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Review of Chris Thorogood's "Pathless Forest": A heartfelt tribute to a magnificent flower.
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Review of Chris Thorogood’s “Pathless Forest”: A heartfelt tribute to a magnificent flower.


If the concept of flowers evokes images of beauty, aromatic scents, elegance, and tamed nature – something that can be conveniently purchased from an online flower shop or selected from a nearby plant nursery – then Chris Thorogood’s Pathless Forest is sure to surprise you. This book is a declaration of admiration for the largest flowers on Earth: the giant blossoms of over 40 known species of Rafflesia. The exact number of existing species and those that may have already disappeared is still unknown. These unique flowers, also known as “corpse flowers”, grow in the rainforests of tropical regions such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. From its distasteful nickname onwards, there is nothing attractive about this parasite. It imitates the scent and appearance of decomposing flesh to attract its preferred pollinators – carrion flies. Its aroma includes notes of “clogged drains”, “sewage”, “pig feces”, and “spoiled chicken”.

It is also the enduring passion of Thorogood, a botanist and scholar who openly acknowledges his infatuation with Rafflesia, mirroring the monomaniacal traits of characters often found in the films of Werner Herzog. Thorogood himself writes, “[I was] helplessly dragged through heaven and hell and driven half-mad by my obsession to locate it.” Much like the elusive flower, his writing is bold, grandiose, and unconstrained by societal norms. The narrative begins with Thorogood as a youth enamored with plants, constructing lifelike Rafflesia flowers out of papier-mache in a forgotten cemetery near his family’s home. Apart from his botanical pursuits, he is also a popular botanical artist on Instagram, and his book, Pathless Forest, features his own captivating drawings and paintings of colleagues on expeditions, lush rainforest flora, and the stunning Rafflesia in all its liver-colored, white-spotted magnificence.

After earning multiple degrees, Thorogood now holds the position of deputy director at the 400-year-old Oxford Botanic Garden. Like other renowned scientific gardens in Britain, such as Kew, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, it thrived during the time of the British Empire thanks to its involvement with lucrative colonial commodities such as cotton, spices, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, and indigo, as well as opium. During this era, botanical knowledge was closely tied to imperial conquest, as evident in the naming of Rafflesia after the British colonial administrator Stamford Raffles, who encountered the plant in bloom in Bengkulu, Indonesia in 1818, a year before establishing the trade hub that would eventually become Singapore.

However, this particular plant trophy has been stubborn and cannot be easily grown in botanic gardens or successfully preserved in seed banks. The only place that has successfully caused it to bloom is the Bogor Botanical Gardens located in Jakarta, where it was grafted onto a host vine. Due to the loss of 90% of its forest cover in the Philippines, Rafflesia is now in danger of becoming extinct as it heavily relies on its natural habitat. This urgency has sparked Thorogood’s mission to document the species in its natural habitat and uncover the mysteries of its reproduction.

He travels from the well-maintained greenhouses, water lily ponds, and walled gardens in Oxford to the untamed forests of Rafflesia’s habitat. This realm is full of uncontrolled plant life – Thorogood encounters a vast variety of species as he navigates through dense vegetation, scales steep slopes, and crosses rivers alongside local researchers and guides. The focus is primarily on plants, with brief mentions of birds and animals as pollinators or adversaries (such as the Sunda porcupines and Java mouse-deer, notorious for damaging Rafflesia flowers). These forests are not just a typical backdrop for nature documentaries; they are the main attraction.

In this densely packed and all-encompassing atmosphere, the lines between person, plant, and environment begin to blur, challenging our previous notions of what plants truly are. Author Thorogood states, “I am beginning to think like the forest.” Throughout the book, he occasionally adopts the perspective of the Rafflesia itself, which proves to be cunning, patient, and solely dedicated to survival. The plant stretches the boundaries of scientific understanding, as research conducted by Thorogood and his Harvard colleagues has uncovered that despite its massive blooms, the Rafflesia actually spends the majority of its lifespan as a minuscule thread within a host vine, functioning similarly to fungi and defying categorization as a plant or animal.

The individuals involved are not scholars from western societies – Thorogood admits to lacking knowledge of specific plants within the forest. Instead, the local scholars, foresters, and indigenous guides take the lead in bringing visitors to the Rafflesia’s habitat. The protagonist in the story is an unassuming elderly man named Mr Ngatari, known as the “wizard” of Bogor for his ability to successfully grow the plant. The book ends with Thorogood and colleagues from the Philippines studying Mr Ngatari’s mysterious instructions and hoping for success with their own vine grafts. Whether or not the foul-smelling yet magnificent Rafflesia will bloom, this is a captivating and vivid account of why their endeavors hold significance.

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Source: theguardian.com