Keywords: history of science, botany, Philippines, colonial, textiles
Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you’re tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates. Today I'm joined by Kat Gutierrez from the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies. Welcome to the show, Kat.
Kat Gutierrez: Hi, good morning.
Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, I hear that you study the history of science, and we typically talk about science, so I thought it would be really interesting to explore science from a historical perspective.
Gutierrez: Yes, I do I look at the history of Philippine botany.
Saintsing: You study like how people understand this science?
Gutierrez: Yeah, I think that's a really easy and good way of putting it. I look at botany, specifically at the end of the Spanish colonial period. That's around the late 19th century up through the US colonial period, which is about through the mid 20th century. And so, as we probably know, the Philippines was colonized by Spain and the United States for quite a lot long time, and I'm interested in how colonial scientists especially understood plant life.
Saintsing: You're interested, in some capacity, in like how colonial people in particular were studying these sciences? Like as colonists? Was that coloring how they were explaining or understanding the flora of the area?
Gutierrez: Absolutely, and I think actually that starts to speak to about two levels of the project that I'm currently working on for my dissertation. The first is how colonial scientists arrived in the Philippines and what they made sense of when they were coming across new and obscure plant life that they had never seen before either in North America or in Europe. But, I'm also looking at how the varied actors were contributing to the science at the time. So, these weren't just colonial botanists. These were illustrators. These were collectors. These were field hands. Sometimes they were spouses. And so, by expanding the breadth of the people that we understand to be contributors to the science at the time, I think we have a fuller narrative of how people made sense of the Philippine plant world.
Saintsing: Yeah, that's so interesting. You know, we, I guess, always just think about the scientists who do things but there's always these people around. That's really interesting about the spouses. So, I guess scientists often brought their spouses along, and these people were also just collecting things?
Gutierrez: Yeah, you know that's actually been one of the most exciting elements of my research so far. So, I was doing some research in Madrid one of the major archives that houses a lot of the institutional documents for Spanish botanists of the late 19th century, and I would find these records of widows who usually wrote to the state requesting pensions for their deceased husbands, and a lot of these husbands were collectors or land surveyors that were sent to the Philippines. Some of these women joined their husbands, and what we have record of is not only – you know, there's travel documents from Spain to the colony. Some of them painted. We actually have some surviving illustrations of plant life. Some of them establish life in the Philippines, and so, there are records of children who were born in the Philippines because these spouses had joined their partners, essentially in the field. And, I think that's been part of the exciting work because, even if you go into the American period, we have women who were the most avid collectors for Manila during the early 20th centuries, some collecting over 20,000 plant species for herbarium collections.
Saintsing: So, it was mostly men, I guess, who were the scientists, and the spouses were, tended to be their wives. Was it ever the other way around?
Gutierrez: Yeah, I would say that that tends to be what the record shows. Right. So, we see a lot of men who traveled with their wives. I would say that one of the more exciting case studies has been this collector named Mary Clemens. I'm not sure if you're familiar with her. She's from the United States, and she trained in botany in the US in the late 19th century, and she and her husband traveled to the Philippines together. He was an Episcopalian pastor for the US military, and they had this amazing and illustrious career in Philippine plant collecting that not only included the Philippines but other countries. And, what we now know is that he died in Southeast Asia, and, after he passed away, she still continued the work. And again, so it's Mary Clemens really who's known more for that collecting effort.
Gutierrez: And, I think she spent her final days in Australia still continuing to collect, and she was the one who I was referring to who has at least been estimated to have contributed 20,000 plant specimens to herbaria worldwide.
Saintsing: Wow. Wait. So, he was a pastor?
Saintsing: Interesting. And, he was also really interested in the botany. How much does religion and science intersect in colonial collections?
