Saturday, November 26, 2011

Trivia Question

"What Neuchâtel botanist and adventurer traveled for two years during the 1850s through North and South America?"

Henri de Büren's important voyage has been recognized with a trivia question in the recently launched Helvetiq Swiss-American Edition. The game based on the popular Swiss version celebrates the impact the Swiss have made in the United States and is on sale now at

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Hibiscus Grandiflorus © Library of the Gray Herbarium

Last week I made my first trip to Boston for a Swiss consular conference. It was held at Swissnex, a Swiss government mission that fosters closer ties between Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada in the areas of technology, science and academia. I spent my time there talking about the Helvetiq Swiss-American trivia game that I developed in conjunction with RedCut and the Swiss Center Los Angeles.

While in Boston I took advantage of the proximity to Harvard and did some in-person research. As mentioned in an earlier post, Henri de Büren’s first stop in the United States during his long voyage through the Americas was in Boston. He arrived in 1852, and first called on fellow Swiss scientist Arnold Guyot. The next morning he would meet the famous Neuchâtel paleontologist, glaciologist, and geologist Louis Agassiz in his lab at Harvard. The highlight of Henri's stay in Boston was certainly his time with Asa Gray, an eminent botanist, and a man he held in high esteem.

Asa Gray taken in 1868 © Library of the Gray Herbarium

A number of years ago I contacted Dr. James Hanken, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Curator in Herpetology, and Director, Museum of Comparative Zoology and told him of Henri’s journey. We have kept in contact ever since. Upon notifying him of my trip to Boston, Dr. Hanken was kind enough to put me in touch with the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where Special Collections on Agassiz are housed. I was met by Dana Fischer who showed me to the Special Collections room and had done some advanced research on Henri. Alas, there was no mention of him in the collection, but as he visited Harvard before the Museum building was built, his omission is understandable. Ms. Fischer showed me a number of biographies of Agassiz and some original scientific illustrations done by fellow Swiss Jacques Burkhardt who was Agassiz's principal artist on many of his journeys. The drawings reminded me a bit of Henri’s artwork. I had a faint hope that Henri’s lost sketch book might be in amongst the other scientific drawings I perused. No such luck.

An example of the work Burkhardt did with Agassiz. Rio, 1865 © Ernst Mayr Library

After an hour or so I left the Ernst Mayr library and when to the Botany Department and met Head librarian, Judy Warnement. She was incredibly warm and showed me some original photos of Harvard, and the botanical gardens that Gray and others tended. She also did not find any references to Henri but it really didn’t matter. Ms. Warnement took me through the extensive Herbaria, Gray’s botanical library and even went to far as to show me Gray’s former residence off campus.

I felt energized walking around Cambridge before heading home, perhaps in a similar way to how Henri felt almost 160 years ago. After my time at Harvard I met an old school mate for lunch, and bought souvenir Harvard T-Shirts for the girls. She and I reminisced about old times, gushed about our families and shared the challenges and triumphs of our respective projects. Art, History, Family, Food and Friendship is a pretty good way to spend a couple of days if you ask me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Agricultural Medal

In searching through some old coins I found the following medal. It appears to be a Neuchâtel agricultural medal won by Henri de Büren in 1887. It was won one year before he sold, with a heavy heart, the Château de Vaumarcus. The medal was created by E. Durussel, and important Swiss coin and medal artist.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lettre de Penthes

As Henri de Büren's journal and letters get ever closer to publication I am ramping up some PR surrounding the eventual launch. The following is a small article for the newsletter of the Museum of the Swiss Abroad who are helping me publish Henri's reflections of his time in the Americas.

A Swiss Abroad Tracking a Swiss Abroad

The sun glistened off the surface of the blue Caribbean Sea gently rocking a small water taxi as it made its way to port. Mid-morning sunlight shone on an imposing fort and lighthouse crowned by the Spanish colors gently waving in the breeze. Below in elegant cursive the word “Havane”.

This is my first memory of a journal that has consumed my life for the last three years. I was initially ignorant to its author and provenance; to me, it was simply a beautiful watercolor of an exotic destination. Visions of Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis wafted through my conscious like so much cigar smoke. However, this image was not painted during a time of casinos, mobsters and revolutionaries but rather one captured a century earlier in the Cuba of colonial Spain.

