Botanischer Garten

March, 2014

Berlin -- Today I am at Botanischer Garten in Berlin-Dahlem, historically for me a favorite place of respite from the outrageous storms of life. It is a part of the Free University of Berlin.

Who cannot be calmed by the beauty of 22,000 living trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers -- one of the world's greatest collections -- and the sudden presence of Blaumeisen, little blue and yellow birds that alight on one's outstretched fingers.

There are spirits here, too, among them the late Edith Schwartz Clements. She was here on a visit in 1911. Young, beautiful, and accomplished (Phi Beta Kappa and Ph.D in botany from the University of Nebraska), she accompanied her husband, Frederic, who with Edith founded the discipline of plant ecology. Edith had been a teaching fellow in German at NU and handled most of the conversation with the hosts. She made friends easily with botanists across the German-speaking world; some of the friendships would survive two world wars. Her 1904 dissertation is still here in the garden's library.

Edith was a friend of Willa Cather and Louise Pound. Cather admired her botanical paintings (so did National Geographic, which published dozens of her plates) and her writing. Scholars are now looking at the influence of the Clementses on Cather's novels. Louise Pound's brother Roscoe collaborated with Frederic on the leading phytogeographic work of the time.

From Berlin, Edith and Frederic went on to Dresden, Z├╝rich, and ultimately Cambridge, where they joined the First International Phytogeographic Expedition, hosted by Sir Arthur Tansley, who would also become a lifelong friend. They were joined in England by Henry C. Cowles of the University of Chicago and his wife. Edith took an immediate dislike to Elizabeth Cowles, whom she described in letters back to the Schwartz family as a "bromide." (The letters are gathering too much dust at the Nebraska State Historical Society; they need to be put online.)

Edith lived until age ninety-six; she died in LaJolla, California, soon after she could no longer work at her typewriter expounding the Clementsian view of nature. Last year I tried to find where her ashes are scattered, to no avail. But Frederic's ashes are buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. They were unmarked; the Clementses had no descendants. Working with the cemetery, I arranged a marker for both of them with an engraving, taken from one of Edith's paintings, of Clementsia Rhodantha, a stonecrop flower.

Today I have no agenda here in the gardens, but I will keep an eye open for Edith's namesake plant, or Edith herself, should she come around a corner.