Explorers 17. Margaret Fountaine

Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862–1940) traveled in Southern Africa in 1908 and 1909, collecting, studying, breeding and sketching butterflies. Between 1890 and 1940 she traveled to sixty countries on six continents. She died on a path on Mount St. Benedict in Trinidad; it is said she had a butterfly net in her hand. Whattaway to go! Doing what you love.

Sure, traveling in South Africa, Rhodesia and Mocambique in 1908 doesn’t really count as ‘exploring’ – she was taken places by train and coach and guided by locals, but she’s my first lady ‘explorer’ and . . . butterflies. Instead of blasting away at a big furry creature with a large blunderbuss, she would stand and watch a butterfly ‘flying rapidly from one plant to another on the hillside, evidently with a view to finding the proper food plant whereon to oviposite; so we stood quite still and watched her and it was not long before, having selected the sapling of a kind of Acacia (Brachstegia appendiculata) she paused, and apparently laid an egg and then flew right away out of sight. But there was her egg alright, a bright green Charaxes ovum.’

Around age 27 she suffered a humiliating love loss she never fully recovered from; At about the same time her uncle died and left her an inheritance that made her independently wealthy. Fountaine’s first annual share of her new fortune was spent on a cycling tour of France and Switzerland with her sister Rachel, using Cook’s Tourist Handbook. In Switzerland Fountaine rediscovered her childhood love of butterfly collecting.

K.A.N and M.E.F

Her first serious collection trip was to Syria and Palestine in 1901 where she hired a Syrian interpreter and guide, Khalil Neimy with whom she quickly formed a close personal bond who became her constant traveling companion. Neimy was a Greek Orthodox Syrian, born of Greek parents in Cairo in 1877; educated by American missionaries, he had lived in Wisconsin for four years. He subsequently became her constant and helpful companion – she called him ‘Bersa’ – despite it soon becoming apparent that he had a wife in Damascus. Thus started an affectionate relationship which would survive twenty seven years of turbulence, ending only with Khalil’s death aged fifty from fever in 1928.

Their first extensive trip was in 1903 to Asia Minor and they returned to Constantinople with just under 1000 butterflies. In old Natal in 1908 she mentions collecting in Durban, Eshowe (where she mentions collecting with Bersa, so he accompanied her to South Africa), PMB, Kimber’s Bush in the Dargle, Donnybrook, Jolivet, and Umzinto. In old Transvaal I only found mention of Barberton.

After the war Fountaine set off on her last extensive entomological journey with Khalil, in the Philippines. A full account was written up for The Entomologist and was referenced by conservation workers fifty years later. Fountaine, now in her mid-sixties, continued on to West and East Africa, Indo-China, Hong Kong, the Malay States, Brazil, the West Indies and finally Trinidad. Only putting the occasional note into The Entomologist, she focused on her watercolours and collecting. Khalil died in 1928 and Fountaine continued alone, surviving her lover and confiding in her diary that her only source of comfort was her caterpillars.

– twelve volumes of her diaries – started in 1878 and maintained to her death in 1940 – released exactly 100 years after her first diary entry –

Biographies – In various ways most of the bumph written about Fountaine after her diaries were opened in 1978 has unjustifiably downplayed her valuable contribution to entomology and exaggerated her supposed ‘unconventional’ love life. Her real sins, one suspects, were: – Having a partner who was not an Englishman, or at least European; and – Having the means to travel independently and make all her own decisions.

Tony Irwin, Senior Curator of Natural History, announced the existence of the diaries found inside the tin trunk she left to be opened in 1978 and became the first to promote Fountaine’s romantic life above her entomological work. Irwin described Fountaine’s Lepidoptera collection as ‘not outstanding’ – read about it here and be amazed at his misrepresentation – and declared that ‘Margaret Fountaine, the intrepid lady lepidopterist, who traveled more widely than any other entomologist before or since, was a girl in love. Her passions crippled by Victorian morals, she sought refuge in the pursuit of butterflies and to this she devoted her whole adult life.’

W. F. Cater, an assistant editor of the Sunday Times, edited the diaries into two volumes for the popular market in 1980 and 1986, was even more unfairly and unjustifiably lurid – Lepidopterists, he said, classified her as a ‘useful collector, perhaps a great one, but not a great scientist’ without stating which lepidopterists these were! He goes on: ‘She was apparently in the same category as a collector of men.’ To justify his slur, he mentions that her diaries tell us these actual refutations of his characterisation, ‘for instance, that on an entomological trip to Sicily in 1896, at the age of 34, she refused to kiss the son of a hotel keeper, left a fellow traveler pleading outside her locked door, washed her neck, ears, cheeks and eyes after the unwelcome kisses of a professor and reclined in the arms of a butterfly hunter on a hillside without yielding her honor.’ Cater’s personal preference for tales of passion and travel, apparently led him to ignore most of Fountaine’s passages concerning her life’s passion and work collecting, breeding and displaying butterflies, and her scientific papers in the prestige journal Entomologist from 1897 to 1938! Cater would never have done this to a male figure; and probably would not have done it had Fountaine’s lifelong partner not been an ‘ethnic’, a Syrian, a ‘dragoman’ – i.e. not white.

A more recent biography by the travel writer Natascha Scott-Stokes results in a similar portrayal to that offered by Cater; she feels the need to refer to Fountaine as an ‘obscure lady amateur.’ Like Cater, Scott-Stokes is writing for a popular audience and in both cases Fountaine’s entomological achievements are undermined by the need to entertain. Both marginalize Fountaine’s scientific work in favour of their own prejudice and bent; Cater in favour of her romantic ventures; Scott-Stokes in favour of her globetrotting lifestyle.

Fountaine’s contemporary Norman Riley, wrote in 1940: ‘Her great passion, however, was collecting butterflies, an interest which she first developed about 1883, and which from then onwards led her every year further and further afield in search of material for her collection.’

Fountaine had the courage of an explorer, the passion of a collector, the eye of an artist, the patience of a researcher and the precision of a scientist. Her sketch books are filled with exquisite and informative watercolors and sketches of caterpillars, all meticulously labeled. In order to capture perfect specimens of butterflies, she would collect eggs and caterpillars and raise them herself, so as to avoid damaging the fragile insects with butterfly nets. Her collection which she named the Fountaine-Neimy Collection, giving due credit to her partner, numbered 23 270 butterflies and caterpillars in the end.

The last entry of her diaries was made on July 10, 1939. She packed the journals in a black box with a note stipulating that the box not be opened until April 15, 1978, exactly 100 years after the first entry was made. A letter to posterity she left with the diaries read, ‘To the reader – maybe yet unborn – I leave this record of the wild and fearless life of one who never “grew up” and who enjoyed greatly and suffered much.’ – ME Fountaine (more here)

The best place to get a good balanced perspective of Margaret Fountaine’s fascinating and full life is ‘A Lepidopterist Remembered’ by Sophie Waring, curator of modern collections at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. I have quoted extensively from her paper here, thus revealing my prejudice in favour of giving credit where it’s due!

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Explorers 7. Wahlberg

Johan August Wahlberg (1810 – 1856) was another Swedish naturalist and explorer. He traveled in southern Africa between 1838 and 1856, especially in Natal and South West Africa, sending thousands of natural history specimens back to Sweden.

The journals of his travels are generally brief and objective (and I haven’t been able to find them yet! So I know little about him, even though his name is honoured in many species – moths, lizards, birds, plants, etc), and his portrayal of people he met is usually reliable and unprejudiced.

Wahlberg’s elephants – in Namibia? –

Wahlberg is commemorated in Wahlberg’s Eagle, Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat and the beautiful little bush squeaker frog Arthroleptis wahlbergi. That’s my pic on top of one of the little squeakers; fully grown, he’s the size of your top finger digit. This one lives in our garden in Westville.

– Wahlberg’s eagle and bat –

‘Sport’ in those days consisted of shooting as much as possible for the tally, the ‘bag.’ These pale chaps ran amuck, trying to score a century, even though cricket was only 240 years old in 1838.

His diary in Natal: 23 August – near Umgeni river: (shot) 1 Ichneumon taenianotus (a mongoose); 1 Boschbock; 1 red-buck (red duiker?); 1 birds.

‘I was so intent on the bucks that the fall of darkness took me (by) surprise. I lost the path and so entangled myself in the thickets that I sure that I should have to pass the night in the woods. I shot six alarm-shots. I was glad to hear them answered by regular salvos from the village. Flayed the boschbock and left the carcase in the wood.’

31 August – near Umkamas river: ‘Continued hunting hippopotamus; no luck. In the evening, accompanied only by one Hottentot Bastard we came sufficiently near to hippopotamus. Two bullets went whistling at the same moment, and found their mark in the head of a young sea-cow. She came to the surface several times, spouting blood high in the air. An adult now appeared; once again our shots sounded as one; it showed the whole of its body above water, dived, a strong furrow appeared in the water, moved rapidly towards the shore, and soon the whole body of the monster was visible above the surface, in form and attitude like a gigantic pig. With incredible swiftness it hurled itself once more into the stream, and rose several times in succession, each time spouting blood. Darkness fell and we were forced to return.’

1st September – ‘We looked in vain for the hippopotamus.’

2nd – ‘Saw numerous buffalo but was unable to get near them. Clouds of locusts darken the sky. We go further afield to a smaller stream.’

3rd – ‘Lying in wait for the buffalo. Hear them approaching at full gallop through the bushes. Climb an acacia. Give the first bull a bullet, which makes him fall back upon his hind-quarters. He gets to his legs again and escapes.’

Well, at least this time Africa got its revenge! Wahlberg was killed by a wounded elephant while exploring along the Thamalakane river about 10 km northwest of Maun just south of the Okavango Delta in today´s Botswana.

– Dear Museum, I have a white rhino skeleton for you. Signed Johan August –
– books based on Wahlberg’s journals and letters –
– he was the first to collect the red-headed weaver, near Thabazimbi –

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wikipedia; van riebeeck society; alchetron.com; aviation demography unit;

Gardening for Birds n Frogs n Butterflies n Goggas

Aitch learnt the joy of indigenous plants on the Bluff in 1985 when doing her cardio-vascular perfusion-ing at Wentworth hospital. Ian Whitton, friend and cardio-thoracic surgeon, indigenous gardener and nurseryman extraordinaire, piglet-producer, protea grower, pigeon-fancier, erythrina expert and all-round good friend took her under his wing. She needed it as a Capie new to KwaZulu Natal. She phoned me breathless one day to describe a new bird she had in her binocs: ‘Koos!

– Aitch with TC & Bella; She sure loved her hounds (especially Bella, hey TC!) –

She also learnt from Kenyan, indigenous guru, horticultural landscaper, author, visionary and gardener Geoff Nichols; She collected seeds and swopped them for plants for and from horticulturalist Enver Buckus at Silverglen nursery; She worked for noted colonist, author, canoeist, British apologist, acrylic painter and Last Outpost historian Geoffrey Caruth Esq Duke of Bhivane at his Geoff’s Jungle Indigenous Nursery enthusiastically selling shade plants; She joined BotSoc (now the Biodiversity Society) and got very involved, especially in the annual big plant sale, working with Sandra, Wally Menne, Jean Senogles, Dave Henry, Diane Higginson, etc; She spent fifteen years ‘botanising’ (as they called it) with Barry Porter on his and Lyn’s Hella Hella game farm. We went there at every opportunity. It became our second home. They would roam the farm spotting and photographing plants and flowers with their posteriors pointing at the heavens, occasionally digging up one for culture with Porter’s Powerful Patented Plant Pincher**, a handy device Barry had welded together to make extracting small plants easy and less destructive. Barry taught us to use Eugene Moll’s tree-ID book using leaves to ID the trees of Natal.

Our first property was 7 River Drive Westville, already mostly indigenous thanks to Mike and Yvonne Lello. On the banks of the Mkombaan River, it was paradise unfenced. We rooted out invasives and aliens and planted the right stuff as directed by Geoff Nichols. On his first visit he told me sternly, pointing ‘over there’, to ‘Get rid of that inkberry.’ You know how Geoff is. Right! Sir! A month later on his next site inspection he said ‘You haven’t got rid of that inkberry!’ Oops! True. So I undertook to do it that week.

A few days later I set to with my bow saw, sawing off all the branches and then cutting down the 100mm trunk just above the ground, Then I garlon’d that and composted the bits n pieces. Phew! Done! Finally!

A month later Geoff was back. ‘Who the hell cut down the tassleberry?!’ he bellowed. ‘And you STILL haven’t got rid of the inkberry!’ I never lived that one down. We planted five tassleberries to make up for it. They have male and female trees, so that was best anyway. I am pleased – relieved – to report they did well over the next fifteen years!

Aitch didn’t mind a bit of attention, so when our garden was chosen to be on display for Durban Open Gardens she blossom’d n preened and was in her element! She LOVED showing people around the garden and re-assuring them that it was quite safe* even if it did look a bit wild. In fact she would keep the entrance and pathway to the front door and pool very tame, civilised and trimmed so as not to scare people and put them off wild gardening. The hidden parts of the garden could go wild and host the 112 species of birds we recorded in the garden over the fifteen years we lived there. For 32 of those species we saw nests or fledglings.

7 River Drive garages from Burnside (Heather & Gordon Taylor's place)
– 7 River Drive garages from Burnside (Heather & Gordon Taylor’s place) – the exotics are mostly not ours –

We put in a bird bath outside our bedroom window and plumbed it to a high tap I could reach from my bedroom window to fine-choon as water pressure fluctuated; and left it running with a fine little spray of water for fifteen years. The birds loved it. Me too. The tap is visible against the far wall on the left; the birdbath is hidden behind Jess.

river-dr-jess-junge-gym-tap-for-birdbath.jpg
– there’s the high birdbath tap outside my bedroom window –
– the bank above the Mkombaan river –

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*In fifteen years we saw one Natal Black Snake, two Brown Water Snakes, a few Herald Snakes, a resident House Snake, regular Spotted Bush Snakes, tiny Thread Snakes, a couple of Night Adders, and that was all. None of them really dangerous.

One year we decided to make a large pond by damming a little stream that flowed though our garden into the Mkombaan. It came to be called (by Aitch) ‘Koos’ Folly.’ In my defence, Nichols was involved in the planning. We built a substantial dam wall next to the Voacanga on the bank, covered in bidim felt and strong and long-lasting, creating a deep pond about 8m X 4m in size.

scan0133
– briefly a pond –

Which the very first flood filled it up to the brim with silt. One shot. Pond now a shallow little mudflat with most of the flow passing under it underground. I learnt: Don’t mess with watercourses.

– should be easy – right? – nope! silted up –

Some murdering had to happen. There was a mango tree in the grasslands and a fiddlewood behind the house. I bow-saw’d and de-barked and felled. Then I garlon’d. That would sort them out. Well, only years later did I finally get rid of the last shoots that kept sprouting. I developed a genuine respect for their kanniedood properties! A massive syringa on the banks of the Mkombaan I just ring-barked and garlon’d. No cutting. Two years later it crashed down across the river, bank-to-bank, forming a bridge you could walk across.

10 Elston Garden

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**Barry also made us a bird feeder, which he called Barry’s Bizarre Balancing Bird Bistro. More about Barry and Lyn here.

– Kiza spoils Jessie – Barry Porter’s Bizarre Balancing Bird Bistro in the background –

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kanniedood – hard to kill