"Driven by Nature" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Peter Raven’s remarkable life began June 13th, 1936, when he was born in Shanghai, China to American parents. A scandal in his extended family, and Japanese aggression in China, led the Raven family to return to San Francisco in the late 1930s.
As a young boy, Peter collected butterflies, insects and plants. He later sharpened his observational skills as the youngest member of the California Academy of Sciences Student Section. As a leader of Sierra Club outings, he published “Basecamp Reports” after each trip between 1950 to 1956. These reports included plant lists, and data about insects, and local ecology. His first report, at the age of 14, summarized 506 plant collections representing 337 species collected in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Raven earned an undergraduate degree in science at the University of California, Berkeley in 1957 and a Ph.D. in botany at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1960. He wrote his thesis on the Onagraceae, or Evening Primrose Family.
In 1962, the eager, well-educated botanist began a 9-year teaching stint at Stanford University where he produced a wide variety of papers on plant systematics, most of them related to his research on Onagraceae.
Then, in 1971, Raven began his tenure as Director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis. When he arrived, the Garden budget was about $850,000 and employees numbered 150, full and part-time. There was no tax support and only $5 million in the endowment. Membership at the Garden totaled 2500 and there were 150 volunteers. The herbarium consisted of just over 2,000,000 specimens and only 20% of the 79 acres of the Garden were developed. The board of trustees was considering selling Shaw Arboretum at Gray Summit to improve the fiscal condition of the Garden. Staff fieldwork was limited to only North America and Panama.
When Raven retired, in 2011, the Missouri Botanical Garden budget was $38 million and there were 500 employees. A city-county taxing district contributed $11 million to the annual budget. The endowment was close to $100 million. Membership stood at 38,000 and volunteers numbered more than 2000. By the end of his 40-year directorship, the scientific staff included more than 50 Ph.D. level research scientists and the herbarium had grown to be one of the largest in the world, containing more than 6,000,000 specimens.
The Garden's work reached around the world. One hundred employees were now working in Madagascar alone, conserving, reforesting, and conducting sustainability programs at three locations on the island.
Back in St. Louis, the Garden’s master plan was nearing completion with the grounds now housing a Japanese Garden, a Woodland Garden, a Center for Home Gardening, a Boxwood Garden, a Chinese Garden, an Ottoman Garden, the Temperate House, the Center for Science Education, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the Children’s Garden and a large Visitor Center.
During the Raven years, Garden acquisitions included the Butterfly House in St. Louis County, the EarthWays Center, and an additional 2500 acres at the Gray Summit site, now called Shaw Nature Reserve. Under Raven’s leadership, the Garden began to operate the Litzinger Road Ecology Center and restored the Climatron, the Administration Building, and Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House.
Toward the end of his time as President and Director, the research done by the Missouri Botanical Garden staff rivaled that conducted by comparable institutions worldwide. A list of the indigenous plants of Panama, begun in 1943, was completed and published in “The Flora of Panama”. A similar compilation of native plants of Nicaragua, “The Flora de Nicaragua” also was finished. A substantial database on the plants of Madagascar was put online.
Raven’s memoir includes fascinating records of his countless field trips and speaking engagements to the majority of the 195 nations in the world. Wherever he traveled he sought data about plants and encouraged sustainability practices. He conveys the beauty and complexity of nature and the tragedy of its mass extinctions in clear and understandable prose.
His drive to collect and conserve thousands of threatened plant species is the basis for the fitting title of this autobiography.
Raven weaves together his personal and professional life. He is quite candid about his irrational “neediness” and describes this personality trait as an asset for his professional life but a detriment to his family life. He is transparent about his three failed marriages and is open about the guilt he carries as a result of being a largely absent father to his four children. He discloses that his prominence and pride as a globe-trotting, world-renowned scientist was continually tempered by his turbulent relationships at home.
To his and the editor’s credit, Raven’s unfortunate life experiences are honestly depicted without denigrating his former spouses or further hurting his children. The more personal stories of this memoir reveal a vulnerable side to the science star and are quite poignant.
Raven brings his chronicle into the 21st century with a fitting epilogue that attests to the vital importance of scientific education, vigorous conservation, and steadfast activism in the face of a rapidly changing natural world. This readable, beautifully illustrated book should offer inspiration and delight to plant enthusiasts and to all environmentally mindful readers looking to take action to preserve Earth’s biodiversity.
About the author & editor:
Dr. Peter H. Raven is President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Named a Hero for the Planet by “Time” magazine, Raven has received numerous honors and awards including the National Medal of Science and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Editor, Eric Engles, a biologist and sociologist, has been editing books for three decades. He is responsible for transforming Raven’s oral history to its final written form.