.L. Hudson Seedsman catalog takes the form of a tight 95 pages of black-on-white text and only twenty-five small line drawings for illustrations.

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This is a catalog all about words. It could well change your expectations of what a seed catalog should be. It’s listed as an “ethnobotanical catalog of seeds,” and you can sit down with it and read it like a novel. Most of the seeds descriptions come with a sentence or two of cultural trivia about the plant, mostly about how one of the world’s societies uses that plant. I’ve been finding that this is the catalog that I’ve been spending the most time with this year.

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In addition to the interesting catalog copy, you start to notice that the text itself is gorgeous in the way it sits on the page. I was trying to place the special quality it has when I finally noticed on the last page an interesting statement: “This publication was typeset entirely without the use of computers.”

No computers? In 2009? So retro it’s avant-garde, like albums released on vinyl. But worry not. They also have an online presence.

This is definitely a catalog with attitude. It’s also a catalog with a purpose, a purpose that’s well documented in a statement on their website, a purpose that’s in line with their self-description as a “public access seed bank.” You can also start to understand the purpose when you look at the titles of the brief selection of books offered in the back of the catalog.

One of the works, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, has a writeup that includes the statement, “We have all heard the breathless tales of the dangers of ‘invasive alien species,’ but what does science say about them? …In all cases… introduced species have increased biological diversity.”

Another title, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, gets a long writeup that includes the impassioned lines, “Most U.S. environmentalists are completely opposed to the aims of fascism, but reactionary forces have begun to bend ecological themes towards these very ends. Only through knowledge may we prevent this perversion of environmentalism.”

Once you understand where the catalog is coming from, you’ll start to understand the almost willful attitude that would drive them to offer seed of black mustard, one of the plants that has taken over much of the local ecosystem and has few friends among the plant people I know. And one of the recent online catalog supplements had seed for Arundo donax, a plant that has taken over some important local riparian habitats. Why don’t you just dump plutonium in your garden? Hmmmm…Does that make me an ecofascist?

You don’t have to agree with everything you see in the catalog, and you don’t have to buy anything out of it. But this is one publication that’s a must read if you’d like to get yourself thinking instead of all hot and bothered over the usual pretty pictures!

7 thoughts on “mostly words”

  1. Hi James,
    I will have to get this catalog. I am also impressed by the typesetting. It reminds me of some of the old books I have like Culpepper’s Herbalist. This is a seed catalog that is certainly old school, and as you say there is a place for everything, even if one does hope invasive plants are not spread around!
    It would be so interesting to see if there was a way that a blog could be done with the look of this. Printing press in the potting shed?
    What an interesting catalog. When looking up a plant I like to go to various sources to get a complete idea of it. I could see that this would be a useful reference.
    Best regards,
    Philip

  2. Wow, James……..what a cool book. Incidentally, you can see their severe independence in that gorgeous quote about ‘Environmental Fascism’ – something we should all bear in mind. We are all Green, whether we admit it or not. Even the most craven of us – outside some corporations – accept some stewardship of this planet, from either side of the aisle.

    Politics aside, I love this blog. Please keep it up!

  3. Hi James – I receive a couple of photo less seed catalogues here in the UK and I find them more informative than the usual commercial ones. I find myself being swayed by a blowsy bloom and then being disappointed by the overall plant. Christopher Lloyd wrote once about how you should look at the whole plant when choosing it to see how the flower fits within the whole. I also think that words alone give a greater sense of anticipation

  4. Helen, I like Christopher Lloyd’s comment. It’s similar to comments from the likes of Piet Oudolf who talk about what the plant does all year, of looking at the structure of the plant, not just the flowers.

    Steve, thanks for the comments. The world lives on our gardens, don’t you think?

    Philip, stop by Monday if you can. I’ll have something on old style blogging typography…some fun with text… I’ve found some some old seed catalogs online that are fascinating to look through. Surprisingly, many of them have more illustrations than this one issued in 2009!

  5. This is the second time the J.L.Hudson catalog has come to my attention…must investigate further. Thanks for the quotes. I’ve wondered why there aren’t more projects that take advantage of our invasive species. Tiki huts framed and thatched in giant reed, anyone?

  6. Out of doors, some of my woodwind musician friends swear by Arundo donax to make reeds for their instruments. I have this conspiracy theory that all the patches of giant reed started out life in the back yards of bassoonists… Tiki huts would go through the arundo timber a lot faster, though!

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