Monday, September 28, 2009

Useful Plants of Guam

(William Edwin Safford's 1905 ethnobotanical classic has just been re-issued in a handsome facsimile edition by Guamology Publishing. Below are excerpts from a piece about the book that I originally posted in 2002.)

An Annapolis graduate who did postgraduate work in botany and zoology at Harvard and Yale, William Edwin Safford spent twenty years as an officer in the US Navy. Posted to Guam shortly after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, he was designated vice-governor of the colony, lately ceded to the US by Spain, and took advantage of his stay there to compile for the American government a survey of the history, inhabitants, and agricultural resources of the island, which was published in 1905 as Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture. He also compiled what was said to be the first grammar of the island's language, The Chamorro Language of Guam, as well as a number of articles in scientific journals. He left the Navy in 1902, becoming thereafter a botanist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and died in 1926.

I owe my knowledge of the existence of this volume, which is usually referred to by the marginally snappier title of Useful Plants of Guam, to a mention in the bibliography of a 1952 book entitled Plants, Man & Life, written by an ethnobotanist named Edgar Anderson. Here is Anderson's description of the book:
Under this modest title is hidden one of the world's most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.
As if that were not enough of an inducement, Anderson gives a sample of Safford's prose, from the book's Introduction:
During a series of cruises in the Pacific Ocean the routine of my official duties was pleasantly broken by frequent excursions on shore for the purpose of collecting material for the United States National Museum, as well as for recreation. While sitting in native huts and while wading upon coral reefs, traversing forests and climbing mountains, I interested myself in taking notes on the languages and customs of the natives, their arts, medicines, food materials, and the manner of preparing them, and the origin of their dyes, paints, fibers for fishing nets and lines, materials for mat making and thatching, woods used in constructing their houses and canoes, and gums and resins used in calking… . It occurred to me, therefore, that a popular work on the useful plants of Polynesia would be welcome, and I set out accordingly to gather together such information as I could for this purpose.
The relaxed flow of Safford's words, the reasonableness of his logic, seemed to indicate a writer who was no ordinary bureaucratic pencil-pusher; clearly this was a man who, in addition to possessing a mastery of his abstruse subject matter (or rather matters), brought to his work a breadth of knowledge and a geniality not usually displayed by the authors of scholarly monographs and government reports.

Finding a copy of Safford's book was no easy task, however. Published in 1905, it was long out-of-print. Local libraries didn't have it; used booksellers had never heard of it. With the advent of online bookselling on the Web, second-hand copies occasionally showed up for sale, but not at prices I was willing to pay for a book I had never so much as seen.

In the meantime, another tantalizing reference turned up, this time in a 1997 book by Oliver Sacks. The Island of the Colorblind is an account of the neurologist's medical investigations of unusual epidemics in two mid-Pacific locales: colorblindness on the island of Pingelap; and a debilitating neurological illness in Safford's old plant-hunting grounds, the island of Guam. Sacks happened upon a copy of Useful Plants while visiting the island; his appraisal of the book echoed Anderson's:
I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.
So matters stood for some time; Useful Plants of of Guam remained in the back of my mind and on my list of books to look for, but the likelihood of ever getting my hands on a copy without expending a substantial amount of time, energy, or money (or all three) seemed low. One day, more or less as an afterthought, I put in a request for Safford's book through my local library, which at times performs wonders in tracking down obscure titles. When a few weeks passed and I heard nothing, I assumed that the trail had gone cold, that the few copies of the book stored on university shelves and in government archives were not available to be lent out to the general public. But one evening, after receiving a call regarding the arrival of another book I had reserved, I came home and found that my wife had been at the library that day and picked up not only the other book, but the Safford as well. After years of anticipation I finally had the opportunity to judge for myself the merit of the book's glowing notices. So how does it hold up?

