In Memoriam: George W. Muller
Chip Muller and Sue Muller Hacking*
The plant explorers huddled in groups in the small lodge high in the Sikkim Himalaya, drying off, reading, or sorting rhododendron seeds. A member came in, shaking off the rain and exhibiting another find: a fragrant flowered vine. No one knew it, and the pages of Flowers of the Himalaya were being madly searched when 83 year-old George Muller came in. "George! Close your eyes. Now smell," said his son, holding the unknown flower.
"Ah! Holboellia!" exclaimed George. For George, this third trip to Sikkim was a pilgrimage to celebrate his love of the Himalayas, their people and flowers, and a time to share this love with his son and daughter and their fellow travelers.
George Muller had a wide knowledge and love of plants, especially those of China and the Himalaya. He spent countless hours wandering through the Arnold Arboretum in the late 1920's, dreaming of China as he studied the plants sent by E.H. Wilson just 10-20 years before. The accounts of Wilson, Hooker and others fired his enthusiasm for the Himalaya. During World War II George enlisted and was delighted to be sent to the China-Burma-India theater as a weather observer for the Army Air Corps. Incredibly, he was assigned to Simao, in Yunnan, China; the town where Wilson was sent on his first trip (1899) to meet Augustine Henry and begin his search for I'abbé David's Dove tree. Years later George could still recall the location of the Davidia trees a few miles from Simao that Wilson had missed.
George was born in New York City on March 26, 1909. After majoring in chemistry and geology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (class of 1932), he worked 35 years with National Sugar Refining Company of New York and Philadelphia, then seven years with Kerr McGee Chemical Corp. He and his wife Emily moved from Pennsylvania to Oak Harbor, Washington on Whidbey Island in 1980. There, he served as Executive Director of Sugar Industry Technologists.
George was in his 40's living in rural Pennsylvania when he discovered his joy of working the soil, growing vegetables, nut trees and ornamentals. He nurtured his special love for the lilies, bamboo, orchids, camellias and rhododendrons of Asia. While serving as President of the Philadelphia Chapter of ARS (1975-1976) he voted for the formation of the Komo Kulshan Chapter in Washington, which he was to join a few years later. George was also an active member of the ARS Whidbey and Seattle Chapters, the Rhododendron Species Foundation, and a dedicated volunteer at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens on Whidbey Island.
At home George transformed several acres of wooded land into what he referred to as his memory garden. Rhododendron edgeworthii, by sight and fragrance, transported him to Sikkim; R. arboreum to Nepal; R. wardii to Tibet. He tried each of Hooker's Sikkim rhododendrons. Species rhododendrons and companion plants, such as meconopsis, primula, clematis, hosta, enkianthus, epimedium, viburnums, peonies, buddleia and a hundred others adorn woodland glades labeled Sikkim, Nepal, Burma, Tibet, Yunnan, China, Korea and Japan. A rare Himalayan Silver Fir, Abies spectabilis, graces the driveway. George selected every plant for the memories it brought of people and places. Evenings found George studying horticultural journals and explorer's accounts to learn more about plant associations and to confirm his own observations of plants seen in Asia.
In 1943, while on R and R from India, George trekked to over 18,000 feet in the North Sikkim Himalaya with only a guide, bearer and interpreter. His letters home were infused with his love of nature and his reverence for the high mountains:
"The snow peaks and icy pinnacles rose in all directions...I drunk deeply of the beauty...astounded by the feeling of the Mighty. There they stood supremely calm over the green valley. The giants were slowly changing their robes, their ermine took on the rose dye of the rising sun - the gray yellow clouds worshipped at their feet...Every small groundling with their bright red berries and the blue gentians were bediamonded with frost...The pines and spruce were magnificent, the poplars and birches were clothed in yellow glory, while the native hardwood shrubs were crimson and scarlet...Blueberries shown on the rich brown earth contrasting the dense and brilliant green of the rhododendrons..."
In 1974 George returned to Sikkim with Emily and daughter, Sue, as part of an ARS trip led by Britt Smith, where they explored the Singalila ridge between Nepal and Sikkim, but were denied access to North Sikkim. George's dream of returning to China was fulfilled in 1986 when he visited Simao with Emily and his son and daughter-in-law. George and his son, Chip, then ventured into south-eastern Tibet with Warren Berg to again explore for rhododendrons in the Himalaya.
Finally in 1992, a group from the Rhododendron Species Foundation was allowed access to North Sikkim. George's dream of showing his children the Sikkim Himalaya he had visited 50 years earlier, following Hooker's trails, was fulfilled [see Journal ARS 47 (4), Fall 1993]. As the oldest member of the group, he was an inspiration to all as he rode a Tibetan pony part way, then walked to nearly 14,000 feet to view Mt. Kanchendzonga. And in his words, his life came "full circle" when he met North Sikkim Chief Forester Sonam Lachungpa, who was not only host to the group, and co-author of Sikkim-Himalayan Rhododendrons, but also the grandson of George's own interpreter from 49 years earlier!
A few days later, the bus careened around the curves in the Sikkim Himalaya foothills, the Tista River a thousand feet below. Anxious rhododendron explorers wondered if this was the last view they would see, when George began singing one of his minor key melodies. "How can you sing when we're about to die?" someone asked. "I've lived a great life," George said. "When you go, you go."
For the next year and a half, George continued devoting time to Meerkerk and reveled in sharing his latest rhododendron adventure with ARS chapters. At home, he continued to transform his forest into a garden of memories, a garden never meant to be finished. The plants spoke to him of past and future and change and balance. In reliving his memories, he sang again as he had in the Himalayas.
George died peacefully in Coupeville, Washington, after a very short illness, on January 1, 1994. His caring spirit, his great zest for life and his enthusiasm for the natural world were the gifts he gave to his many friends.
George Muller is survived by his wife of 47 years, Emily, of Oak Harbor, WA; his son and daughter-in-law, Chip Muller and Angela Ginorio of Seattle, WA; his daughter and son-in-law, Sue and Jon Hacking of Redmond, WA; three grandchildren, Emilia Muller-Ginorio and Christopher and Amanda Hacking; and others who called him "Dad", Masa Ishii of Japan and Nima Tenzing Sherpa of Nepal.
*This tribute was written by George Muller's son and daughter as requested by the Journal editor.