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THE POISONOUS PAINTER: AMY STEWART
Has someone ever told you "don't worry, it's plant-based" as a way to reassure you that whatever oil or tincture or lotion they're selling couldn't possibly hurt you? What about "all-natural" or "plant-derived?" Next time you hear these phrases, regard the person they came from with suspicion.
Plants can't run away. When faced with a predator you can't run away from, what's the alternative? Stand and fight. That's exactly what plants do. Thorns, barbs, prickles, and chemicals all serve as a plant's natural defenses. When they can't pierce you, they try to poison you. If you're unfortunate enough to eat a toxic plant, the best-case scenario is you don't feel so good. Ideally, you remember not to eat that plant again. Plant wins. The worst-case scenario is you die. You can't eat that plant again. Plant wins.
The first time these facts sank in, I was at the Denver Botanical Gardens (which is amazing if you haven't been). No, I didn't come across a patch of poison ivy. No, I didn't swallow a castor bean. No, I didn't get tangled in a thicket of stinging nettle. I was sitting quite comfortably indoors in a room with a bunch of gardeners, botanists, students, and other plant enthusiasts.
I'd just picked up an amazing book called Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities and the author was speaking at The Gardens that day. Amy Stewart's new book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects had just come out and it was 2011. As I sat in my chair, watching her talk, I took in a story I'll never forget.
Stewart had been driving down a highway somewhere and happened to pass a tobacco farm. On a pull-down screen behind her, she projected a photo of her standing next to one of the enormous plants. She touched the leaves, brushed against stems, and posed, smiling. But, before much time at all, Amy Stewart found that she couldn't feel anything from the elbows down. Just the oils and enzymes on the surface of the leaves were enough to give her a huge dose of toxins.
Fortunately for us, she recovered quickly and went on to write several more books. One of these books, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks, was a graduation gift from my co-workers at the plant biology lab where I worked several years later. It was the perfect gift for a plant lover who also loves to imbibe.
When I graduated, I was already 39 years old. When Amy Stewart started painting, she was 30. She says, "It isn't necessary to be born with an interest in something," which I take to mean something along the lines of, "it's never too late to find what you love to do." Of course, I could just be projecting.
Wait, slow down. Did I just write, painting? Isn't Amy Stewart a writer? She is both. In a speech she gave at the 2017 Pasadena Festival of Women Authors (link below), Stewart explains how this passion for oils has informed her writing process. As a painter, she learned to build up layers and tweak her work at the end to give it "bling." She also applies that to her books.
She didn't start life as a writer, but she has been immersed in the book world for a long time. She and her husband own a bookstore in Eureka, California. She was surrounded and encouraged by creatives in her family growing up. But, she swerved away from all that in college. She got a degree from the University of Texas (near where I live now) in Anthropology (which was my minor in college) and then got a Masters in Urban Planning from the same school. For a while, she worked at battered women's shelters, rape crisis centers, drug treatment centers, places where she felt like she made a difference.
The writing pulled her back. Like author Mary Roach (who I profile in another article), she seems to have an insatiable desire for research. Like the gardener she is, she digs deep and unearths long-buried facts. Up to her elbows in newspaper clippings from the early 1900s, she found the inspiration for her series of The Kopp Sisters mysteries. Realizing that, if she didn't write about these historical women they might remain buried forever, she resurrected them like a wilted philodendron.
What makes Amy Stewart such a great science communicator is not her deep knowledge of plants and insects. Her books are fascinating not just because her subjects are. She isn't a best-selling author for her ability to regurgitate facts. The amazing and beautiful seeds she plants in your imagination that grow into stories you can't forget are the reason Stewart is so successful. Her ability to draw in more than just biology students and arthropod collectors, but anyone who's curious, is what makes her a great author.
This is the fourth article in my series of science communication profiles. As an aspiring SciComm author, I think it's important to identify and highlight women who are outstanding in the field. College career advisors say to find someone who has the job you want and figure out how they got there. I think that's good advice for anyone. Our idols help motivate and inspire us, no matter what field they're in. I hope you enjoy reading about my idols and how they help shape our concepts of the world.
*Image by Terrence McNally from www.amystewart.com
Amy Stewart's Websitehttps://www.amystewart.com
Garden Rant (co-founded by Amy Stewart)https://www.gardenrant.com/author/amys
Finding Fiction in Facts: Amy Stewart (Publishers Weekly)https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/67863-finding-fiction-in-facts-amy-stewart.html
Wicked Bugs with Amy Stewart (Central Texas Gardener)https://www.pbs.org/video/central-texas-gardener-wicked-bugs-amy-stewart/
Read This Now: The Drunken Botanist (Serious Eats)https://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/04/book-review-the-drunken-botanist-plants-in-drinks-spirits-beer-wine.html
'Drunken Botanist' Takes A Garden Tour of the Liquor Cabinet (NPR: Morning Edition)https://www.npr.org/transcripts/174642359
Amy Stewart (Authors Unbound) - The author speaks at the PFWA - https://authorsunbound.com/amy-stewart
The Drunken Botanist Plant Collection - https://drunkenbotanist.com/introducing-the-drunken-botanist-plant-collection/
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