I went to the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, France, with a small book written by Louis-François Jauffret and entitled Voyage au Jardin des Plantes/Travel To The Jardin des Plantes (Paris, An VI). Let’s walk on the tracks of Buffon, Jussieu and... the young Gustave.
A discreet plaque and a crocodile’s head
The Jardin des Plantes is a public garden. It shines bright in the heart of Paris like the torch of knowledge lit by the philosophers of the 18th century to roll back the frontiers of darkness. “Any time I enter this place, where all the marvels of the animal and plant kingdoms are gathered,” Jauffret writes in 1798. “I get over-excited.” So do I, especially when I enter from the Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire Street. There’s an ordinary building on the right that most people overlook. Yet, a discreet marble plaque reads: Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon died in this house on April 16, 1788. Hats off, please! to the greatest naturalist of all times. Buffon was appointed intendant of the Jardin des Plantes in 1739. He turned it into a place of exception. Ten years after his death, Jauffret took the young Gustave there to show him the wonders of this world. “These beautiful butterflies were brought back from Brazil by the famous Dombey, who died at sea two years ago,” Jauffret explains. “And what about this gigantic head?” Gustave asks. “This is a petrified head of a crocodile,” Jauffret answers. “We knew it was in the possession of a canon, who lived in Maastricht, Netherlands. The Jardin des Plantes was coveting it so that when the French army besieged this city (in 1673), they carefully avoid bombing the canon’s house! When the army captured the city, they bought the head from the canon, and here it is!” That’s how serious these people were about natural history.
Nenette and the precious animals
I sat on a bench, and then I opened my book. “With nice illustrations, drawn by Monnet and engraved by Gaucher,” the title page reads. There are two of them. On the first one we can see a camel, a monkey and a bear in the streets of Paris. The caption reads: “The animals that were showed by the Parisian street peddlers are arrested and taken to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes.” That was in 1794, and the menagerie is still there. It’s the oldest zoo in Paris. “It was built with the remains of the old regime’s menagerie in Versailles,” Jauffret tells Gustave. “It was here transferred to instruct the public. And in order to make it more attractive, it was populated with all the animals that were showed in the streets of Paris.” Nowadays, the menagerie star is a 53 year-old female orang-utan named Nenette. Back in 1794, it was a Senegalese lion—but when Jauffret and Gustave visited the place, the lion had just died from an intestinal inflammation. It was captured while still a cub in Senegal, Africa, and brought to Versailles in 1788. It was taken to the Jardin des Plantes 6 years later with the rest of the menagerie. A few days later, Jauffret had good news. “Gustave! Ten carriages loaded with live animals have just reached the Jardin des Plantes. They come from the Netherlands, and before that from the most remote regions of Africa and America.” Gustave was very glad to see an elephant for the first time. “But will it always remain inside those obscure stalls?” Jauffret assured the young boy that the administration in charge of “the precious animals” was preparing a huge park for them to roam freely.
Lebanese cedar 1734
The second engraving is a frontispiece. It represents another great naturalist, Bernard de Jussieu. Several people are kneeling before him as he’s holding a small plant in his hat. “In 1734,” the caption reads, “Jussieu plants a Lebanese cedar in the garden.” I got up and went in search of this cedar, almost three centuries later. And guess what? It’s still there. I couldn’t miss it, as it currently stands 100 feet tall on a hillside! Its branches spread like a green roof, and a dozen people could sit on the benches placed around its trunk. It is 289 years old. I compared the engraving with what was before my eyes, and couldn’t believe them. The Jardin des Plantes is not just a public garden. There’s a whole philosophy behind it. And this cedar sums it up: passing on the miracle of life unto all the young Gustaves of this world.
There are several other books on the Jardin des Plantes, but this is one of the best. Not because it contains the most information—it’s actually quite succinct—, but because Jauffret did with Gustave exactly what we do nowadays with our kids. We take them to this unique place to let them feel the magic of life so they will pass it on to their own kids, just like Jussieu, Buffon and thousands of others did in their own time. The Jardin des Plantes connects people to themselves, to one another... and to Lebanese cedars.
- Voyage au Jardin des plantes, par L.F. Jauffret (Paris, Ch. Houel—An VI de la République). Title-page, 2pp, 244pages. One frontispiece and one full page engraving.