Chapter 6: U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856

One of the challenges of fieldwork is the isolation. Botanists may spend months in transit, followed by months in the field, without any contact with the outside world. Today, of course, global communication is often fairly easy (most of the time), but in the past it was not so. The letter was the primary method of contact for the early botanists. Charles Wright was one botanist who kept in contact with colleagues via the mails. Through his letters to Asa Gray, we can read about Wright's tribulations.

Some expeditions required Wright to be shipboard for months. One such expedition was the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition of 1853-1856. While on board the steamer John Hancock, Wright found few people with whom he could discuss scientific matters, and so had to rely on his correspondence with Gray for intellectual stimulation. "I shall hail with pleasure any letters from you. I find no one on our ship who takes any interest in science. We have one poet in our mess--but he with the rest if they have a penchant for any thing, it is for drinking whiskey only." Wright sent data from the field to Gray, while Gray sent Wright updates from Cambridge along with new botanical publications. Wright also depended on Gray to send collecting supplies. Primarily, though, Wright's correspondence to Gray was social in nature, describing the adventures of the day.

Wright was also not shy about expressing dissatisfaction with his surroundings. After transferring to the ship Vincennes, Wright had this to say about his new accommodations: "I told you I was in ill humor. I was satisfied with my [illegible] mess and with the great liberty I enjoyed on board the Steamer. Here I was put into a dirty room (it has not been cleaned yet) amid ships with the racket of Babel in front of it--without curtains or writing desk and no boy yet to wait on me and my boots haven't been blacked for a week." Other letters to Gray only hint at Wright's shipboard adventures. In one letter, Wright writes, tantalizingly, "Before this reaches you the rumor of our late Commander's derangement will have been spread through the country by the numerous papers." Unfortunately for the modern reader, details of the Commander's derangement are not given. While the rumors may have reached Gray, they did not reach us.

Wright did not return directly to the United States after his work on the exploring expedition was complete. He stopped in Nicaragua for approximately six weeks to do some collecting. Tropical botanizing comes with a variety of problems. Wright described the Hong Kong climate as "most villainous," a description that could be applied to many tropical climates. Beyond the issue of comfort, the heat and humidity often wreaked havoc on botanical specimens, causing them to mold or rot. While in Nicaragua, Wright also discovered another hazard of fieldwork: political unrest. Wright had to be careful in the content of his letters to Gray as negative comments about the government would be censored. Wright also suspected that more innocent letters were also seized from the mail. One letter that did get through to Gray describes the trouble that Wright had in trying to leave Nicaragua. Rumors were flying that outward bound transport would soon be halted, so Wright hastily tried to arrange his journey to New York. For a time it seemed that no amount of money could either secure a berth or charter a ship, but eventually Wright was able to arrange transport back to New York.

Despite his trials, Wright was not discouraged from fieldwork. Like his contemporaries, he understood the risks and hazards of working in the field, but went ahead anyway. Unlike some of the more academic botanists of the time, Wright truly seemed to enjoy being out in the field collecting. Herbaria around the world were enriched by his zeal.