100-Year-Old Flowers Bloom in New Book

Arts / Mar. 7, 2002 12:00am EST

100-Year-Old Flowers Bloom in New Book

The discovery in 1996 of a 100-year old botanical manuscript from Randolph has led to the creation of an unusual book of photographs and graceful botanical descriptions, published last month by Rizzoli International Publications in New York.

A special exhibition for the book, which likely immortalizes the botanical work of a student at the Randolph Normal School, was held for two weeks recently at the Munder Skiles Gallery at Madison Avenue in New York.

The exquisitely-printed book, 96 large-format pages long, features primarily the photographs of Zeva Oelbaum. An award-winning and widely published photographer who lives in Montc lair, N.J.

The book comes with an essay by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean and succinct botanical essays—descriptions of the pressed flowers and leaves—by Sara Stein, author of several gardening books.

Mim and Wes Herwig of Randolph Center are credited with helping Oelbaum to learn about the origins of the original manuscript. The discovery came about in a Maine antique shop—"a yellowed manuscript held together with fraying white satin ribbon … found in a huge sea chest…"

The cover sheet bore the penciled notation "May 18, 1896, Randolph Vt." The book contained dozens of pressed flowers with careful descriptions penned by hand.

"I was stunned by the sheer endurance of the leaves and flowers," Oelbaum writes in the preface. "I was also struck by the elegance and simplicity of the botanical arrangements."

As a result, she spent three years photographing the manuscript, using various methods to bring out the fragility of the plants, the texture of the paper, and patterns of shadow. The penmanship of the original, unknown writer is also a prominent voice in this beautifully-produced book. How surprised that writer would have been at what her modest manuscript has inspired!

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