cloth, 338 p., $18
A Congenial Fellowship is a book of correspondence between two "amateur" botanists, Indiana's Charlie Deam and Floyd Swink. Charlie Deam was the old master, the author of Flora of Indiana, who introduced Floyd Swink to the botanical experts of the time and encouraged him as a father might encourage a son. Mr. Swink, who would years later co-author Plants of the Chicago Region, was an energetic young man. He found in Mr. Deam a mentor who validated the idea that learning about the plants of one's own region is a valuable and lofty pursuit. They were amateurs because neither held other than honorary college degrees in botany. Both worked at other jobs — Floyd Swink sold Bendix washing machines, and Charlie Deam ran a couple of drugstores — to support families before establishing reputations as leading regional botanical experts. Each pursued his avocation, learning about native plants, with love and diligence.
As the letters progress over the five-year period from 1946 to 1951, taxonomical questions become less important than debates about field record keeping, developing new botanical keys, plant succession and the differences in the plant associations throughout the region. In addition, we learn about their families, jobs, gardens, and in the case of 80-year-old Mr. Deam, failing health.
At times, the book is humorous, especially when pot shots are taken at local acclaimed botanists. Both men wrote critically of the lack of the experts' interest in local flora and their preference for the tropics. Of Henry Chandler Cowles, Mr. Deam says, "I do not have the very highest opinion of Cowles taxonomy." He called Donald Culrose Peattie an armchair botanist. "You know," he says, "good field botanists are scarcer than the rarest plant you search for."
The elder plantsman generalized his lament regarding the lack of interest in local flora to the general population. He griped that men in barber shops can name all the ballplayers and their statistics but take no interest in the plants around them. "Our trouble is to find a congenial fellowship," he said, to which the younger botanist replied, "I can name all the ballplayers in both the American and National Leagues — not only for last year but for the past 17 years. In fact, it was this early training of the mind on baseball players which greatly facilitated my ability to learn botanical names." This exchange led to the general agreement that many prospective botanists are lost because the multitude of technical terms puts them off.
Of interest to the general reader are the descriptions of field gear used by the men. Mr. Deam, in his younger days, traveled throughout Indiana collecting hundreds of botanical specimens in an outfitted Ford truck. He carried a .32 automatic to fend off intruders and probably snakes, of which he was deathly afraid. Mr. Swink, on the other hand, traveled the South Shore Railroad to northwest Indiana with a backpack containing field guides, paper, pen and newspaper for protecting specimens. His brother accompanied him with a camera.
The Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund, a northwest Indiana land trust, worked with Floyd Swink before his death this last summer to produce the letters as near to the originals as possible in order to understand and appreciate the history of the friendship of the two men. This means the text is in a typewriter font. Mr. Swink's perfect typewriting skills (he could type 130 words a minute) are captured along with all of Mr. Deam's typographical errors (he couldn't type worth a darn).
This is an easy book to read, despite the botanical references. The letters are thought-provoking because some of the questions the men ask are as yet unanswered. And the letters are sad because they are filled with descriptions of sites that we recognize as still important but degraded or that we mourn as long since developed.
— Karen Rodriguez, Co-Editor of Seeding the Snow Journal of Midwestern Landscape.