JARS v37n4 - The Story of Joseph Rock

The Story of Joseph Rock
Gwen Bell, Seattle, WA

Editor's note: Gwen Bell gave this presentation at the National Rhododendron Convention in Portland, OR. She received such tremendous applause that I felt all members in the Society should have the benefit of her paper.

CITATION: "Be it resolved by the Board of Directors of the American Rhododendron Society the award of the highest honor of the Society to Dr. Joseph Francis Rock in grateful acknowledgement of his horticultural work as a plant explorer and achievement in the discovery of new and valuable species of the genus Rhododendron.

So spoke C.I. Sersanous as he presented the ARS Gold Medal to Dr. Rock on April 23, 1954, in Seattle, Washington. Joseph Rock had demonstrated that he was an extraordinary man.

He was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 13, 1884. His early years were not filled with the happy, carefree experiences of most young children for his comfortable, loving mother died when he was just six years old. Two weeks later, his Hungarian grandmother, who had tried to bring some kind of security to his world, also died. Karolina, his thirteen-year-old sister, was forced into the roll of 'mother' and his stern, grief-stricken father, Franz, actually engendered more fear than love, for he was excessively religious, superstitious and possessed an erratic temper. He was determined that young Joseph should become a priest. So troubled and unhappy was Joseph at that time that he exhibited the first signs of turning inward, of becoming a 'loner'.

The Rock family lived in downstairs quarters in the winter home of Count Potocki where Franz acted as steward. Here, Joseph observed an elegant way of living that stayed with him throughout his life. School was too easy for he learned so quickly and remembered so well that he must wait patiently for slower students to catch up. He played hooky frequently, strolling around the Prater watching as the sword swallowers and Arab Fakirs performed their unusual ceremonies. Joseph was a curious boy and soon began to pick up some of those strange-sounding Arab words, then to read about far-away lands. China became the focus of his dreams and at age thirteen, he struggled to teach himself one of the languages of China. His father was annoyed at this waste of time but Joseph persisted, reading and studying at night after his family had gone to bed. He collected little cards with intricate Chinese characters inscribed upon them. He developed an intense love for music.

The break with his family occurred in 1902, after he received his diploma from school. Standing firm against joining the priesthood, he resolved to leave home without his father's blessing. The next three years were spent traveling, supporting himself at times acting as a guide to tourists or as a seaman. Always he added to his knowledge of languages. That facility with languages proved to be the great talent of his early years and of immense importance to his later years.

His diary tells us that in 1905 he purchased a ticket to Aix-la-Chappelle, but missed the train. Acting on impulse that same day, he signed on as a cabin steward aboard the S.S Zeeland bound for New York. There, having almost no money, he sold his uniform for fifty cents, then immediately searched out odd jobs, among them dishwashing. With the onset of winter in New York, his health deteriorated as he developed tuberculosis. Doctors advised him to seek a warmer, drier climate. One year after his arrival in New York, he was on his way to Texas - by way of Havana, Cuba, and Mexico! Determined to improve his English, he enrolled at Baylor University. He became so proficient that he spoke English with only the faintest trace of an accent. His health improved, but was still precarious, so Arizona was suggested as a better place for him to live. One of the character traits that he displayed was that of ignoring, frequently, the advice of others. It is not surprising then that he by-passed Arizona, moving on to San Francisco. There he spent a short time observing the destruction left by the disastrous earthquake.

He decided that he would like to see the tropics and with considerable anticipation, took passage on a ship sailing to Honolulu. He was carrying some small change and one gold piece. On this voyage, he learned one of those character-influencing lessons. A Chinese passenger organized a dice game and Rock was enticed into betting his precious gold. You guessed it - he lost it in almost less time than it takes to tell the story. That Chinese entrepreneur lost everything that he possessed. He slit his throat. It is said that that was the first and last time that Joseph Rock gambled with his money.

Upon arrival in Honolulu, he stood 5' 8" tall, was fair-haired and fair-complexioned and wore glasses. It is interesting to note that although he had no academic degrees at this time, his first job in Hawaii was as a teacher, a teacher of Latin which he had learned in Vienna and of natural history which he learned one step ahead of his students. His interest in botany grew and he threw himself into learning from living plants by day and from reading botanical studies at night. He appears to have been the first person to use a glass-bottomed boat, using it to collect algae. By 1911, as an instructor at the college of Hawaii, he published books and monographs that are considered classics. Another skill acquired at this time was in the collection and preservation of herbarium specimens. He learned to use a camera, glass plates and film. He became a superb photographer.

Joseph Rock made a serious decision in 1913 when he decided to become an American citizen. Though he had found a field of work that satisfied him, he was still a very private person. He was subject to quick changes of temper, was often moody, yet he could expend great charm and was a much sought-after dinner guest. Quietly, he wrote, "In spite of all my friends, I was dreadfully lonely."

During the next few years, whenever he had sufficient funds, he took short trips to the Philippines, to the China coast and to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), always collecting.

Following a difference of opinion with the College of Hawaii in 1920, Rock left the Islands, returning to the mainland. Timing was perfect for the United States Department of Agriculture wished to import seed of the Chaulmoogra tree, native to southeast Asia and valuable in the treatment of leprosy. Rock jumped at the chance, knowing that he was right for the job, and in the fall shipped out as an agricultural explorer. Carefully, he collected seeds from widely differing locations in Burma, Assam and what was then Siam, insuring a variety of environmental factors. He collected other plant material as well. This expedition tested his ability as an explorer, as a collector and as a preserver and shipper of herbarium specimens. His knowledge of languages, German, French, Greek, Italian, Chinese and Arabic, began to prove useful. Very important too, was the acquisition of another sponsor, the National Geographic Society.

In December of1921, Joseph Rock stood poised on the threshold of his dream. He made his first incursion into western China. China had been virtually closed to the West following the Opium Wars of 1842 and 1860, although Robert Fortune led a large-scale expedition along the coast in 1843. Few foreigners had penetrated into the interior until Ernest Wilson made four expeditions and set off a wave of competition for Chinese ornamentals. Next came George Forrest, Reginald Farrer, Frank Kingdon Ward and in 1921 and 22, Joseph Rock.

He set up a base of operations near Likiang, a city of 50,000 in northern Yunnan near a well-traveled caravan route to northern Burma and Tibet. Rock employed a number of Nakhi tribesmen to help him as collectors and as servants. He compared these Nakhis, he called them aborigines, to the Indians of America and he felt greater kinship and more sympathy for them than for the Chinese. Years later as his collecting declined, he worked on manuscripts recording the history of the Nakhi people and, eventually, produced an impressive dictionary of Nakhi pictography script.

That summer Forrest, Ward and Rock met in the field, but no rapport was established. Each seemed wary of the other and jealous of the territory. In the fall, Rock swept through the Sweli Valley searching for blight resistant chestnuts.

During part of 1923, Rock explored the Mekong Valley and along the Salween River. "Never in the world were there such mountains," he wrote. And again, "We passed through rhododendrons for days to the source of the Mekong and Yellow Rivers." From that trip, he sent thousands of herbarium specimens and seeds, some never before introduced, and the skins of 1600 birds and 60 mammals to the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian.

Completing his collections in this field, he was without a contract, his future uncertain. Before leaving China, he planned a quick trek through rough up-and-down terrain to Muli, a small semi-independent kingdom in the southwest corner of Szechwan. Lack of time limited his collecting. Muli was, indeed, mountainous with peaks up to 17,000' and passes at 14,000'. As he neared Muli, he sent a messenger ahead to carry his card to the king for "it would never do to arrive unheralded". A decidedly unkempt lama appeared at dawn with an invitation to visit the King of Muli. Chote Chaba, the king, was a very impressive man. He stood six foot two inches tall, weighed at least 300 pounds and was garbed in red robes over gold and silver brocade. Rock said that "his only exercise is clapping his hands when he wants one of his slaves to approach him". Lamas hovered, but were not permitted to sit in his presence. Chote Chaba exhibited great good humor and a lively curiosity about a wide range of subjects. They spent hours in conversation, so it was fortunate that Rock was allowed to sit. He was entertained lavishly, though at one point, it was necessary to eat what appeared to be a sweet, but was actually well-aged yak butter laced with hair. Rock encountered many strange foods in China, sometimes to the detriment of his stomach. Of Chote Chaba he wrote, "l doubt whether until that time (the King of Muli) had known of the discovery of America. He did not have the slightest idea of the existence of an ocean and thought all land contiguous, for he asked if he could ride horseback from Muli to Washington and if the latter was near Germany." At their parting, Chote Chaba urged Rock to return.