Gutierrez: I think, through their case study, quite a bit. So, her husband, who was the pastor, actually assisted her in mounting and shipping materials. So, Mary was the one who's kind of going out in the field initiating the collections, identifying them in the field. He helped her sort of as a field hand, and if you look at the correspondence – and I've only touched some of it so far – religion is incredibly important to how both of them are seeing the world and making sense of plant life and what I think you know they would really term as God's creation. And, some biographers have noted that Mary especially had quite a love and an appreciation for a lot of the field hands that who had supported her in her work, and so, if you read the letters, there's quite an infusion of both spirituality, connection with the environment, and then of course connection with other people who are contributing to their collecting and worldwide.
Saintsing: That's really cool. So, you're studying a lot about how colonial scientists analyzed the plants when they first got there, but obviously there were people there who had been looking at the plants for a long time before. How much did pre-colonial science factor into what the colonial scientists were understanding about the Philippine environment?
Gutierrez: I would say quite a bit. I would say quite a bit, but it sort of depends on what angle that you're looking at. So far in Philippine history and history of science in the Philippines we know that medical botany, for instance in Materia medica were very well studied both by the United States and by Spain. This also sort of branched out into economic plans, right? Plans that had particular utility in the home or in fieldwork. But, what I'm interested in is not only that but a couple of things. The first is knowledge of plants that's being communicated in Tagalog which is one of the native languages in the Philippines. And so, currently we've sort of studied the history of science through English language, Spanish language sources. I'm interested in what's being communicated in what I think is really the colloquial language of Manila at the time. And, we have discovered, you know, newspaper articles that talk about plant life, you know, from gardening to the importance of a rose and sort of how its traveled from its provenance into the Philippines. And the second for me, and this is sort of been a side project that I've worked on with historian Pamela Smith at Columbia, is textiles. So, textiles at the turn of the century, we have to understand, were almost always built from plants, right? So, the technologies of textile production, certainly the colors that produced, that were produced from flora, and the fibers all came from local plant material. I actually think that this source material has been untapped typically in studies of botany in the Philippines for a lot of intellectual reasons, you know. I think that there's a particular idea of what textiles and weaving is and that's usually subsumed in anthropology and material culture, but if we start to take a step back and look at it for its science I think we start to learn a little bit more about local understandings of plant life that we hadn't before.
Saintsing: Interesting. So, what, what's the difference between studying textiles as a science versus studying it in anthropological context in terms of your work?
Gutierrez: Mm-hmm. I would also – you know, I'll definitely have to credit pamela for a lot of this sort of new thinking about textiles and craft. A few things: for instance, if we were to look at the kinetics right of how one produces a textile, I would say that we understand that it's a very embodied process, right? So, if you've ever sort of seen textile production, whether it's for the backstrap loom that goes around person who's producing cloth or at a foot loom for someone sort of arched over this contraption that's really producing threads that sort of interlock, we understand that this is a very embodied process that's working with natural materials to kind of rebuild something of utility, something of cultural import for me. I'm really interested of course in the plant life that goes into it, and so, I'm interested in how people are cultivating the plant material, transforming the plant material into dye and then using that on natural fibers that they're also creating. And so, for me that's also kind of a mirror way of understanding classification and how a dyer or a weaver might view plant life based on those classifications that might look different from you or me trained in perhaps plant systematics, okay, so what sorts of other classifications are people using and I guess this context.
Gutierrez: Yeah, well, so I participated luckily in a great field study and research project in the northern Philippines in 2018, and we were being actually led by an anthropologist, and we were able to integrate with a community in the northern province known as Umbra. And what I discovered when I was working with some of the weavers was how they classified bamboos. So, there are species of bamboo all throughout the northern Philippines and, depending on the circumference, its density, and its length or how it was cut, particular tools could be constructed from the bamboo. The same thing was for particular types of wood, so they would call certain fabrics the names of the woods that they were using because that wood would help produce a particular pattern different from the wood of a different tree for instance. And, the same would be applied to woods used for looms, right? So, they were able to differentiate between the mahogany-built looms versus the ones with other more local trees, and I found that very fascinating. And, I found that weavers had an incredible knowledge of the plant life around them, and not only based on sort of how they would tactically construct looms and the textiles themselves, but again they would be able to understand how growing patterns would eventually affect what they could create.
