A trip down the garden path leads a historian to … cryptozoology?
by Joseph McClain
August 12, 2021
Holly Gruntner says she was “sort of behind” in the records of the American Antiquarian Society when she stumbled upon something she couldn’t resist.
âIt was that mystical period, at the end of a time in the archives,â she said. âYou saw everything you knew you had to watch. And you have time to sort of browse less obvious collections. You don’t know how successful they will be for your project, but they often give the most interesting results.
Gruntner holds a doctorate. candidate for the history department Harrison Ruffin Tyler of William & Mary. She recently completed a short-term fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society, tapping into the society’s vast collection of original documents to find material to complete her dissertation on early American home gardens.
âAnd so I was in Jacob Porter’s journals, because I knew he took notes on botanical conferences,â she said. “I found botanical materials that I was looking for.”
Gruntner and the staff at the Reference Office were making their way through the archive search tool for Jacob Porter’s papers when a certain title stopped them halfway. It was “An attempt to prove the existence of the unicorn”.
âOf course we had to watch this,â she said. “You can’t not watch something with this title.”
Gruntner sat down with Porter’s original manuscript, which turned out to be a handwritten translation of a French work from the 19e-th century botanist Jean-FranÃ§ois Laterrade. Porter’s translation of the “Licorn Treatise” was published in the American Journal of Science and the Arts in 1832. She found the treatise sufficiently interesting to make it the subject of a Publish on the American Antiquarian Society blog.
A 19th-century speech describing the evidence for the existence of the unicorn is not entirely irrelevant for Gruntner’s study of the vegetable gardens of non-elite Americans from 1660 to 1830. She is particularly interested in what the gardens of ordinary people reveal about their knowledge and understanding of science.
âMy biggest takeaway so far has been the intellectual intensity of each step of maintaining a vegetable patch,â she said. âIt won’t be a surprise to anyone gardening. You really need to know a lot about the weather and the soil. There are difficult processes, such as grafting a fruit tree. It was experimental: people were constantly observing their gardens and adapting their techniques.
She recognizes that gardeners in the period she studies did not always make their decisions according to modern concepts of the scientific method. There was a lot of folklore involved – even astrology and superstition. But, she stressed, there was a lot at stake.
âI try not to judge,â Gruntner said. âI try to take people on their own terms. “
She added that market gardeners routinely share information, preserving and disseminating best horticultural practices. For example, if you knew that your neighbor has always had a good potato crop – and always took care to plant his potatoes during a waning moon in March, you would follow his lead. The quality of your own harvest would be a data point to share with your neighbors and record in a garden journal for next spring (and perhaps read a few centuries from now by Holly Gruntner).
âSo I think I don’t really draw a line between folklore and science,â she said. âI’m interested in what’s real for them, what’s true for them. For these people, science and folklore – everything is mixed. And the line between the two can be very blurry, right? “
Gruntner says the fuzzy line is pretty thin when it comes to Laterrade’s evidence for the unicorn’s existence. She notes that Laterrade is quick to state that he is not talking about the narwhal, the single-tusked marine mammal whose detached horn was often offered as a relic of an ordinary horse-like unicorn.
He also doesn’t have time for stories about beliefs in various magical properties of the real unicorn’s horn. Such “falsehood or ignorance” obscures the real job at hand – demonstrating the existence of the creature, he wrote.
Laterrade cites many Old Testament references to unicorns, written at a time when the Bible was held in high regard as a general reference. Unicorns are also mentioned by Pliny the Elder and other respected authors, he writes. Laterrade adds proof of this in the form of a unicorn skeleton, discovered in 1663 in what is now Germany, and “sent to the Princess Abbess”. Gruntner insists that Laterrade’s claims be seen in the context of the time.
âWe’re talking about the 1830s here,â she says. âIt was a time of truly explosive and intense discoveries. They found all kinds of things: skeletons of mammoths and behemoths. It was a time when a lot of things were discovered that people might have previously considered impossible. “
And consider the platypus: a duck-billed laying mammal with poisonous spurs. It is an animal infinitely more absurd than a unicorn – and not blessed with a single reference in the Bible.
âHorses exist and a unicorn is not that different from a horse. So I can imagine people being predisposed to think that something like a unicorn could also exist, âshe said. â, All of these other things existed.
She points out that her area of ââstudy is not whether crops planted in certain astrological signs will really resist drought better, or even whether unicorns exist.
“I’ll leave it to the tough scientists to tell me what’s true and what’s not,” Gruntner added. âBut I’m interested in why something was true for the people I study. Why was he real to them? “