A Man For All Seasons

Hum 1Andrea/Cara here, As a unabashed history geek, I’m always excited when I discover the in-depth story of a fascinating figure from the past about whom I don’t know much—and I’m even more excited when in the process I also gain a broader perspective on the world in which the individual lived and how his or her achievements helped shape it. So I’m here to gush about my newest historical hero heartthrob—Alexander von Humboldt.

Today, most of us know dare only vaguely familiar with his name as an ocean current located somewhere off the Pacific coast of South America. But in his day, he was arguably one of the most famous men in the world. As the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV said, he was “the greatest man since the Deluge.” On his death, newspapers around the world proclaimed how fortunate they all were to have lived in the “Age of Humboldt.”

Hum 9Scientist, Poet, Educator, Artist, Philosopher. The details of Humboldt’s extraordinary personality and accomplishments are brought to life in The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. His insatiable curiosity, his meticulous recording of data and details of the natural world—from the tiniest insects to the faraway stars—his lyrical prose that expressed the wondrous joy at seeing Life as a great web of interconnected threads, literally changed the way the 19th century world looked at science. From Charles Darwin to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, both scientists and artists were inspired by Humboldt, who today is being re-recognized as the Father of Ecology.

Read more

Things That Go Thump in the NIght

MerlinQuantum has asked for our “views/discussion of paranormal fiction, particularly with ghosts and time slip involved.” She adds, “It seems to me that plausibility is very important in grabbing reader interest, but main stream science is rather dismissive of this area. . .What do the Wenches think?”

Well, as always, the Wenches have an opinion, and we owe Quantum one free book for her excellent question, thank you!

From Pat:

I’ll let the other Wenches speak to their own beliefs, but I’m totally open to all possibilities, up to and including space aliens seeding this earth a gazillion years ago. <G> Science tends to be fact-focused, as it should be, and facts are very hard to come by when it comes to the more woo-woo aspects of our world. Scientists have their hands full measuring what they can see. Working with what they can’t see is currently beyond their abilities, and possibly, beyond the imaginations of the people who fund them.

I like to believe that people who claim to see ghosts, possess clairvoyance, or other unexplained oddities have neural pathways that we have yet to explore. And maybe one day we’ll understand what’s behind string theory and quantum physics and develop a better comprehension  of what reality means.

Read more

History Repeats Itself–Science

Pat here:
Several of our wenches are researchers par none, digging into historical minutiae with zeal. While I admit to a fascination with these intriguing details, I am not a researcher of fine points. I like to see history as a big picture and reflect on how and why we so often repeat our mistakes. Naturally, much of this will never show up in a romance, but it often shapes the background of my stories.

MangelwurzelOne of the things that fascinated me with my magic stories is the way science developed. In my Georgian era  (1750s) series, science had only recently been defined as a body of observations or propositions concerning a subject of speculation and was more akin to philosophy than anything with which we’re familiar. Scientific methods were unheard of. My hero who grew mangelwurzels did so after talking with other farmers and learning that he might better feed his cattle with the rough land he owned. He learned to experiment with productivity by reading articles from other gentleman farmers. The word agronomist hadn’t yet been invented. Universities taught Latin and Greek, not agricultural science. (Must Be Magic)


Read more

One Man’s Legacy

Dr John RadcliffeNicola here, talking today about the influence of Dr John Radcliffe on the beautiful city of Oxford. I’m fortunate enough to live only 20 miles from the “City of the dreaming spires” and I visit it as often as I can. The sense of history in Oxford is all pervasive and very inspiring and last month I had an extra-special treat; a tour of two of Oxford’s most iconic buildings, The Radcliffe Infirmary and the Radcliffe Observatory.

Dr John Radcliffe was an English physician, politician and academic. He was born in 1652 in Yorkshire and educated at Oxford University from the age of 13. He rose to become court physician to William and Mary and is buried in Oxford. When he died he left £40k in his will, which was used to endow a library and other academic projects in the city. Amongst the buildings constructed with funds from his estate was a new quadrangle for University College, and also the Radcliffe Camera, which housed the university’s science library.

Read more

Seed Catalogs

Burpee seed catalog

a season of catalogs

Joanna here, being topical.

My seed catalogs have arrived. This is the first sign of spring for me — not a sighting of the first robin — the sighting of the first seed catalogs. Now the truth of the matter is I don’t so much buy seeds and plant them. I live on stony, steep ground here and grow my plants in a few miserable little pots. But I dream with these catalogs. I meditate upon all the wondrous flowers and vegetables I’m growing in my mind rather than in reality.

Anyhow, this got me thinking about woman gardeners in 1800 or so. The eons’ old association of women and healing

Wenches ‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816

our lady gardener is ANGRY

plants, edible garden herbs, and flowery borders made them natural gardeners. About at this time botany got an intellectual boots with the Linnaean system of plant classification. Thank heavens this was one ‘science’ considered suitable for genteel women. They began collecting plants and writing about them. We have pictures of these women carrying their watering cans — dressed in a way we’d consider problematic for gardening work — headed out to botanize.

I delight to imagine the glasshouses filled with interesting specimens and women tending and caring for them. Studying them. Learning how to grow the most troublesome of their charges. Describing the exotics. Writing, y’know, monographs and papers.

Not that it was easy for them to be taken seriously. I’m just going to mention here that the British Zoological Society and the British Entomological Society (—bugs, yipee —) admitted women in 1829 and 1833, respectively, the Linnaean Society didn't until 1904, which seems rather latish, doesn’t it?

The actual tilling of soil and sowing of seed, digging holes for the odd tree or bush, and pruning of ornamental shrubbery on an estate would fall to a band of hearty young men. The lady of the house would be in the enviable position of strolling through the aspen-studded woodland, past the ha-ha, and along the herbaceous border pointing out to Old Mr. Wenches fair florest Grim the Head Gardener where to put 250 yellow tulips. She wouldn’t so much do the work herself. It would be three or four generations past 1800 before kneeling down and weeding the bed of mangelwurzels would be considered a proper hobby for the well-to-do.

(Mangelwurzel, from German mangel ‘beet’ and wurzel ‘root’, moves into English along with the beets in about 1770. Now you know.) 

Now me, I like to get my hands in the soil and somewhat pity those distant forebearers who never had this pleasure. It's part of what I anticipate in the early days of spring. Like today.

What are you looking forward to with your plants this spring? Anything new and fun?

One lucky commenter will win a copy of one of my books — your choice