Saintsing: Yeah. That's so interesting.
Saintsing: I always, I'm always like so interested looking back in the history of science, right, at both how far we've come and like how much new knowledge we've acquired so quickly lately, but also when you really look back on it, how much people really knew back in the day before like even modern science started coming up. And, I guess that just speaks to, that's just a testament to human ingenuity that we were able to rapidly accumulate knowledge just without necessarily like sophisticated modern tools but just you know by observing the differences between materials.
Gutierrez: Absolutely, and you know I think – well I haven't approached a definitive answer around this, but – I think by observing modern textile weaving and dyeing I'm able to understand a little bit more about what's happening at the turn-of-the-century and why for instance disciplinary constraints sort of lump textile weaving and dyeing into the realms of ethnology or anthropology, and they never really find their way into science, right? They're kind of there maybe for agricultural purposes or for economic development in terms of local industry, but we don't really understand, or there is very little record in the colonial archives about why this could be considered something of a technological advancement or something that really reflects scientific engagement with plant life, and I think that's good, you know? I think it's key because it's starting to really show me a little bit more of the intellectual constraints that we, even we might have, right, when comes to something like craft.
Saintsing: Just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. I'm speaking with Kat Gutierrez from the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, and we were talking about her research on the history of botany in the Philippines. Okay so, as a historian you mostly look at written sources, right? Does it pretty much start and stop with you at the written word in terms of what you study?
Gutierrez: I hope not. How limiting the history will be, you know, if I don’t actually include other sources that aren't necessarily constrained by text. And so, I was mentioning that you know I look at Tagalog-written sources and your Spanish and English sources as well, but there is a trove of visual material on Philippine botany at the turn of the century that I can't not look at because these give insight into a lot of the local illustrators who were hired by colonial botanists to draw plant life. And so, there have been historians, Daniela Bleichmar is one of them who's looked at how, you know, visual sources, visual material could travel from the colony to other colonies, from the colony back to the metropole, from the metropole to other centers and sites of botanical study. And, without these visual sources I actually think that not a lot of Philippine material would have really been known of and so it gives us a little bit more credit in my reading to those illustrators who were very much so advancing Philippine botany in ways that perhaps wasn't as acknowledged at the end of the 19th century or in the early 20th century, but nowadays, when I think about how if I turn to a book on Philippine plans I'm probably looking for pictures first, right? A lot of us are and I think, you know, to not look at that would be a great mistake.
Saintsing: I guess I was thinking of illustrations as part of a, you know, text, right? That you would include illustrations with written words, and so, that would be part of some overall document that you would have though the illustrations and the text, right?
Gutierrez: For most. For most. At the same time there are a lot of illustrations that are sort of loose-leaf in people's archives that possibly went into final productions possibly or not. You know, they could have been practice sketches and I actually think these practice sketches are also important to look at because they kind of give to the process of how these illustrators, are thinking about, you know, plants that they're studying. And so, one particular illustrator that I look at, he has, you know, leaves and leaves of sketches, and if you compare those to the final form to what eventually gets published by him and various Spanish botanists, there's a great difference and I think that's gonna require a lot more intensive analysis because it might give me a better sense of again, like I said, how the process is working for them at this time.
Saintsing: Oh, that's really cool to think about. You can actually see like editor notes on his illustrations or something like that?
Gutierrez: It's pretty great. I think there's some notes where you can see he drew something and then it'll say underneath like, actually I don't know what this is. This can't really be identified. This is sort of a scrap, right? Or, you know, what I've probably observed more frequently are, you know, plants that then get changed in angle perhaps to ease viewing or understanding of that plant material, whether it's, you know, kind of in its growth process. And so, that's been really just exciting to see as well because I think that's also required, that requires a certain amount of artistic skill yeah that is reflective of what's happening in Manila especially at the end of the 19th century.
