Charting the border between science and spirituality.
What led you to explore the subject of botany?
My parents gave me a copy of a book that had belonged to my great-grandfather, a beautiful 1783 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages. They gave it to me because when I was about four years old, I had taken a red crayon and I had written my name inside the book in huge letters, totally destroying this very valuable book and somehow claiming that I owned it.
It felt like I had left the clue for myself when I was a child, as if to say, “Hey, 36 years later, pay attention to this.” I opened up the book and became fascinated with these botanical explorers.
How did you immerse yourself in their world?
I went to the South Seas, to French Polynesia, and I also went to the jungle that is the library at Kew Gardens in England. And also to botanical gardens in Amsterdam and New York.
You have spoken before about the paranormal and the mystical. Did you find a mystical element in this world of 17th- and 18th-century botanists?
The title of the book, The Signature of All Things, is based on a 17th-century theory from a mystic named Jakob Boehme, who came up with the idea that God had hidden clues in the design of every plant. So, he suggests this is why walnuts, which look like brains, are very good for headaches, or a plant called coltsfoot, which grows only in icy-cold water, is really good for hypothermia. The whole thing is a treasure map that’s been marked for us.
Do you see more of a connection or a conflict between the spiritual and the scientific?
My book takes place at that moment in history where the divisions between the supernatural world and the natural world—between religion and science—began in earnest. The main character is every inch the scientist, and the man she loves is every inch the mystic, and their inability to make it work together is symbolic of what was happening in the 19th century. So the book is filled with those themes of the paranormal and the marvelous, and the way that mysticism sort of climbs up against our rational desire to understand things in a more literal way. I think the world of plants is very mystical.
Do you think we have become disconnected from that?
That’s what was so stirring about reading about those writers and explorers from the 18th and 19th centuries. What they knew of their natural world, and the comfort they had with these tremendous taxonomies, was astonishing. They were just walking libraries of information, which I think is beautiful and extraordinary—and humbling, given the fact that I consider myself a passionate gardener and I probably can only name, like, 40 plants.
Click here for a longer interview with Elizabeth Gilbert from our March/April 2013 issue.