Book Review: Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Coastal Plain


Brian R. Keener

Additional Authors:



Book Review,

For the enthusiasts of natural history and general southern history as well as professionals in those fields, Shores has produced a must-read in the title
above. Through her work, the author has provided a window into the life and career of Roland M. Harper. In summary of his accomplishments, the author suggested that in addition to the several plant species named by Harper, possibly his greatest
achievements was his early advocacy of wetland preservation and the necessary role of fire to maintain some ecosystems, most notably longleaf pine communities. Both of these ideas were very unpopular or unheard of when Harper promoted them, thus making him a ‘‘pioneer.’’

From reading the book, it is evident that author has been exceedingly thorough in tracing and incorporating every applicable scrap of supporting and background material to tell the man’s story like never before. It was convenient for the author that Harper was diligent in keeping a diary and saved copious amounts of correspondence to and from colleagues, friends, and family members all of which has been gleaned for information. Most of this information is housed at the Hoole Special
Collections Library on the campus of The University of Alabama.

While the book as expected delves into Harper’s professional endeavors and relationships with other colleagues, the author also explores deeply personal
aspects of his life in family background and relations, personal beliefs, potential mental flaws, and romance. Shores clearly illustrates that Harper’s odd idiosyncrasies and sometimes ‘‘compulsive’’ behavior were both of help and of detriment to his career. While he was a very successful botanist with a lasting legacy, it seems that his strange character states were ultimately encumbrances
to being much more than what was actually accomplished, something his own mother
recognized in a letter referenced by the author.

A complaint one might find with the book is the author’s liberty to inject nonfactual instances with a ‘‘perhaps’’ here and a ‘‘maybe’’ there followed by speculations that are not supported in the reference material. This is exceptionally noticeable in a few instances when the author speculates as to what individuals ‘‘may’’ have been thinking when in the presence of certain stimuli. While these liberties
make the book more colorful than if without, a biography solely based on the reference material is more desirable. However, this in no way diminishes
an excellent piece of work that is mostly taken from Harpers notes, letters, and diaries.

As a botanist, native Alabamian, and alumnus of The University of Alabama, I had become well acquainted with the legacy of Harper by the constant reminders in the form of citations, specimens, stories from people who knew him, and other written accounts. From those experiences, it was clear that Harper was a large figure in botany and plant ecology of the southeast but also somewhat of a mystery. Shores brings it all together.