Saintsing: Is there a lot of difference between artistic skill in these drawings? Can you see like, oh this guy is pretty good, and this guy is not so bad, not so good? Or is everybody pretty good because it's what they're –
Gutierrez: What can I say about that? What we do know is that at the end of the 19th century there was a primary arts school that had been established by the Spanish, and most of the well decorated artists were coming out of the school. And so, stylistically there is a similarity across all of them. One artist in particular – and he's the one I look at – his name is Regino Garcia. He becomes the lead illustrator for many publications, but you can sort of see that, among his peer group, they all kind of approach light and shadow and plants in a similar way. The more exciting ones for me though are, like I said, the ones that are produced by spouses, and I'm not too sure yet where their training was. My guess is in the peninsula, and their approach is again slightly different, right?
Saintsing: Do you find that the different artists always focus on different parts of plants, or is there, is everyone kind of understanding the important parts of the plant in the same way?
Gutierrez: Mm-hmm. I think that's a really good question because that speaks to what we're valuing, right? At the time in terms of what structures of the plant are most important to communicate not only to local audiences but certainly to an international audience I would say it's all about the same, and we're seeing kind of a lot of the same things. So, seeds, right? Leaves, leaf structures, the flower, the fruit, possibly stems. And, for the more kind of illustrious publications, we'll see these in a kind of a very organized manner, right? I'm thinking back to like the Garcia laminates that, you know, label each particular part of a specimen. It's a meticulous detail. Again, these are very different from the sketches that are much more rough, but this is pretty consistent across the Spanish publications. By the time we hit the US colonial period, things get a little bit different. It becomes a little bit more text heavy so far in my reading and the emphasis on illustration isn't quite as intense. However, what we do have, see, are more photographs in the archive, and so, these photographs of trees especially become part and parcel of how the United States is communicating the richness of Philippine plant life.
Saintsing: It's interesting. When was – so, when was the transition between Spanish and US colonial power?
Gutierrez: In the Philippines, 1898.
Saintsing: Okay, and so, the Spanish just – well, photography was around during Spanish colonial rule, right?
Gutierrez: It was.
Saintsing: It just wasn't used as much?
Gutierrez: I would say not. Yeah. It's been something that I've really been searching for pretty aggressively, and even with you know a lot of the newspaper publications, there's real reliance on lithographs, sketches, but I have yet to find – and someone please contact me if you do find this – any Spanish era photographs of plant life. A lot of it is hand-based.
Saintsing: Do you know at the same time as Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines were there botanical photographs taken elsewhere in the world?
Gutierrez: That's a great question. In the Philippines?
Saintsing: Oh, just in general. Like were people taking pictures of plant life at the time, or was that sort of a development that occurred toward closer to the turn of the century?
Gutierrez: You know, I haven't noticed anything from any other archive that sort of looked at it in the same way. Something's happening at the beginning of the 20th century that sort of points to a bigger reliance on photographic technology, and I think that's a really good question because it's something that I should be looking into a little bit more especially if I'm thinking about the standards of international botany and how those might be changing at the turn of the century.
Saintsing: There was no color. So, people are coloring in on top of the photographs?
Gutierrez: Yes, okay so some of the photographs that are coming out of the United States at the time definitely look they're being colored by hand. The ones that I've come across specifically from the New York Botanical Garden and their rich archives on the Philippines have been black and white prints.
Saintsing: Okay, so I'm really interested to know how you came to want to study the history of botany in the Philippines.
Gutierrez: That’s a great question, Andrew. I only laugh, you know, not because of, you know, anything kind of silly about the story, but it really does feel like it's been a lifelong process, you know? I can't tell you that any kind of step has ever been away from this particular trajectory. I actually think that it's made plenty of sense in my life, and so, I used to work in public health, and so, I come out of Los Angeles. I was born and raised, and I was working in public health for a very long time. And, I first got started in a community that's in a community clinic that serves Southeast Asian immigrants, and so, I came to Berkeley as an undergrad, and I was interested in studying public health and Southeast Asian Studies.