While my initial interaction with the journal made an impression, I found it as a boy who was preoccupied with school, and soccer practice. I returned it to the armoire from whence it came, to be read another day. That day would not come again for 20 years. In 2007 I found the journal again while looking through family papers and when I picked it up time seemed to collapse as if my boyhood fascination with the object had never left me. Instead of merely skimming its beautifully penned pages, I decided to read it and hoped it would have secrets to tell. I would not be disappointed.

I discovered that Cuba was only a very small portion of the journal; it was dedicated almost entirely to the day-to-day documentation of an 1853 expedition of European settlers venturing deep into the Amazon of Northern Peru. The pages were brimming with tales of natural beauty, social conflict and internal power struggles. I was hooked. To my utter amazement I found the journal to have been written by my great-great-grandfather, Henri de Büren.

How did I not know of this before? It would have seemed to be a great family story, passed down from generation to generation told over sumptuous dinners, getting more fanciful in each retelling. “Did you hear how grand-père cleared the jungle with only his Swiss Army knife?” Alas, all I knew about Henri was that he sold the family castle of Vaumarcus near Neuchâtel at the end of the 19th century, and I believe this choice tainted his family legacy.

Passionate about his voyage, I searched for any additional writings from the journey and to my delight found another journal that compiled all of his correspondence home to his family in Switzerland. The letters home covered a grander journey than just Cuba and Peru. It documented a Grand Tour that lasted almost two years and covered thousands of miles. Starting with his Liverpool departure on a British mail steamer, they document how he crisscrossed the Eastern United States calling on Swiss compatriots and scholars. He visited Cuba, spent four months exploring Mexico, six months traversing the Peruvian Andes with an expedition of 90 and finally canoeing down the Amazon river into Brazil.

What had started with the fascination surrounding one watercolor illustration had blossomed into finding a detailed first-person account of a journey that covered large parts of the Americas. I felt at that moment, that I had discovered a unique artifact and a piece of Swiss cultural history that needed to be shared.

When I started this process what I knew about the 1850s in the Americas revolved around the California gold rush. Therein lies the tragic tale of another Swiss, John Augustus Sutter, but that is another story. In the past three years of research, my scholarly knowledge of the 1850s has increased considerably. Thanks in large part to JSTOR, Google Books and the fact that Henri travelled in illustrious circles, I have been able to find most of those mentioned in his journals and letters. The names of Louis Agassiz, Arnold Guyot, Leo Lesquereux, and Asa Gray were at first just handwritten words on a page. Given my new found understanding of the time period their existence makes the narrative all the more fascinating.

In spite of the early exhilaration of discovery, there have been moments that I doubted my sanity for throwing myself headlong into this endeavor. There were also those along the way who dismissed my project as simply a quaint family research project. I have come to feel very strongly that it is far more than that. Henri was a witness to scientific, social and cultural history in the Americas and in a era of one-way immigration. His return home is something to be acknowledged in itself. When I felt a lead go cold, a new bit of information would be revealed, or when I became dispirited, an invaluable word of encouragement would come from the unlikeliest of sources. Early interest in my project by swissinfo, former Peruvian President Alejandro Tolledo, Peruvian-American author Marie Arana, and Benedict von Tscharner, Foundation President for the Museum of the Swiss Abroad, were invaluable.

As Henri took a chance and leap of faith when he left Neuchâtel for points unknown I have tried to do the same. I intend to retrace his original journey for a documentary and am currently writing a feature film screenplay about Henri and his son. I will readily admit that I have been very un-Swiss like in my promotion of my project and Henri’s journey, acting at times like his PR manager. One blogger commented that I was “Hoping to secure a place for Henri in the history books.” He could not be more correct.

This year, Henri's journal and letters will be published with the gracious support of the Edition de Penthes and the Institute of the Swiss Abroad. Not only did the Institute of the Swiss Abroad realize the merit of the source material, they have been instrumental in the both transcription and fundraising.

Working with Henri’s journals and trying to understand who he was has taught me a great deal, not simply about my ancestor but what it means for me to be Swiss. I have grown up around family heirlooms my entire life, but reading Henri’s passages about his love for family and his country has stayed with me and deepened my personal attachment to Switzerland. I hope that my project reveals in some small measure the impact that the Swiss have made historically in the Americas and one we will continue to make into the future. As Henri brought back botanical and agricultural knowledge with him from the Americas, I want to give back to Switzerland a success story of one of its native sons. As a result I hope Switzerland will look more closely at its culturally rich past and celebrate more stories like Henri’s – they are national treasures waiting to be revealed.
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