Natural wonder

Review by Nick Mattiske

Book | The Wasp and the Orchid: the Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman  | Danielle Clode

Australians may be more likely to look overseas before recognising our own nature writing endeavours. Women writers are particularly prone to being forgotten.

Zoologist Danielle Clode, formerly with Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne, is a fine Australian nature writer and here she writes lovingly about another, her hero Edith Coleman. Coleman was a teacher then housewife and mother living in then-bushy Blackburn in the mid 20th century who, like the famous English author Gilbert White, suddenly in middle age unleashed a torrent of writings.

Coleman is still referenced scientifically but is long forgotten by the general public, partly because the close observation of nature is no longer a priority for the popular press. But Coleman was well-known for her papers with the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and articles in newspapers and women’s magazines. She became world famous for her studies of insects and plants, particularly her confirmation through careful observation that male wasps are attracted to certain orchids that look and smell like female wasps.

She was fascinated by the naturally odd and unconventionally beautiful, and would get up in the middle of the night to check on her collection of spiders. She combined sharp, unflinching analysis with evocative literary skills, a feature of rare writers, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who straddle serious science and popular writing.

Clode is not the hidden biographer, but shares her admiration for Coleman, fellow scientist and mother of girls, who she refers to as ‘Edith’ throughout. She also shares the joys and frustrations of her research, exacerbated by, unlike Clode, Coleman’s lack of references to her own biography in her writing.

Most of all, Clode identifies with producing writing that exhibits both lyrical and scientific qualities, which don’t have to be separate, as discovery is both work and pleasure, discipline and imagination.

Clode wonders at one point why Coleman should seek ‘solace’ in theological books, presumably because Clode imagines Coleman as focused on the natural world, but that would be a false distinction. Just as Clode argues for science and literature’s commonality, so science and religion are both impulses to understanding, to find meaning and order beyond the immediate senses, necessary to, as Clode indicates, feel at home in the world.

Available from Pan MacMillan Australia, RRP $39.99

https://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781760554286/

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