To many people our project, Beckler's Botanical Bounty, is exciting, but they often ask where the idea for the project came from. Bev Wood has contributed this post to explain.
The Burke and Wills 150th Anniversary celebrations brought together many people with a keen interest in the Victorian exploring expedition (VEE). The complex story and its many facets continues to create interest, investigation and study. It brings so many aspects of life, art and science into play such as surveying, botany, zoology, the weather, the stars, health, anthropology, art, survival, food, money, politics and relationships.
The Burke and Wills Historical Society (http://www.burkeandwills.org/) came into being in 2003, when 35 enthousiasts met in Cloncurry to discuss their mutual interests. The other organisations with a particular interest in developing interpretation of the VEE are the Royal Society of Victoria (who organised the VEE in the first place) (http://www.burkeandwills.org/) and the State Library of Victoria (keeper of most of the records) (http://burkeandwills.slv.vic.gov.au/).
Menindie was the small settlement on the Darling River (in south-west New South Wales) where Burke and Wills slept in a bed for the last time, before taking off overland for Coopers’ Creek. Burke was impatient, the expedition was already behind time. He halved the expedition and left the Supply Party behind at Menindie (October 19, 1860) with most of the expeditions supplies (food, drugs, camping equipment, camels and horses, and so on).
This group subsequently moved to camp on Pamameroo Creek about 10km away. It took them a long time (three months) to re-organise themselves and follow Burke, by which time it was the height of summer and a severe drought.
Although Dr Beckler was a German Medical Doctor, he had been appointed in Melbourne as one of the VEE Expedition Officers (Scientific Observers’ Botanical Observer). Unhappy with Burke’s leadership, he resigned at Menindie in the middle of October 1860. Burke asked him to remain with the Supply Party to take care of the stores and the remaining animals until a replacement could be found.
In the three months he was in the area with the Supply Party (until January 26th, 1861) he undertook two expeditions. One was the round trip rescue of two men from death at Duroadoo on the way to Coopers’ Creek. The second was the exploration of the nearby Scrope’s Range where he collected hundreds of new plants (taxa) which had not been seen before. He was passionate about identifying and collecting plants and sent hundreds of them back to Dr Ferdinand Mueller, Director of the National Herbarium of Victoria in Melbourne.
There these plants remain stored in dried, pressed and catalogued form – a very important national treasure which belongs to us all. Beckler also completed some landscape drawings and paintings in the general area, and collected 120 new specimens of plants around Menindie itself, which I will refer to as Beckler’s List. This is where our group known as Beckler’s Botanical Bounty comes in.
In 2009, the well known Melbourne Botanical Artist and teacher - Mali Moir (http://malimoir.com.au/ arranged an excursion to the National Herbarium of Victoria for the Botanical Illustrators group at the Royal Botanical Gardens. As one of the students - Bev Wood - was keen to see some of the plants from the 1860 collections associated with the VEE, this was kindly arranged by the Collections Manager – Dr Pina Milne. .
Some of the VEE plants were on display for our visit. Afterwards, we (Mali Moir and Bev Wood) determined that we would try to join the 2010 Burke and Wills 150th celebrations in Menindie with an interest in “growing” our experience in botanical illustration up there somehow.
In searching for more purpose other than the painting of the local wild flowers, Mali was made aware of Dr Hermann Beckler’s role in the VEE by Museum Victoria curator John Kean, who advised ‘look at Beckler, he’s your man’.
Dr Beckler collected his plants over the Spring period and our group of botanical artists started the first of our week long annual Spring visits to Menindee in the year 2010. We search for any of the 120 plants on Becklers List in the area of Menindee, we collect and illustrate them, and we press a specimen each for the National Herbarium of Victoria in Melbourne (http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/science/information-and-resources/national-herbarium-of-victoria/botany-of-the-burke-and-wills-expe) and the Herbarium of New South Wales in Sydney.
On these expeditions we have been joined by some local Menindee people, along with botanists, historians, geologists and film makers. We need their assistance as it is a real challenge for us “City slickers” to bumble around the bush to find each plant again, let alone illustrate and press them and find a week and more in our busy lives every year to do it!!
Yet we have undertaken such a privileged endeavour for four years now, and we just love it. As it has for thousands of other Australians, the story of the VEE continues to fascinate us and we now feel confident that we are contributing to its legacy in a very tangible way.
In the bush with repeated visits, we are learning heaps about the context of Botanical Illustration. We are learning about where particular plants grow, the effect of drought and other weather conditions, and the use of the plants by the indigenous people. We are learning to illustrate the grasses, seeds, flowers, herbs, feathers, sticks and stones and bones gathered from the bush and the rivers and creeks by our own hands.
It gives us a real sense of connection to the specimens and the story of the VEE. But best of all it gives us a chance to be in "country” and explore our own land and its naturally growing plants in a very intimate way.
We are often asked what we are going to do with our paintings and drawings (about 40 to date), and we are looking for an opportunity to exhibit them all at once. In the meantime, it is our personal and collective journeys in this wide brown land and the intimate observation of some of its plants in their own environment which really counts the most.