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2 - L’esthétique de littérature de voyage et d’exploration / Exploration and the Aesthetics of Travel

Rhododendrons and Travels: a Forest of Colours to Open the World's Eyes

Françoise Besson
p. 101-116


Montagnards, voyageurs, poètes et philosophes citent le rhododendron, plante symbolique de la montagne, de l'Himalaya aux Pyrénées. Les photographes de la nature montrent l'éblouissement de couleurs que sont leurs fleurs, symboles de beauté qui pourtant ont joué un rôle dévastateur dans l'histoire de la Grèce. Plante double qui éblouit de sa beauté ou dans les buissons enchevêtrés de laquelle on peut se perdre, le rhododendron joue aussi un rôle dans la cosmogonie tibétaine. Cet article voudrait montrer comment les textes de voyageurs, de montagnards, de philosophes ou de poètes font de cette plante mythique pour les montagnards, un guide vers la conscience de notre relation à la nature.

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1Why have we chosen to speak about rhododendrons? Perhaps because they have a peculiar place in mountaineers' world and hearts, because they are a sign given by mountains, or even mountains' signature. Jean Fourcassié, the author of the seminal book Le Romantisme et les Pyrénées, writes about them: "Parmi les fleurs de montagne, le rhododendron, qui ne fleurit qu’au-dessus de mille mètres, doit particulièrement retenir, avec ses fleurs roses qui couvrent, en juillet et en août, des versants entiers de montagne, les voyageurs sensibles à la symphonie des couleurs" (Fourcassié 226). It is only after leading readers to true rhododendrons that the author shifts to textual rhododendrons as can be met in Foucade or George Sand's texts. Rhododendrons speak to so many people in the world that they become a symbol of communication when appearing on stamps in lots of countries. The stamp carefully chosen makes the envelope a mini visual travel book speaking about the country that the addressee discovers through colourful images bringing a landscape to his/her eyes. Rhododendrons have been chosen by many postal services in the world to show the rest of the world the beauty and riches of their flora. Poland, Malaysia, France, Belgium, Lebanon, Bhutan, Greece, Germany, Mongolia or Singapore made the choice of rhododendrons to speak about their countries. It is as if that special flower, by being chosen by so many countries, united them.

2Rhododendrons first express life in the hard mountainous world. In his essay "Out of Time," Scott Slovic experiences a week "out of time" in the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. After observing the apocalyptic view of trees fallen after the 1996 storm or empty spaces after clear-cutting­­—a kind of total tree felling, where no tree is left—he returns, while he is still in the forest, to the world of technology and numbers. The description of the Blue River Face, where he is taken in a snowcat by a man who has scientific measurements to make, mingles the forestry experiment of "alternatives to clear-cutting" and the return "to a numerical frame of mind;" it mingles the apparently apocalyptic landscape of burnt slash, of a "blackened stump" with the life contained in the "sea of small rhododendron plants" and the "Douglas fir seedlings."

Up at the Blue River Face, where scientists are experimenting with alternatives to clear-cutting—leaving some of the big trees, burning slash to regenerate the natural forest—I sat on a blackened stump among a sea of small rhododendron plants, counting Douglas fir seedlings and trying to estimate the distance between each of them. (Slovic, "Out of Time," Going Away to Think, 206)

3The description of the landscape is not what matters; what matters is the return to numbers, measures, time. Yet the landscape description is there and says something about the observer's state of mind. The reader is struck by the strictness of the description dominated by the black colour and cut trees. Yet in this apparently apocalyptic landscape, we can note that the burning is not a destructive fire but a fire meant "to regenerate the natural forest." When Scott Slovic describes his own situation in this ambivalent world of destruction and regeneration, of death and life, of mutilation and growing, he suggests his place as a human in that nonhuman vegetal world, in close contact with that double world: sitting "on a blackened stump," that is in direct contact with what appears as a symbol of mutilation, burning and death, but "among a sea of small rhododendron plants," which appear as a spot of colours standing for life, all the more so as it is metaphorically associated with the sea. He has returned "to a numerical frame of mind" but it is to count "Douglas fir seedlings," that is life coming back. It is as if the central sea of rhododendrons, which is far from being the main element, brought that sign of colours meant to draw the reader's attention on that presence of life in an organic world of apparent destruction.

