Asa Gray by Unknown


THE whole civilized world is mourning the death of Asa Gray with a depth of feeling and appreciation perhaps never accorded before to a scholar and man of science.

To the editors of this Journal the loss at the very outset of their labors is serious indeed. They lose a wise and sympathetic adviser of great experience and mature judgment to whom they could always have turned with entire freedom and in perfect confidence; and they lose a contributor whose vast stores of knowledge and graceful pen might, it was reasonable to hope, have long enriched their columns.

The career of Asa Gray is interesting from many points of view. It is the story of the life of a man born in humble circumstances, without the advantages of early education, without inherited genius—for there is no trace in his yeoman ancestry of any germ of intellectual greatness—who succeeded in gaining through native intelligence, industry and force of character, a position in the very front rank of the scientific men of his age. Among the naturalists who, since Linnæus, have devoted their lives to the description and classification of plants, four or five stand out prominently in the character and importance of their work. In this little group Asa Gray has fairly won for himself a lasting position. But he was something more than a mere systematist. He showed himself capable of drawing broad philosophical conclusions from the dry facts he collected and elaborated with such untiring industry and zeal. This power of comprehensive generalization he showed in his paper upon the “Characters of Certain New Species of Plants Collected in Japan” by Charles Wright, published nearly thirty years ago. Here he first pointed out the extraordinary similarity between the Floras of Eastern North America and Japan, and then explained the peculiar distribution of plants through the northern hemisphere by tracing their direct descent through geological eras from ancestors which flourished in the arctic regions down to the latest tertiary period. This paper was Professor Gray’s most remarkable and interesting contribution to science. It at once raised him to high rank among philosophical naturalists and drew the attention of the whole scientific world to the Cambridge botanist.

Asa Gray did not devote himself to abstract science alone; he wrote as successfully for the student as for the professional naturalist. His long list of educational works have no equals in accuracy and in beauty and compactness of expression. They have had a remarkable influence upon the study of botany in this country during the half century which has elapsed since the first of the series appeared.

Botany, moreover, did not satisfy that wonderful intellect, which hard work only stimulated but did not weary, and one of Asa Gray’s chief claims to distinction is the prominent and commanding position he took in the great intellectual and scientific struggle of modern times, in which, almost alone and single handed he bore in America the brunt of the disbelief in the Darwinian theory shared by most of the leading naturalists of the time.

But the crowning labor of Asa Gray’s life was the preparation of a descriptive work upon the plants of North America. This great undertaking occupied his attention and much of his time during the last forty years of his life. Less fortunate than his greatest botanical contemporary, George Bentham, who turned from the last page of corrected proof of his work upon the genera of plants to the bed from which he was never to rise again, Asa Gray’s great work is left unfinished. The two volumes of the “Synoptical Flora of North America” will keep his memory green, however, as long as the human race is interested in the study of plants.

But his botanical writings and his scientific fame are not the most valuable legacy which Asa Gray has left to the American people. More precious to us is the example of his life in this age of grasping materialism. It is a life that teaches how industry and unselfish devotion to learning can attain to the highest distinction and the most enduring fame. Great as were his intellectual gifts, Asa Gray was greatest in the simplicity of his character and in the beauty of his pure and stainless life.

It is with genuine regret that we read the announcement of the discontinuance of the Gardener’s Monthly. It is like reading of the death of an old friend. Ever since we have been interested in the cultivation of flowers we have looked to the Monthly for inspiration and advice, and its pages have rarely been turned without finding the assistance we stood in need of. But, fortunately, the Gardener’s Monthly, and its modest and accomplished editor, Mr. Thomas Meehan, were one and the same thing. It is Mr. Meehan’s long editorial experience, high character, great learning and varied practical knowledge, which made the Gardener’s Monthly what it was. These, we are happy to know, are not to be lost to us, as Mr. Meehan will, in a somewhat different field and with new associates, continue to delight and instruct the horticultural public.

Americans who visit Europe cannot fail to remark that in the parks and pleasure grounds of the Continent no coniferous tree is more graceful when young or more dignified at maturity than our White Pine. The notes of Dr. Mayr, of the Bavarian Forest Academy, in another column, testify that it holds a position of equal importance as a forest tree for economic planting. It thrives from Northern Germany to Lombardy, corresponding with a range of climate in this country from New England to Northern Georgia. It needs bright sunshine, however, and perhaps it is for lack of this that so few good specimens are seen in England. It was among the first of our trees to be introduced there, but it has been universally pronounced an indifferent grower.