An archive of the earth: The Paper Road, by Erik Mueggler

The Paper RoadHow often does a scholarly book really move you? At your desk, reading, how often does your throat go lumpy with rising emotion? This book, The Paper Road, flows with so much empathy, melancholy, anger, admiration, disgust, longing, and wonder: I have never read anything quite like it. It is a supreme work, full of critical fidelity to a place, its people and their archival traces. The author, Erik Mueggler, writes so deftly it makes you want to weep.

The Paper Road opens with a provocation.

Zhao Chengzhang
Zhao Chengzhang, The Paper Road p2, from Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh

“It was 1925. He had been at this since 1906. He walked: he gathered plants; he memorized attributes – numbers of petals, shapes of leaves, types of hairs and scales on brackets and leaves – and he thought about where he might find species he did not yet know. He learned strings of place names from travellers, listened to their stories, puzzled out new routes. He slept in inns, in village courtyards, on goatskins laid on the ground. He hired many parties of others from his village to make repeated excursions of days or months. And all this walking, searching, and gathering found its way into piles of paper: names on paper, lists, notes, maps, diaries, letters, accounts and photographs on paper and, in particular, specimens and seeds folded into paper. For him, this region was made of earth and his experience of the earth. But it was also a thing made of paper, a thing just as real.” (p3)

The provocation is that Mueggler calls this man, Zhao Chengzhang, ‘likely the most prolific Western botanic explorer of the early twentieth century’’ (8). Zhao and his assistants from the Naxi village of Nvlvk’ö, in Yunnan, collected and despatched tens of thousands of specimens of plants to the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, the Arnold Arboretum and elsewhere.

Mueggler calls Zhao ‘western’ to at once highlight the erasure of the non-Western from botanical science and at the same time signal the deep, but yet fraught and tense, bond between the man and his employer/patron, Scottish botanist George Forrest. Both these men shared a lust not just for knowing plants, but for turning the diffuse and prolific flora of Yunnan into an equally prolific, if more orderly, series of paper traces.

The Paper Road is a thematic account of life, land and archive in south-west China in the first half of the twentieth century, centred on two botanists but involving many others. The first is Forrest, “an excellent, industrious and steady” man (according to his patron, Isaac Bailey Balfour of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh); the second is the altogether more flamboyant Austrian-American Joseph Rock, who became obsessed with making a great book out of the earth.

The Paper Road is not overtly biographical, focusing instead on relationships, particularly of the two generations of Naxi explorers to which both botanists were allied, as well as to the earth and its filth, mountains and flora. But yet it is biographical, attuning us to the ways that these relationships brought the earth into social being, and helping us get to know quite intimately Forrest and Rock.

Part One stages a series of fleeting encounters between two archival regimes. The first, the imperial botanic archive, is well known – precise, obsessive, scientific, taking specimens of the earth’s diversity and making them travel to centres of botanical calculation in the West.  The second is one of ritual and memory: the Dongba cult, a pictographic set of codified rituals, performances performed in Naxi culture, and unique in Sino-Tibetan languages; Zhao’s men sang old songs as they travelled, re-experiencing old routes of travel. Both are “regimes of walking, seeing, writing, voicing, remembering, and gathering the earth” (p119).

Joseph Rock camping it up. The archive lists ‘photographer unknown’. The photographer was Zhao Zhongdian, whom Rock trained.

Where Forrest took succour from dreams of social climbing and domestic life back home in Scotland, Joseph Rock had no such fallback. Rock’s life was triangulated between “timid rigidity” of his guiding formulae: the opposition between filth (“it is difficult to show just how central mucus was to Rock’s diaries” p164) and purity, his ever-present racial hierarchies; and his capacity to take gambles with extreme courage. Despite flashes of excessive sympathy, Rock had more intimate relations with the earth than with fellow humans: for Rock, “names of places and plants were bits of the earth he could hold onto; they were stepping stones through that fluid outpouring of revulsion and disgust which was so often his experience of the world” (p234).

The Paper Road deserves a wide readership (to quote Felix Driver). It is profoundly about travel, landscape, bodies, affect, text, colonial (in)intimacy, knowledge and yearning for a place on the earth. The breadth of research and love that has gone into this book is, as the blurb on the back cover says, absolutely breathtaking.

But somewhere in my reading of this book, the text transformed into something even more than a great book. As it unfolded paper traces of life, movement and care back out into the world once more the book began to hover – quite magically – between archive and experience: moving me deeply and unforgettably.