4That literary and philosophical description of an experience in nature, of man's presence in nature and the discreet allusion to rhododendrons in a dark landscape, also remind us that when mountaineers meet rhododendrons, their feelings are mixed. They can feel joy when they find themselves in front of a wonderful pink blooming, but they can also feel anxiety when they meet flower labyrinths in which they can lose their way. But those special plants can also stop a mountaineer falling down a slope before he/she reaches a rocky bar. They can save and they can lose mountaineers. They can take us in their arms, protecting us, or be an inextricable net. They make us aware that nature is multiple, dangerous and protective. A survey of the presence of rhododendrons in men's history and myths can explain their symbolical value and lead us to mountaineers' and travellers' celebration of their beauty, which generates ecological awareness.

Rhododendrons in men's travels, history and myths

5The name of this mountain flower comes from two Greek words, rhodon, meaning rose, and Dendron meaning tree.1 Its Greek roots live in the name, which travels all around the mountains of the world. Rhododendrons are the visual, nearly carnal sign of the presence of life and beauty in the world, life and beauty they quietly celebrate by simply offering their beautiful flowers to mountaineers who pass and sometimes will never come back, just keeping the image of that meeting with flowers deep in their hearts. We could go as far as saying that a man meeting a field of rhododendrons once in his life, alone among them, could never use violence, so strong is the power of exchange between rhododendrons and men. It is no naïve utopia but the assertion that the way of looking at the human other can first be influenced by the way of looking at the nonhuman other. Rhododendrons show us the beauty of the world and warn us; they teach us to wonder and to be careful, both things suggesting respect for Nature, for the human and nonhuman other. They teach us that nothing in nonhuman and human nature is all black or all white. As Barbara Glenn wrote in a poem: "You live in twilight / even when you cannot see" (Glenn 45). Rhododendrons teach us to see light behind darkness and never to be afraid of darkness. Mirroring Dedalus's labyrinth, tangled forests of rhododendrons have yet a way out. People only have to find it.

6When you look at the Littré dictionary to make a bookish acquaintance with the plant, you discover that it is multiple: it may come from Northern America like the rhododendron with large flowers, from India like the tree rhododendron, cover the mountain slopes of the world like ferruginous rhododendron or Alpen Rose. The rhododendron's beauty must not make us forget its dangerousness. In a dense forest of rhododendrons in Ireland, a couple of experienced mountain walkers were rescued after being trapped in the plants they saw as "an impenetrable jungle."2 The rescue operation lasted five hours. They said "it was horrendous." Horror in the lap of beauty, to reverse Ann Radcliffe's words in The Mysteries of Udolpho.3 The paradox of rhododendrons is that they can save or trap walkers or poison soldiers like the Pontic rhododendron destroying a whole army. It is probably the toxicity of some of its species that makes it a symbol of danger in flower symbolism. It is a way of showing us that everything is double, both luminous and dark, even the wonderful rhododendron.

7One of its species has played a dramatic role in history since the Pontic rhododendron mentioned above was the plant from which bees collected the honey that poisoned Xenophon's army. The double aspect of that dazzling flower gives food for thought: the fact that the union of a small animal and a beautiful plant giving honey may destroy a whole human army can make us think about the notion of real power. This unusual historical fact implying a human military defeat due to two nonhuman groups, one vegetal and one animal, may suggest that if rhododendrons might destroy a whole army as powerful and strong as Xenophon's one, perhaps the contrary might be true and rhododendrons and bees might teach humans how to coexist in peace. Yet we will not evoke that political rhododendron, but only the quiet species mountaineers meet and speak about in their mountaineering accounts or travel books. Those texts show that rhododendrons speak about our relationship to life and beauty, our relationship with the nonhuman world leading us to understand our human nature.

8Rhododendrons play a role in Tibetan cosmogony and in Dongba, a religion practised in China by the Naxi,4 who have Tibetan origins. This religion is considered to have many common points with the Tibetan Bonpo pre-buddhic religion.5 In this religion rhododendrons are weapons and participate in ritual battles, linking nature and the supernatural.

"cut three spruce trees
make ten thousand sharp spears
cut three great rhododendrons
make ten thousand shields and suits of armour
crowded as the stars on the sky
dense as the grass on the earth
arrows like a swarm of bees
spears like hemp stalks.
(Quoted in Mueggler 109)

"As sheathes, shields and armour, rhododendrons were the skins of swords and warriors, and skin is also the form they took in weapons for ritual battle. Rhododendrons were prominent in a large and complex ceremony to expel the demons of slander from bodies and household" (110).