Saintsing: So, you were working in public health before you were an undergrad?
Gutierrez: I did, yes. I started in high school, and Berkeley seemed like the best place to combine two fields that I really loved, and as soon as I graduated, I aggressively pursued a career in public health. I was working in adolescent health for some time, but I always knew that I loved Southeast Asian Studies. I had always had an affinity for the region, and I really think a lot of it was because I was working with immigrant populations at such a young age, and at some point, you know, a career in public health I wanted to approach a lot of the problems that I was observing through historical lens, and I wanted to develop a project on the history of public health in the Philippines during the US colonial period. And so, it made sense for me to reapply to the institution that, you know, had really raised that level of curiosity, so I came back to the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies to see. From there it was in my first semester of my program that I took a class with Laura Nader, and she's in anthropology, and she encouraged me to look at medicinal plants. And, in the Philippines medicinal plants play a very big role in public health. In the Philippines oftentimes medicinal plants are the most affordable and accessible form of palliative care that people can access, and you know, I started uncovering more information about medicinal plant research and it brought me to my dad.
Gutierrez: And so, my dad was – is a botanist on Philippine plants. he's a specialist of the Dipterocarpaceae. Now, what we know is the Philippine mahogany, but in the 1970s and 80s he published on the medica. And so, the seminar paper that I was writing for Laura's class turned into a bit of a study of what my dad was doing in the 1970s during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. And, it was only through all of that kind of intensive research into his work, old newspaper clippings, oral history with him that I realized that there was this lengthier more vibrant history to botany in the Philippines that I wanted to track and that hadn't been written, and it pushed me kind of into the colonial period to understand sort of the intellectual beginnings of modern botany as we know it in the Philippines and how its practiced, and so, in many ways I actually think this project has been a life in the making. Not only for mine, but for my dad as well.
Saintsing: So, have you uh been working closely with your dad?
Gutierrez: I have, and I only laugh because I'm – gosh, we've had such a colorful time. So, my father moved back to the Philippines at the end of 2014. He also is a PhD holder. He wrote his dissertation on the Philippine Dipterocarpaceae and he decided at the ripe age of 83, 82 to go back to the Philippines to publish his dissertation.
Saintsing: Wait, so he didn't get his PhD in the Philippines?
Gutierrez: So, he got his PhD in the Philippines, but he left because of the dictatorship, or in part because of the dictatorship. And so, he left the project behind or the unpublished manuscript of his dissertation there, and he was inspired to clean it up and to push it out and publish, and so, I think in part we're both inspiring one another as we finish our projects. And so, when I went to the Philippines in 2017-2018 to conduct my archival research he was with me for 90% of it.
Gutierrez: I remember giving a conference presentation on the island of Samar in the central Philippines. It was a history conference, and my dad joined me for the presentation, and I said something like, you know, this is a word to all of you young history students. Please, you know, bring your parent with you for all of your research. It is both beautiful and exhausting, and, you know, if I think back and I'm sort of just even ruffling through the memories of what we've had together, I really wouldn't change it or exchange any of it you know for that time, and a lot of it was taxing. you know? I'm, I was the sole caregiver for an aging parent. At the same time, there are, you know, intellectual insights that he's provided me that I know I wouldn't have gotten without his presence in the field,
Saintsing: Right. That's really – he, he's turning 86 this year in August, and he was out in the field?
Gutierrez: Oh, he joined me for that textile research. That was in the North. He came to every conference presentation that I had, both with Philippine systematists and Philippine historians. I think there was only one time where we were walking through a botanical garden on the South in the province of Laguna in the Philippines where I think maybe like 500 feet in, he just said, you know what child I'm just gonna stay here. I just – like pulls out a cigar, bit of a character, you know? I'm thankful. I'm thankful that he's ambulatory. I'm thankful that he's, you know, just got all the faculties in place to still have all of this curiosity about the world, and I think that really serves as an inspiration not only for me in life but how I approach this work. You know, to see a man who's carried such passion and to have left it behind for so long and pick it back up again once more shows me that, you know, the dissertation ain't no big thing. It's soup.
