Update: This article is about a blog that has since closed. Some of the links to the original blog no longer work, so I have replaced them with links to the same page on the internet archive. They may be slow to load.
Nikolai Vavilov was a Soviet botanist and geneticist who traveled the world in the 1920s and 1930s amassing the world’s largest collection of seeds. Visiting almost every corner of the globe, he kept a journal in which he faithfully recorded his impressions of each place he visited.
And now, thanks to the work of biologist Jeremy Cherfas, Vavilov’s journal is being gradually republished on the innovative and beautifully designed Vaviblog.
It’s become rather fashionable recently to re-publish historical journals as blogs. Samuel Pepys has a blog, as does George Orwell. Even Russia is well served by this trend – a few weeks ago I reviewed a blog based on the diary of George C. Voegeli, a member of the American Expeditionary Force sent to Russia in the midst of its Civil War.
But what sets Vaviblog apart from these other historical journal/blogs is the way that it uses modern web-technology to make its content more accessible. A perfect example of Vavilog’s thoroughly modern approach is the way it uses Google Maps to make it easy to access Vavilov’s journal entries in a geographical sequence (Archive Link), rather than the more traditional chronological sequence favoured by most blogs.
Want to read about Vavilov’s experiences in Japan? Simply scroll around the map, click on the location you’re interested in, and select the article that you want to read.
Don’t think for a moment that Vavilov’s journal is dry, technical and all about seeds – it really isn’t. Naturally, as a botanist’s journal, Vaviblog is packed full of seedy goodness. But it’s also overflowing with anecdotes and observations, like this one about Syrian barbers:
“For some reason, after a haircut in the barber shops of Damascus, it is considered good manners to sprinkle the head with alcohol and burn off the facial hair with a flame. The first time this operation is carried out without warning it produces a stunning impression that the whole head is set afire and the client jumps up in terror. However, the affair in general ends happily, to the amusement of the barber.”
Together they add valuable historical context and an understanding of how Vavilov’s work is still having an impact today – one recent post explains how a Kazakh conservationist Aimak Dzangaliev is adapting Vavilov’s approach to the problems of ensuring conservation and food security in a modern, but financially struggling Kazakhstan. In the words of Dzangaliev:
At one point, I took a step back, and asked myself what Vavilov would do with these apples if he were alive today. And so, in memory of Dr Vavilov, I have dedicated myself to create new selections of apples for planting that are exclusively derived from wild materials.
I really can’t recommend a visit to Vaviblog highly enough. But before you head over, make sure you’ve got some time to spare – it’s packed with enough historical information, personal observations and news of how Vavilov’s work is being applied today to keep you occupied for hours on end.