9The poem shows nature as a provider of weapons in a circular vision, where the real trees and plants are used to make weapons, the number of which is then compared to natural elements: stars, grass, "swarm of bees" and "hemp stalks." Rhododendrons are part, as Mueggler says, of primordial battles. "In Dongba texts, rhododendrons reek of primordial battles" (109); and they are also linked with purification: "white and black rhododendrons were components of purifying torches" (110). That double function links them with a violence that is not destructive but on the contrary linked with myths of creation:

Along with birch for arrows, spruce for spears and mulberry for quivers, rhododendrons were among a few plants fashioned into weapons for battles fought during the creation of the cosmos. Warriors carved sword sheathes from the limbs of the black rhododendron: they wove shields and armour from the strong sinuous branches of the great rhododendron. Many texts relate tales of one such war between the ancestor Muanlluddunzi (also known as Ddù) and his archenemy Muanllussunzi (a.k.a. Ssù), on Ngyùna. (110)

10The Tibetan poem tells a primordial story where the rhododendron is at the core of a system of metamorphoses linking humans and nonhuman elements, fire ("cremation") being the first element linking one of the primordial human beings both with sky ("clouds") and earth through the final metamorphosis into "the white rhododendron, the black rhododendron, / And the dragon spruce," allowing once again a circular pattern where fire reappears in the shape of "purifying torches."

[Ddù's son] Ddùsoalù was never shot
He shot [Ssù's son] Asemiuè to death
At Asemiuè
's cremation, he was changed
into three clouds of smoke
The clouds of smoke changed
Into the white rhododendron, the black rhododendron,
And the dragon spruce; five branches emerged
On the mountain; they fought with these torches
This is the origin of purifying torches. (110)

11Erik Mueggler tells those mythical stories in a book speaking about "Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet," thus showing the role of travellers and explorers in the knowledge of other cultures. At the core of Tibetan cosmogony and myths of creation, the function of rhododendrons is studied by explorers as botanical voyages of exploration are the opportunity to see the relationship established by people from Tibet between rhododendrons and the supernatural world. They are part of a cosmogony where paradoxically their beauty is not what matters but it is their strength that makes them essential elements in the myths of creation.

Rhododendrons to celebrate beauty

12Rhododendrons seem to inspire artists and appear in many various arts and at various times. A modern painting entitled "Alpine meadow with delphinium and rhododendrons in the Alps"6 gives a stylized vision of the mountains where what matters is not the reality of flower shape but a world of colours. The rhododendron flowers on the painting have not much to do with the real rhododendron flower but their colour in front of the mountain is supposed to evoke the beauty of mountains to any mountaineer. Rhododendrons also appear on botanical plates and even on china with beautiful ornaments of rhododendron branches, or even on a 1925 "Art Nouveau" vase by Emile Galle, "vase aux rhododendrons."7 They are always that spot of colour illuminating the minerality of mountains, bringing joy to the grey coldness of high mountains as on a painting by Flemwell, made in 1910, "Alpine impression Rhododendron et Thalictrum Glacier de Triente."8 They even give the material for their own representation as on a jewel representing a rhododendron flower painted on rhododendron wood: it is a way of adding a piece of mountain beauty to one's body. Rhododendrons speak about beauty but no work of art representing them gives such an absolute beauty as the reality of their colours.

  • 9 I would like to thank Maria Tang for the virtual visit of her beautiful Staffordshire and for this (...)
  • 10 "I have taken some pains to ascertain the degree of fertility of some of the complex crosses of Rho (...)

13Among the beautiful stories linked with rhododendrons, I must mention one that was told me by Maria Tang. At Camp Hill, near Baldwin's Gate in Staffordshire, the traveller will wonder at thousands of rhododendrons. The house was built by Josiah Wedgwood's daughter, Sarah. She had thousands of rhododendrons planted there. It is in that place that Charles Darwin courted his future wife, Emma, Sarah's niece.9 When we read about his experiments as he crossed some hybrid varieties of rhododendrons to study their degree of fecundity,10 we may let our minds wander; perhaps his first ideas about the evolution of species were born while looking at Sarah's rhododendrons at Camp Hill, while his love story started. Love and science, a personal feeling and a thought that was to revolutionize the world, united by Nature, by a garden, by rhododendrons planted by a woman to create beauty, beauty as a trail leading both to love and to "The Origin of Species."