Saintsing: It's really cool that you get to spend so much time like on-site, right where you're studying. Is that common mostly for South and Southeast Asian Studies departments that you like actually go out into the field and get to collect written sources from wherever, whatever country you're studying?
Gutierrez: Absolutely, I definitely can speak for our department, South and Southeast Asian Studies, where we're encouraged. You know, it's actually required that we go to the country that we're studying or the field sites that we're studying. I have a colleague who studies old reliquaries from Indonesia, and she would spend weeks at archaeological digs, you know, across Indonesia. I personally commit to doing, you know, field studies and collecting plants and learning how to collect herbarium-grade specimens because I think it inspires a different approach to the work. And so, if I am also you know sweating beads, you know, to find a particular material and, you know, getting rashes from maybe stepping into a thorny bush, I'm recognizing not only kind of the manual labor that's going into what was maybe happening at the turn-of-the-century, but also appreciating kind of the sensorial that comes along with them. I think there's a lot to be gained even as we write these narratives of the past from participating in what could have been you know these collectors or these illustrators actions. Then it's certainly, I would say, a taste for, you know, textile. I participated in a field school where we actually did it ourselves, and we were trained by master weavers and dyers. Once again because I think we were able to gain a different kind of insight into the work.
Saintsing: What's the process like, trying to track down documents? I mean, you know, are you, do you just like know kind of where to go? Or, do you actually have to, I don't know, like think about where this missing document might be, you know?
Gutierrez: Right. Oh, it's just like reminded me of just how long that process really takes. I mean you're really just hunting, you know? You're really looking for things, and that's I think my process has been like prior to leaving for Manila and Madrid, which are my main research sites for the last two years. I had conducted some preliminary research to know that, okay well, maybe in this library in Manila and maybe in this library in Madrid there are documents that are going to be pertinent to what I need to find. And, those are very important for, you know, applying for the funding to get me to these places to begin with, but once in place, you know, and I've been told this by my late adviser, Jeffrey Hadler. He just said you have to be really flexible because you'll be surprised by what you end up wanting to find, what, what, what pulls you, you know, and what you discover actually. Maybe it wasn't there to begin with, and so, first and foremost – and I still carry that advice with me today – is just you recognize the flexibility because, I think, if you come in with a plan and you only stick to the plan, you become constrained by it and what you discover. Even in archival research the data can be in various places and places that you wouldn't suspect to begin with.
Saintsing: Well it looks like we're running out of time on this interview. Typically at the end of the interview we have a minute for the guests to make any other larger point they'd like to make about their field or social issues, so if you'd like to take a minute to address the audience on any particular issue of relevance…
Gutierrez: Gosh, you know, I guess, I guess the first thing that's coming to mind, and as I'm thinking about my dad or thinking about my research when I was in the Philippines, I could see that no history is too small, and so, when I always in the Philippines I would really encourage scientists to keep their archives. And so, Manila in particular has seen a lot of war and destruction, and voluminous archives were destroyed pretty much from the end of the 19th century up through World War II. It's been really a work of not only repatriating material but rebuilding archives that were lost. And so, when I see scientists now I say, please just keep your letters, keep, keep whatever messages you have, keep your books, keep your libraries. Give them away because you never know, you know, what interested and curious soul might come around and want to write that story. We have, you know, troves of information on the history of science coming out of Europe and North America. We're only now building I think better histories of science in the, you know, former colonies in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. And so, part of the work, I think, now I've been talking to you, Andrew, about sort of encouraging people to remember that those stories, you know, the very human element behind STEM. You have a very human element behind research. It can make for one hell of a history.
Saintsing: It's a great message. Yeah. Thanks so much for being on the show, Kat. I've been speaking today with Kat Gutierrez from the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies. She's been talking about the history of botany in the Philippines and her path to her current PhD program. Again, thanks so much.
Gutierrez: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.