The answer, I think, is that it holds up pretty well. Granted, Safford's book is probably no one's idea of beach reading, but woven into the material of what is, in essence, a descriptive and fairly technical catalog of the plant life of one Pacific island, is a wealth of little-known ethnographic, historical, and botanical lore, presented in a clear, direct, and often amusing manner by an unpretentious and well-informed scholar who is comfortable in several disciplines. There are some seventy plates which, though in black-and-white, nicely accompany and illustrate the text; there is also a delicate folding map of Guam. To be sure, only the specialist will be able to make anything of passages like the following (though for the word-lover there is a certain bizarre poetry in them):
A branching, often rambling, evergreen shrub, common near the coast, bearing clusters of white, tubular, honeysuckle-like flowers with exserted stamens. Leaves opposite, rarely ternate, obovate or elliptic, subobtuse, entire, glabrate; cymes axillary with small linear bracts; calyx campanulate, minutely 5-toothed; in fruit somewhat enlarged, subtruncate, closely embracing the base of the drupe; corolla white, tube long and slender, limb 5-fid, lobes oblong; stamens 4, anthers long-exserted, filaments usually reddish; ovary imperfectly 4-celled, 4-ovuled; drupe separating into 4 woody nutlets; seeds oblong.
But Safford's account of the early European exploration and conquest of the island is entertaining, judicious, and sympathetic; his description of human relations on the island are at times unexpectedly droll:
Adultery on the part of the man was punished in various manners. Sometimes the injured wife would call together the other women of the village, and putting on their husbands' hats and arming themselves with spears, they would go to the house of the adulterer, destroy his growing crops, and, making a demonstration as though about to spear him, they would drive him from his house. At other times the injured wife would punish her husband by deserting him, whereupon her relations would assemble at his house and carry away all the property, leaving him without even a spear or a mat to sleep upon — nothing but the mere shell of the house. Sometimes they would even demolish the house itself.
His pocket essays on the utilization by the islanders of their native and imported botanical resources can be vivid and fascinating, opening a window into a far-distant (and now, presumably, long gone) world:
Another use to which the natives of Guam apply the meat of the coconut is the fattening of the “robber crab” (Birgus latro), which they keep in captivity until fit for the table. It has often been asserted that this singular animal climbs trees in search of coconuts, detaches them with its claws, letting them drop to the ground, and then proceeds to tear off the husk and open them. On making inquiries among the natives, I was unable to find anyone who had seen an 'ayuyu' climb a tree, but was told that the animal feeds upon nuts which have already fallen. It can not open a nut unassisted, but if an opening has been started it will succeed in getting at the kernel. Crab hunters carry coconuts to the sites frequented by the 'ayuyu,' and, after having made an incipient opening in each nut, leave it as bait. A crab soon discovers it, and is caught while engaged in opening it.
Only the most diligent lay reader would attempt to read the book from cover to cover, but for anyone willing to plunge in at random — or to simply read the hundred or so pages of introductory material, Safford still has much to offer.

His appraisal of the island may have had its practical value for early 20th-century American entrepreneurs on the lookout for profitable sources of raw materials (copra, kapok, tapioca), and perhaps that was part of its intent. Its value to botanists would have been — and perhaps still is — immense. But neither of those purposes can explain the human qualities that come through in its pages, the curiosity, the lack of prejudice, the touches of humor; all of that is Safford's unique contribution. An historian in some distant future, having no knowledge of our civilization other than a copy of Safford, would have a great deal indeed: an encapsulation of everything one talented observer could relate about one obscure but not unconnected part of the earth and how human beings lived in it.

Books like Safford's are no longer written. It's not that our contemporaries lack the talent, or the specialized knowledge required; what is missing is the breadth, the confidence, and perhaps most of all, the patron. In Safford's America the preparation of a detailed, literate, fair-minded account of a tiny Pacific island was considered to be a legitimate reason for public expenditure; such is, I suspect, no longer the case. If the Starr Report could be said to represent the low point in American civic culture in the 20th century, perhaps the high-water mark was Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX, otherwise known as William Safford's Useful Plants of Guam.


Anonymous said...

Where can the new re-issue of this book be purchased? I have a PDF copy of the 1905 book that I downloaded last year for free from the American Libraries Internet Archive (

Safford's book is the only account I have found of cacao tree growing in Guam (an industry that at one time was apparently rich enough to be considered as an export crop).

Chris Kearin said...

Here's the contact information for the publisher:

Guamology Inc.
P.O. Box 5763
Hagatna, Guam USA 96932

Drea said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm Chamorro and live on Guam. I've never heard of this book, but will definitely be on the look out for it.

Royce Haas said...

When Safford left the Navy, did he stay on Guam and work for the Department of Agriculture?

Chris said...


As far as I know he didn't remain on the island, but it's been a long time since I researched this. I know he did some fieldwork in Mexico. Sorry I can't tell you more.