14Multi-coloured rhododendrons bring light and make mountaineers aware of the beauty of the world. They make travellers aware of the enchantment of the world, of the magic of nature and the "ecology of magic" as David Abram evokes it: "The most sophisticated definition of "magic" that now circulates through the American counterculture is "the ability or power to alter one's consciousness at will" (Abram 9). The magic of the world is to be able to listen to its voices and see its colours, to follow in the wake of indigenous people who have always been attentive to the voice of nature: "In indigenous oral cultures, nature itself is articulate; it speaks. The human voice as an oral culture is always participant with the voices of wolves, wind, and waves—participant, that is, with the encompassing discourse of an animate earth" (Abram 116-117). Travellers and mountaineers' texts speak about the beauty of rhododendrons and sometimes associate them with a quest. Thus the British botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), a close friend of Darwin's and the director of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens after his father for twenty years, went to India and the Himalayas between 1847 and 1851. He was the first European botanist collecting plants in the Himalayas. On his expedition to Sikkim, he found 45 species of rhododendrons among which 25 were new and "many of the rhododendrons found in English gardens of the time were grown from seeds collected by Hooker in Sikkim."11 The mountaineer Henry Russell, in one of his books, links the beauty of the landscape and the magnificence of rhododendrons with Paradise:

On n'a que des pensées heureuses, dorées, riantes, Elyzéennes et lumineuses, et l’idéal du Paradis devient un Océan de neige illuminé par le Soleil. [...] Ce lieu salubre, sauvage et romantique, presque entouré de pics de 3000 mètres, dont la base est couverte de sapins séculaires, de magnifiques rhododendrons. (Russell 2011-2013, 329)

15More than a century later, Kev Reynolds also praises the beauty of the blooming mountain: "Domes of grass, alpenrose and bilberry created archipelagoes of colour. Meadowlands two metres wide were covered in gentian, Spring anemone, soldanella and sweet-smelling daphne, while marsh marigolds bobbed their gold medallion heads along the edge of every rushing stream" (Reynolds 2013, 32). He sees in Ariège a world of colours "where tiny islands of granite emerged out of the water." Elsewhere he says that "the rhododendron buds now opened and [they] were surrounded with colours"(Reynolds 2013, 20). Flowers are the reflection of absolute beauty, of perfection and life: starting from the detail of the botanical species met in his walk, he glides to a general impression made of colours as if only the colours could convey the beauty of that mountain reality. The colours become real "archipelagoes," the mountaineers are "surrounded by colours." Colours are the circle of perfection uniting the mountaineer with the mountain. As for Robin Fedden who had seen all the colours of Egypt, in The Enchanted Mountains, he gives an enthusiastic vision of the Encantats (Pyrenees) and sees the colours of the mountain with a painter's eye. He insists on the dominating grey of minerality on the area of Cresta d'Amitjes. But strangely enough, whereas he says that the colours of the flowers—the alpine rose, which is the rhododendron, recurring twice— "did not exist," the text shines with them, as if the flowers named reconstituted a beauty felt in the mountain: "Waterfalls glowed, water-scoured rocks gleamed like mirrors and we noticed everywhere the scarce alpine rose. By contrast, in this moment of white and grey, the pink alpine rose, drifts of shuttered gentians, a whole range of colour, did not exist" (Fedden 102). When he arrives at one of the Lakes of Gerber, the landscape reminds him of "Japanese prints" and further on, the Cresta d'Amitjes and "the rocky Tower with cornices of snow remind him of "wave by Hokusai on small Japan far below us" (Fedden 103). Two American travellers, Amy and Thornton Oakley, evoke "alpine gentians bluer than the skies" and "rhododendrons with lively colours that we no longer call Alpenrosen when we are in France" (Oakley 214). John Muir, in The Mountains of California, links them with music:

To the northward, in Humboldt and the adjacent counties, whole hillsides are covered with rhododendron, making a glorious melody of bee-bloom in the spring. And the Western azalea, hardly less flowery, grows in massy thickets three to eight feet high around the edges of groves and woods as far south as San Luis Obispo, usually accompanied by manzanita; while the valleys, with their varying moisture and shade, yield a rich variety of the smaller honey-flowers, such as mentha, lycopus, micromeria, audibertia, trichostema, and other mints; with vaccinium, wild strawberry, geranium, calais, and goldenrod; and in the cool glens along the stream-banks, where the shade of trees is not too deep, spiraea, dog-wood, heteromeles, and calycanthus, and many species of rubus form interlacing tangles, some portion of which continues in bloom for months. (Muir 304-305)

16And Russell when he is in India, thus describes the landscape and India's flora:

Autour et au-dessus de Punkabari on trouve l'arbre à caoutchouc (ficus elastica), le bambou en profusion, et, d’après le docteur Hooker le duabanga, les terminalias, les cedrelas. Vers mille mètres on voit paraître la végétation des îles britanniques, entre autres des chênes touffus, des hêtres, des violettes, des fraises, des géraniums, etc. Mais l'arbre fougère s’y montre aussi, ainsi que le bananier, le palmier, des pins aux feuilles immenses (pandanus), et des bambous épais, à la base, comme la cuisse d'un homme, et hauts de plus de trente mètres. Au-dessus nous trouvons les magnolias, les lauriers, les rhododendrons, l'érable et le pommier, les camellias (sic), le lierre ; puis les marronniers et les figuiers de la Chine et du Japon. (Russell 1864: tome II, 421-422)

17In his description, rhododendrons are just a small element in a botanical list, first evoking colonization through the virtual contact between the vegetation of the British Isles. Plants and flowers also speak about time in particular, via the tree ferns, which have existed since Prehistory and are often used by novelists to speak about the origins of the world (Jules Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Canadian novelist James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder). And all the flowers alluded to by Russell bring the reader around the world, from the Indian place-name Punkabari to the British Isles and then to China and Japan. The vegetable landscape thus described in a list reveals man's relationship with the nonhuman world; it is a way of speaking about his own history and relationship with the human other: through colonization and the double reference to India and the British Isles brought together by plants, and through voyages of discovery that allowed such a "dispersion of seeds" to take up Thoreau's words.

  • 12 "Genetic Cloning Saves Historic Rhododendron in Danger of Extinction, Recovers from 'Plant Destroye (...)

18All the mountains of the world bloom with rhododendrons and photographers tell their travels in colourful pictures where rhododendrons speak about the association between the immediate beauty of the mountain and its infinity. A journey around the world through rhododendron images that fascinated photographers, shows photographs as instantaneous travel narratives and those travel books are just sometimes one picture speaking about beauty and revealing the power of the nonhuman to human eyes. In Altaï, the United States of America, Ukraine, Australia, China, where they are part of a sacred landscape, Iceland, Japan, Ireland. In the garden of Heligan, a botanical garden in Cornwall with a great collection of rhododendrons; "a few years ago, a microscopic fungal disease called Phytophtora ramorum aka 'plant destroyer' attacked ornamental plants including rhododendrons at the Lost Garden of Heligan. Recently, scientists at Cornwall said they have found a way to save the ancient rhododendron plants and other plant species that are in danger of becoming extinct."12 Rhododendrons speak about the preservation of biodiversity.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are welcoming home some very old friends this summer. 300 eight year-old healthy rhododendron plants from a pioneering micro-propagation program, have come home to the gardens and are set to be reinstated in their rightful place. Some of these specimens were thought to have been lost to the sands of time, but thanks to this groundbreaking program, they have risen from the ashes.13

19Art Wolfe's Hymne à la terre presents us with a forest of rhododendrons in Bhutan, among the wonders of the earth (Wolfe 96) as one of the witnesses of the earth's beauty. Rhododendron, the national flower of Nepal—a garland of rhododendrons appears on Nepal's coat of arms—can be seen on multiple mountain photographs. They are part of a "wonderland" as Kev Reynolds says on his site: "Go in the spring and you'll wander through fabulous rhododendron forests before arriving in a Himalayan wonderland"14

20It is a story of blindness and vision told by Kev Reynolds in 2007 during a mountain conference, in a lecture entitled "Dream Journeys," that made me feel like re-examining rhododendrons as perceived by mountaineers. In 2007, when I heard Kev Reynolds speak about rhododendrons in the Himalayas, when I heard his beautiful story showing how rhododendrons could make a blind man see the beauty of the world around him, I realized the power of rhododendrons to show us the way. Kev Reynolds had brought his friend Ray, who was blind, to "see" the Himalayas, which was his dream:

It was springtime and our route led through a rhododendron forest. Beams of sunlight shafted between the trees, reminiscent of medieval religious paintings. Blossoms of every hue blazed from each tree, but Ray was only aware of walking through Venetian blinds of light and dark. Then Maila, the Sherpa employed to hold onto Ray to make sure he fell down no crevasses, had a bright idea and commanded him to stay still for a moment. He, Maila, quickly gathered several rhododendron blossoms and emptied the nectar from each one into Ray’s cupped hands. "Now drink," he told him. As he did, tears of joy ran down his cheeks. (Reynolds 2010, 471)

21Kev Reynolds's story, together with personal rhododendron stories led me to think about the mountaineer's relationship with that particular plant and its role in the way to awareness.

Rhododendrons leading to ecological awareness

22This special flower can reveal the destruction practised on nature and natural landscape by the progress of technology. Kev Reynolds writes in his autobiography and travel book, Walking in the Clouds:

Dusk was drawing on by the time we turned the bend into the upper sanctuary, and we were still on the bulldozed track that has not been there 18 months before. It led deeper into the valley with an urgency I feared. A concrete ford had been created through the river, and where vehicles had used it their skidding tyres had ripped the vegetation on both banks. A once-sacred meadowland was scarred with dry mud and the imprints of wheels, not animals. Dwarf rhododendrons had been desecrated, and rainbow swirls of oil coloured puddles in the track. (Reynolds, 2013, 21-22, my underlining)

23The colours of the flowers the mountaineer had described previously are replaced by the artificial colours of refuse and by the false rainbow polluting mountain water. The strength of Kev Reynolds's description of the place stems from the true shout of revolt and anger that the painting becomes. His poetic style allows him to warn readers with sad echoes: the "once-sacred meadowland" is now "scarred" and this near anagram sums up the situation and the message: the sacredness of nature is literally scarred, irremediably wounded by "the 'Urban motorised man.'" The rhododendron is clearly presented as a sacred plant that has been "desecrated." The text is framed by two quotations and this frame also sums up the shifting from the beginnings of the construction of mountain roads as it was perceived by the Welsh mountaineer Harold Spender, and the result nearly a century later. But in fact the damage had been done in eighteen months only. In eighteen months, for profit motives, "the valley's innocence" had been "betrayed." "Mountain beauty" represented by the rhododendrons had been "desecrated" by "the ugly intrusions." The strong words used by the mountaineer are meant to urge the reader to revolt, to become aware in his/her turn of the destruction of mountain areas by the construction of roads meant to bring more tourists. Yet, before ending his chapter, he writes: "Up in the Maladeta's slopes a shepherd's campfire glowed like a beacon. The glaciers were barely perceived, yet a shadowy profile against distant snows announced that the mountains still remained." (Reynolds 2013, 22). The mountain remains but all the terms suggesting an ominous future, like "foreboding" are meant to draw the reader's attention to the necessity of preventing that kind of transformation from destroying the "beauty" of mountains, their "innocence," their "sacredness," that is to say, simply their life. The text ends on a question about an izard, the izard which, eighteen months before, the mountaineers had seen as he drank in the clear stream. The pollution of the place shows that it is mountain life as a whole that is threatened. And nonhuman beauty can appear as the way to the sharing of the world.

24A little bird seized by a photographer while feeding itself from a rhododendron15 shows us the way to sharing. The link between nonhuman species is one of survival and at the same time of respect. The Rufous-vented Yuhina on the rhododendron flower can simply be seen as a beautiful photograph. It is much more than that. It speaks about life, life giving and life sharing: "the shared communion of the whole," as Barbara Glenn wrote in one of her poems (Glenn 26). The human being is present but hidden behind the lens of his camera. He is present only to allow another form of sharing: to allow internet surfers to see that moment of sharing between a bird and a flower.

