The Planthunter Book: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Dirty Laundry

I’m not much into rules. I usually like bending, stretching, and elbowing my way around them. But on special occasions I make and even follow them. Photographer Daniel Shipp and I made rules about publishing years ago: Only make a book if it points to meaning and nurtures understanding. Only make a book if it’s entirely original, deeply considered and very beautiful. It took us a long time, but we did it. We followed our rules and now there’s a copy of The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants next to me on my desk. I’m still in shock.

In an attempt to share a little more of the process and feeling behind the book (and because airing dirty laundry is always cathartic), Daniel and I interviewed each other. I cried, and so did he (more discretely than me). I found out a few things about him, and he found out nothing new about me (I’m an open book, apparently). Read on for more about the book and its making, and how we survived the process (it was touch-and-go).

Firstly, an overview: The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants is a culmination of the five years we’ve been pondering questions of plants, people and connection via The Planthunter. It’s a celebration of the extraordinary and ordinary ways people around the world find truth, beauty, purpose and connection through the act of gardening. It’s a reflection of our complimentary creative vision, shared aesthetic sensibility, and commitment to truthful storytelling. It’s a bunch of questions and not many answers. Finally, and simply, it’s a song of deep love and reverence for this world, our Mother Earth.

Now, to the interview:

Daniel: You describe yourself to me as an enigma (which is rubbish because a drinking glass has less transparency) – what is something that people (maybe even me) would be surprised to know about you?

George: Yes, I am no enigma. I think it’d be fun to be one, for a while, but clearly I don’t have it in me to be mysterious. From a distance, I think I could get away with it for a while, but spending more than three minutes with me would dispel the myth.

I’m not sure I could surprise you with any revelations about me. I talk a lot to my dog. No surprise. I have reclusive tendencies. No surprise. I kill a lot of plants. No surprise. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to live well, live truthfully and in open dialogue with the non-human world. No surprise. I am shy. No surprise to you, but maybe to others. I just grew radishes and don’t really like eating them. Is that a surprise?

Daniel: I am surprised that you don’t like radishes, but I was hoping for something a little racier.

George: Sorry to disappoint you. Something that regularly surprises me about you is this: Youre a highly organised, meticulous photographer who is happiest in the studio in tightly controlled environments. Yet, youve continued to work with me doing loose, un-planned, often strange, always wild work for the years we’ve been producing stories for the Planthunter website and, now, the book. Why?! Is there a relationship between our shared work and your studio work?  

Daniel: Well, you like the images that at one point I may not have shown anyone because I would get the “you’re weird” looks from people.

There’s an aesthetic and a sense of beauty in the human-ness of things that happens when we go on safari together and I really enjoy exploring that approach to storytelling.”

Of course it has affected my studio work – my Botanical Inquiry series shot in the studio evolved directly from my association with you.

Daniel: Speaking of personal development, in either a grand or a minute sense, how has the process of making this book changed you? Do you think you’ll ever be someone that packs a phone charger? (asking for a friend). 

George: Asking for a friend? Really Shipp?! I can see through you, too. The problem is that travelling with you makes me lazy. I know you have all the equipment (all labelled and packed neatly into your special electronics bag). I also know that inwardly my lax approach to such things drives you a little crazy. 

To answer the rest of your question, making the book has galvanised what is important to me, and helped refine my ideas about the relationship between gardening, nature and the human spirit. I’ve long had an inkling of the importance and value of gardening as an act, and exploring this idea was the premise of the book. What I’ve realised as a result of our garden book making adventures can be distilled into two words: Care and action.

You cannot be a gardener and not care, you cannot be a gardener and not act. Both are cultivated in the earth, and in the self. Caring action is the true work of the gardener.”

When framed in this way, gardening is simply acting with care on behalf of the natural world. Anything, anywhere, can be gardened. It is the framework of caring action that makes gardening an important, powerful and positive way of engaging with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Making the book has given me the language and confidence to articulate this in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get better at packing phone chargers. I do, however, now know that regardless of our different packing priorities, we’re not bad travelling companions. What a relief.

George: However, Im not sure you feel the same way about our travelling compatibility… Was our trip to the USA really like an episode of Survivor, and, as a keen green thumb, but not a gardening weirdo like me, whats your take-away from making the book?

Daniel: Yes, it was a mental challenge. I’m fine to work hard for weeks on end but I need to drive away from work at the end of the day and not talk to anyone except my husband. Our safaris were the sort of travel you would normally only do with a partner/kids.

