John Lewis Russell

In Favor of Ferns

Today is the birthday of the Salem Massachusetts Unitarian minister and American botanist, John Lewis Russell, who was born on this day in 1808.

Russell attended Harvard along with his classmate of Charles Chauncy Emerson, whose big brother was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He graduated from the Harvard Divinity School in 1831 and served as a minister until 1854.
While he served his various congregations, Russell pursued his passion for botany.
In 1874, the Reverend Edmund B. Willson wrote a “Memoir of John Lewis Russell,” and he observed:

"Wherever this man went to fill a pulpit, the lovers of nature gravitated toward him, and he made them his allies. They attended him to the fields and ranged with him the steep hills and the miry swamps. His animated talk and moist, kindling eyes as he described the graces of the ferns and the glories of the grasses and the lichens quickened the love of beauty in them. He imparted stimulating knowledge of the secrets of the meadows and woods, and ... had an ear for the mysteries of the sea, [and] the forests, [and] the moss-coated rocks."

In late September of 1838, Russell visited Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they spent some time botanizing together. Emerson wrote about the visit in his journal:

"A good woodland day or two with John Lewis Russell who came here, & showed me mushrooms, lichens, & mosses. A man in whose mind things stand in the order of cause & effect & not in the order of a shop or even of a cabinet."

Almost twenty years later, Russell went to Concord and spent three days with Henry David Thoreau. It would not be the last time they spent together.
Thoreau showed him around town and asked Russell all of his botanical questions. He specifically sought help with plant identifications. For Russell, the trip was made special by finding the climbing fern during one of their walks. Russell had a particular life-long interest in cryptograms like ferns (plants that reproduce using spores).
As Russell's life was ending, he sent many charming letters to his younger family members. In a letter to his nephew, he wrote:

"When this reaches you spring will have commenced, and March winds... will have awakened some of the sleeping flowers of the western prairies, while we shall be still among the snow-drifts of [the] tardy departing winter. As I have not learned to fly yet I shall not be able to ramble with you after the pasque flower, or anemone, nor find the Erythronium albidum, nor the tiny spring beauty, nor detect the minute green mosses which will so soon be rising out of the ground.But I can sit by the Stewart’s Coal Burner in our sitting room and... recall the days when ... when we gathered Andromeda buds from the frozen bushes and traversed the ice-covered bay securely in the bright sunshine of the winter’s day.I often long.. for a return of those Arcadian days...As I grow older — now threescore and nearly ten — every year... interests me all the more in his [God’s] works and ways. Every little flower I meet with, ... that I never saw before, every little insect ... is a novelty...the ever-increasing discoveries of science and art, awaken my admiration, heighten my awe, and lead me to adoring trust...I will not trouble you to write to me, but I should like a spring flower which you gather; any one will be precious from you to your feeble and sick Old uncle and friend, J.L.R."

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John Lewis Russell
John Lewis Russell

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