A Plant-Hunter in Afghanistan, The Story of an Expedition by Christopher Grey-Wilson. Redgrave, Suffolk: The Charlotte-Louise Press, 2019. 272 pp.
Would you believe me if I said that two British scientists from Kew were in Afghanistan and southern Iran for seven months, wandering freely in their Land Rover and chatting with villagers, nomadic shepherds and border guards? Yes, Christopher Grey-Wilson and Tom Hewer spent six weeks in Iran and then several months in Afghanistan on an expedition to collect plant material. This trip was in 1971, prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Shah in Iran, the U.S. troubles with both countries, and the rise of the Taliban.
Grey-Wilson tells all in his 2019 book, “A Plant-Hunter in Afghanistan, The Story of an Expedition.” It is a testament to the incredible detail in his expedition journals that he was able to write this book almost fifty years after the trip took place. Nothing is lost. He includes the choking dust and bone-jarring roads, the disappointment of finding promising slopes denuded of plants by flocks of goats and sheep, the Land Rover mishaps, the difficulties of camping amidst a dust storm, the bad hotel rooms, and the treacherous roads. Of course, he describes the plants and their environs, like the gorge with five species of Dionysia in the first seven hundred feet, acres covered with Primula capitellata, and many alpine treasures. The expedition discovered eighteen new species in total, though their primary goal was to extend Kew’s knowledge of plants already known to be in that region.
The book is rich in color photographs, which Grey-Wilson notes were taken using an SLR Pentax camera on Kodachrome II film. The accurate colors and the sharpness of the images add a great deal to the narrative of the trip and to the plant descriptions. The author mentions the tedium of the nightly chore of writing up their field notes, labelling their specimens, and cross referencing them to the field notes and photographs. This after a long day of travel, often at high altitudes. Their base of operations was the British embassy in Kabul, from which they periodically shipped their boxes of specimens back to Kew.
Grey-Wilson is a fine writer, and the book is as much a travelogue as a review of the local flora. He describes the topography as they travel through it, and the local people that they meet. The bazaars are filled with saddles, melons, vegetables, salt, jewelry, sheepskins, Kashmir blankets and spices. The huts, the houses, the yurts and the mosques all come alive. Here is his description of the July heat in Kabul: “By midday the inhabitants, normally so lively and noisy, sun-drunk and wearied crept away to hide and sleep until evening brought new breath. The fruit sellers ceased calling their wares and curled up beneath their barrow, careless of their merchandise, while the street beggars limped wearily away on aching feet to some remembered corner. The traffic stilled to a low hornless hum.”
He also provides historical detail, such as what happened in the 5th century AD and when it was that Alexander the Great passed by. He quotes from the travel notes of Marco Polo, who traveled there in the 13th century. He shares poignant pictures of the Large Buddha at Bamian, which stood 180’ tall and was carved in the year 554 AD. It was destroyed by the Taliban in March, 2001.
On their trip to the Wakhan region, the expedition traveled by horseback and then by yak. Grey-Wilson notes the difficulties of collecting plants while on a difficult Afghan horse. He says he often was in a spot on the trail where there was no room to dismount or the horse simply would not stop or, once off the horse, there was nowhere to tether the horse so it bolted down the mountain. On one occasion, having gotten his horse to stop in front of a particularly interesting plant, “with a single quick movement, the horse demolished the plant with a contented chew.”
I recommend this book to both alpine enthusiasts and lovers of good travel writing. Grey-Wilson brings the Afghan region to life. His book also serves as a time capsule, a sad reminder of all that has been lost in the decades since the expedition.
Deborah Banks maintains a large garden in the hills above Oneonta, NY, and recently retired from her day job.