The Wasp and the Orchid by Danielle Clode

The Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman

‘It is tempting to think that Edith has been forgotten because she was a woman, but it’s more complicated than that.’

Recently I learned of an Australian naturalist, Edith Coleman.  I learned of her by reading a review of this book.   I added this book to my reading list, sad that I had not heard of her before.  What a fascinating woman she was.

So, what is the story of Edith Coleman?

Edith Coleman (1874-1951) was 48 years old when she delivered her first paper, on native Australian orchids, to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in 1922. Between 1922 and her death in 1951 she wrote over 300 articles about Australian nature for various newspapers, magazines, and scientific journals.  She also solved a mystery concerning orchid pollination and was the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion.

In this book, scientist and writer Danielle Clode sheds light on Edith Coleman’s life from her childhood in England to her passion for the Australian landscape and nature.  Ms Clode has undertaken extensive research to piece together the little that is known about Edith Coleman’s personal life, to visit places where she lived, and find her work.  Ms Clode also tracked down surviving family members.

The result is a book which combines known biographical facts with possibilities, a social history of the times with examples of Edith Coleman’s own writing.  Ms Clode speculates about why Edith Coleman has been forgotten and does her best to bring her back into view.  She writes:

‘Women’s voices are being lost when we anthologise, analyse and criticise the literature. In this case, it’s not a question of what’s written, but who we have chosen to hear.’

I agree.  If you are interested in Australian gardens and nature, if you have an interest in earlier Australian women authors and their work, then you may enjoy this book as much as I did.  It is beautifully presented and left me wondering about other Australian women who’ve slipped into the shadows.

‘The poetry of the earth is never still.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith