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Literary-scientific gardens

The Secret Garden goes under the microscope

Secret Garden


In The Secret Garden, author Francis Hodgson Burnett portrays the world through the eyes of a child — the plants and animals contained within the garden’s stone walls are part of a verdant fairyland, full of wonder and mystery, and they may even be magic.

But for five undergraduate biology and English students who set out to analyze the novel through both literary and scientific lenses, the tale isn’t just for kids.

The science students treated the fictional garden like a field study, logging the flora and fauna and creating a database of when and where species appeared. The literature group delved into cultural aspects of gardens at the time of the book’s setting. Both teams met weekly during the spring 2011 semester to exchange their findings.

The group, led by English Associate Professor Elizabeth Chang and biological sciences Professor Candace Galen, is one of several undergraduate projects that Mizzou Advantage sponsors to foster collaboration across disciplines.

Students logged more than 100 species in a spreadsheet to track their distribution in Burnett’s fictional garden. “We read the book as if we were walking across the garden, taking notes about what we found — the type of organism mentioned, whether or not it was bloom,” said Galen.

They discovered that as the chapters progressed, more and more flora and fauna appeared. That contrasts the normal progression of fieldwork, says junior biological science major Sarah Unruh. Scientists typically log the bulk of species in a given environment during the first few outings, then fewer and fewer with each subsequent observation. “We can’t know for sure if the author distributed the species that way on purpose, but it could reflect the way the characters viewed the garden — a magical place that was always changing,” she says.

Meanwhile, the English students studied primary sources to assess the cultural significance of gardens in early 20th century society, and shared their findings at the weekly meetings.

At times, the two groups struggled to communicate their analyses to each other because the types of research were so different, Chang says. But the interdisciplinary structure pushed students to think in new ways.

“Interdisciplinary research isn’t only about finding common ground,” Galen says, “it’s about walking over that ground together.”

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