25Why to speak about rhododendrons and only rhododendrons? My mother loved rhododendrons. My father introduced them to me. When I was a teenager, rhododendrons showed me that they could save a life. It was a beautiful sunny day on the slopes of Mount Canigou, and while my parents were botanizing around our camp, my friend and I were joyfully walking in the colours and smells of the mountain when my foot glided on the edge of the path and I fell down in the slope, rolling down and down, as happy with the contact of the soil and plants as a little dog playing in a meadow. I was stopped by a wonderful blooming pink and green barrier. I jumped on my feet, looking up at my friend with a great smile and I saw terror in her eyes, whereas I had only felt joy. Unaware of the danger, I had not seen what she probably saw from the top of the slope: a long steep slope the end of which she could not make out. She was aware that there might have been some danger if the slope had ended on rocky bars. The rhododendrons masked the end of the slope. I could not see anything, I only felt the soil, the grass and at the end of my fall, the rhododendrons that would have saved my life if there had been a rocky bar below, which I did not try to see. My friend was right to feel some danger. I was unaware of it while rolling again and again until my ultimate meeting and welcoming in the rhododendron branches. It was as if they had taken me in their arms, protecting me that day and forever by making me aware that nature is multiple, dangerous and protective. They made me aware through my joyful unawareness.

26Travel books are not only texts but also images and modern technology allows travellers to share their travels and the beautiful pictures their cameras seized with the rest of the world. Internet surfers are new travellers. The English term suggests they are sportsmen on an ocean of pictures. I prefer the French word internaute, like astronauts or Argonauts, "internautes" can travel through the cosmos or through mythical regions and find their golden fleece in virtual meetings like the meeting with a bird, the bird offering its presence to a photographer and the photographer offering millions of people a moment of grace he lived through that meeting between a human artist and two nonhuman presences, a bird and a flower. Or the real meeting with a rhododendron offering its nectar to a blind man thanks to a Nepalese man's hand and allowing him to see the beauty of the mountain around him; the union of the Nepalese man's eye, mind and hand and of the rhododendron's nectar was necessary to bring vision into the blind mountaineer's closed eyes as they are necessary to teach us to see the world.

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1 Online Etymology Dictionary, and Littré dictionary.

2, accessed on 5 October 2016.

3 "Beauty sleeping in the lap of horror" (Radcliffe 55).

4 Robbie Hart and Jan Salick, "Dynamic Ecological Knowledge Systems Amid Changing Place and Climate: Mt. Yulong Rhododendrons", Journal of Ethnobiology 37(1):21-36. 2017., accessed on 16 January 2018.

5, accessed on 3 October 2016. See Xu Duoduo. (2015). “A Comparison of the Twenty-Eight Lunar Mansions Between Dabaism and Dongbaism”. Archaeoastronomy and Ancient Technologies, 3 (2015) 2: 61-81.

6, accessed on 15 November, 2017.

7 See for example and, accessed on 15 November, 2017.

8, accessed on 15 November, 2017.

9 I would like to thank Maria Tang for the virtual visit of her beautiful Staffordshire and for this wonderful rhododendron story she told me. You can see that beautiful place on, accessed on 28 September, 2018.

10 "I have taken some pains to ascertain the degree of fertility of some of the complex crosses of Rhododendrons, and I am assured that many of them are perfectly fertile" (, accessed on 28 September 2018).

11, accessed on 3 November, 2017, and Temple 150 .

12 "Genetic Cloning Saves Historic Rhododendron in Danger of Extinction, Recovers from 'Plant Destroyer' Disease"

13, accessed on 3 November, 2017.

14, accessed on 22 September, 2018.

15 "And as Nutrition for a Rufous-vented Yuhina," accessed on 3 November, 2017.

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Bibliographical reference

Françoise Besson, Rhododendrons and Travels: a Forest of Colours to Open the World's Eyes Caliban, 59 | 2018, 101-116.

Electronic reference

Françoise Besson, Rhododendrons and Travels: a Forest of Colours to Open the World's Eyes Caliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Françoise Besson

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, CAS.
Françoise BESSON is emerita professor of literatures in English at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. She was President of the French Society of Travel Literature in English (SELVA) from 2015 to 2019. She is also a member

of the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) and of ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). She was chief editor of the journal Caliban from 2011 to 2019. She is the author, editor and co-editor of several books on mountains and landscape in Anglophone literature and history. Her most recent book is Ecology and Literatures in English: Writing to Save the Planet (CSP, 2019). She is also the author of several collections of poems, tales and short stories and co-author (with her mother, Madeleine Besson) of several books on regional arts and popular traditions.

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