Regretfully, Joseph Rock emerged from that vast back country of China and by 1924, was in Washington identifying some 60,000 to 80,000 specimens that he had forwarded to the museum.

Civilization soon palled and he sought a new sponsor. Ernest Wilson had collected successfully for British firms and for Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, but had suffered a severe leg injury. Charles S. Sargent, director of the arboretum, recognized an opportunity to replace Wilson with a collector already experienced. He wished to import material from farther north than Yunnan, ornamentals hardy enough for Massachusetts. Sargent and Rock negotiated a three-year contract to explore unknown areas along the Amne Machin, a mountain range rising to 20,000' with the Yellow River curling at its base, and the Richthofen Range near the Tibetan-Mongolian border. Here, Rock must make his own maps and calculate all distances and altitudes.

Before leaving for China, he purchased tents, a folding canvas bathtub, aneroid barometers, cameras, guns and ammunitions. Other items essential to his expedition were furs, warm bedding, trunks, photographic supplies, paper made from bamboo for drying specimens, medicines and for transportation mules and, sometimes, yaks. He revealed a distinct preference for such luxuries as canned foods and collapsible bathtubs.

Edgar Snow, who traveled with him a time or two, wrote, "During the march, his tribal retainers divided into a vanguard and a rearguard. The advance party, led by a cook, an assistant cook, and a butler would spot a sheltered place with a good view, unfold table and chairs on a leopard-skin rug and lay out clean linen cloth, silver and napkins. By the time we arrived our meal would be almost ready. At night, it was several courses ending with tea and liqueurs." Rock kept the same cooks with him on most of his expeditions and even taught them Austrian recipes.

Upon arrival in Yunnan-fu (Kunming) he found that the cost of an escort had increased exorbitantly due to rising tensions. It was his custom to travel with an entourage large enough to deter attacks from bandits. The caravan set out, but on the fifth day they were ambushed. Rock wrote, "We met a large band of brigands. They were on a hill directly in front of us. We retreated immediately on a pine-wooded hill opposite the brigands, who had numerous dogs. We held the hill, guns in hand and I watching through my field glasses." Then, prudently, the bandits turned aside and robbed another less-well-defended caravan. Suddenly, as in a western movie when the cavalry arrives, native soldiers dashed on to the scene and before the eyes of Rock's party, dispersed the bandits. Later he was told that 600 brigands were ravaging the caravans and the villages. There was terrible poverty in the area and lands that should have been producing food were planted with opium poppies.

"I shall be glad to get into Kansu and into the wilds which is the safest place one can go to. Where there are only tribe people and no Chinese, there is nothing to rob and no ex-soldier brigands." In May of 1925, he marched into Choni in the Province of Kansu with considerable relief. It had been a long, frustrating, arduous journey. Rock was dismayed to find that, here, bitter hostilities were being waged between the large population of Moslems and the Tibetans. They blocked his path to the north. Three times he tried to move north to the Amne Machin, but three times was forced to turn back. He spent some time photographing and writing for the National Geographic, then decided to make a fast sweep into heavily wooded areas to the south and east of Choni, carefully avoiding the hostile Tebbus of Upper Tebbuland. He used trained collectors in the manner of George Forrest, but not to the same extent.

Frustrated and impatient, he went boldly to General Ma, the vigorous and cruel leader of the Moslem faction, asking for safe passage. Surprisingly, his request was granted and General Ma even provided an escort.