Our efforts felt well spent. I remember after your interview with Topher Delaney, in particular, I felt like I was at the service of something really worthy that was so much bigger than you or I.”

Also, on a practical note, after editing down thousands of photos from one story into three to five images for a book I began to think more about how to shoot frames that can tell multiple stories.

Berkley based florist and gardener Max Gill

Daniel: We met so many incredible people making this book. How have our intense 3 hour+ interview/photo shoots affected you? (I think I cried behind a bush 1-3 times)

George: I fell in love with every single person in the book. I just did. That’s why they’re there. I think you did too, but are less obvious with your emotions than me. Perhaps you’re the enigma here?

Inspired, honoured, grateful and hopeful. These are the words that spring to mind when I think about the people in the book, the time we spent with them, and how I felt after each interaction. I still feel that way.”

George: Can you please tell me about the crying behind the bush? You did a good job of keeping that from me!

Daniel: I rarely express vulnerability or excitement. I was quietly crying when we were shooting the portrait of Sue and Peter Miles because I was so touched by them. Bev McConnell also made me cry and that’s when I had to I pull myself together behind a New Zealand native shrub. It’s the warm and open hearts that get me – and I find that many of the plant people we meet are like this.

Daniel: Please answer this question with the first thing that comes to mind: What’s your most vivid memory about making the book and why did you think it’s the first thing that came to mind?

George: There’s no one clear picture (maybe this says something about the state of my mind?). I have visions of flying down over Gisborne, NZ, on the way to Orongo Station with Thomas Woltz. I see Sue and Peter Miles sitting on the veranda in Sydney and feel my heart crack open again on feeling the depth of love between mother and son. I see us driving back from a rather eventful dinner and shoot at Cevan Forristt’s home in San Jose. And then I see the boat shed on the river, where the words began forming themselves. It’s one big heartfelt jumble.

George: What about you? Whats your most vivid memory of making the book, and why?

Daniel: Cevan Forristt’s, because I experienced the full spectrum of emotion on the afternoon that we stepped through the looking glass in San Jose. Trying to document Cevan’s other-worldly environment (and getting him to sit still enough for a portrait) whilst the light was disappearing and the dinner party guests were arriving was terrifying until I relinquished control and went with it. It became a wonderful, particularly Californian experience, and I’ll never forget it.

Daniel: If you were to hand ‘Truth, Beauty, and Chaos’ to a 10yr old Georgina Reid who lives on the farm in Orange and say “this is in your future” how would you both react?

You know what, Shipp? 10-year-old me would be so impressed. I’d think 38-year-old me was wonderful.

When I realised this, I burst into tears and cried for a good while. I cried because as an adult I spend so much time and energy being hard on myself. Thinking I can do better, be better. Never quite letting myself feel that I’m enough. Yet, 10-year-old me reckons I’m all right. The realisation of the simple truth of my younger self’s response hit me in the heart. It’s something worth reminding myself of.

So, the shy, skinny little farm girl who’d just finished her first publishing venture – a book simply titled called Fungi (a self-initiated holiday project on the wonders of the fungal kingdom consisting of seven pages cut from an exercise book and tied together with kitchen string) – would have been very impressed, and excited about her future. The 38-year-old me would show her the book and tell her of some of the stories and adventures that make up its pages, and then give her a big hug. A big long hug. 10 year-old me would try to escape. Big me would crouch down and whisper in her ear ‘Be kind to yourself, be only yourself, and be strong. You’re going to be all right.’ And then big me would cry, and little me would run away to the garden.

George: Anyway, enough emotion from me. What was the most challenging aspect of making the book for you, and when you flick through its pages now, what are you proudest of?

Daniel: Jeez, yeah, that answer sounds like the trailer for an eighties tear-jerker starring Sally Field.

The most challenging aspect for me was the last 10% of the process – all of the details. You and I, our publisher Kirsten Abbott and designer Evi O all have strong ideas and we each had to work out what to compromise on and what to fight for within our respective departments.

As long and arduous as that process was, I think that’s what it takes to make a book like this.

I’m so proud that the finished object has a strong vision, and one that is true to the spirit of The Planthunter.”

George: So am I, Shipp, so am I. We did all right, eh?

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants, RRP $60.00 AUD, is published by Thames and Hudson Australia and designed by Evi O. It will be released on the 30th of October.

If you want to like to pre-order The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants from us please head to the TPH shop. We’re offering special pre-orders including personalised inscriptions/love letters (only if you want!) until Sunday the 14th of October. They’ll be packed posted and sent with much love and gratitude from Daniel and I.