Atlas of Poetic Botany

The MIT Press, 2018. $24.95, 128 pages.

ATLAS OF POETIC BOTANY is a hand-drawn collection of plants from equatorial rainforests that have sometimes strange but often beautiful and surprising characteristics, like trees that grow on top of other trees, or plants that disguise themselves as mushrooms or have leaves as big as awnings.

Why drawings and not photos? To stare at a plant is to form a relationship with it; “it opens up a space for reflection,” whereas perhaps photographing a plant feels more like speed-dating or like a way to “content oneself with limited information.” But, as in photography criticism, Hallé examines each plant as one would a piece of art, carefully drawing out the intention of each with the colorful, informative, and enchanting drawings that complement his studied deliberations.

Reading this book, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped through the wardrobe door into Narnia itself: a landscape with flowers that look like rotten meat and smell like garbage; underground trees; ant gardens where “such symbiosis represents a pinnacle of coevolution between plants and animals.” In Hallé’s reflections, the plants in this wondrous parade of plants appear at first blush to be plants of aberration. However, nature is much more purposeful than that: the landscape has adapted to them, just as they have adapted to the landscape.