Crossing the Yellow River east of the Amne Machin range, he stumbled into lovely valleys clothed in spruce and juniper and carpeted with primulas and meconopsis. He wrote, "The whole region between the Yellow River and the Amne Machin is one great zoological garden." Some areas he could not reach, except by camera. He could see the main range of the awesome Amne Machin, rugged and steep. Even the floors of the valleys were higher than 15,000'. Without the modifying effects of the monsoons, he concluded that these mountain conditions were too harsh to produce useful ornamentals. And of the Kokonor he said, "There are snow ranges on both sides of us, but they are as bare as a rock, not a vestige of plant life is visible." One morning very early, while camped at 10,700', the cold winds blew so strongly that it nearly blew his tent, his possessions and himself into a nearby lake. His men rescued him. Though bleak, he termed the Kokonor "as rich in birdlife, but poor pickings for a botanist, with only the seeds of some herbaceous alpines worth collecting." The conifer seeds that he sent back, later, proved superior in the reforestation of very cold regions.

Again Rock was disappointed when he found that the Richthofen Ranges were, also, bare with little more than grasses to see.

1926 proved both exhilarating and depressing for Rock. He worked his way into lower Tebbuland and there was rewarded for all his efforts. "I have never in all my life seen such magnificent scenery. If the writer of Genesis had seen Tebbu country, he would have made it the birthplace of Adam and Eve." He amassed 20,000 herbarium specimens and uncounted bags of plant material and seeds, plus the skins of 1000 birds.

Returning to Choni, he found miserable conditions for there had been a crop failure. Anti-Christian sentiment was building against missionaries and Rock feared that there was little to distinguish him from a white missionary. He was growing short on provisions and ammunition. Despondent he wrote, "I can definitely say that if I get out alive, China will see me no more." In fact, he packed up part of his retinue, but moved only as far as Tebbuland. The next time that he saw Choni, even his former friends were hostile. Sargent wrote that it was time for him to leave China and come home.

But before Rock could return, Charles S. Sargent died. Ernest Wilson was appointed his temporary successor. He sent a stiff, impersonal letter to Joseph Rock explaining that he was curtailing expenses and demanding that Rock leave the field.

Once again looking for a sponsor, he turned to the National Geographic Society. Relations had become strained between them at one point, but after much discussion and some apologies, agreement was reached and another China expedition was in the works. An assistant editor, Ralph Graves, was heard to say, "Rock is one of the world's finest photographers and is a resourceful explorer and geographer. At the same time, he is one of the most cantankerous of humans."

Few know that he gave generously of his medicines and his skill in treating simple illnesses to the people of the villages and farms. He was scrupulous about paying for whatever was acquired from them.

In 1927, Rock marched back into Muli as a guest and friend of the king. Chote Chaba interceded on his behalf for safe conduct from the notorious Konkaling bandits who crossed his kingdom to raid the caravans. Rock remained wary. While investigating the slopes of Mt. Jambeyang, their holy mountain, he met, unexpectedly, the party of the fierce bandit leader, Trashi, who was moving in the opposite direction. They paused, they shared tea and then Trashi explained that he was on religious custom, circumambulating the mountain, and would not bother Rock's party at this time. Later, a devastating hailstorm hit their holy mountain destroying the barley crops of the farmers who lived nearby. They held Rock responsible for his party had been moving in the wrong, or cursing, direction.

Can you imagine that Rock told one of his audiences once that "he did not think of the hardships encountered on his expeditions, but preferred to look upon them as perpetual picnics". Joseph Rock committed one great blunder in the eyes of the National Geographic Society. He had seen from afar a great, shining mountain towering above all the rest amid the Konka Range. No European had been close to it and he hoped to be the first, as soon as time and his collecting permitted. On February 27, 1930, he sent a wire, "Minya Konka Highest Peak On Globe, 30,000’." What a furor of excitement that must have created! Unfortunately, by October, after having visited the great granite mountain, he was forced to reduce its height to 25,600'. In 1932, an American party of climbers calculated its true height as 24,981'. Minya Konka was and is not higher than Everest, but is clearly the highest peak in China. Rock was not a trained cartographer, even so he was forever embarrassed by his error in judgment and avoided discussion about it whenever possible.

He had collected 163 species of rhododendrons out of 317 varieties of plants, 30,000 herbarium specimens, bird skins and magnificent photos in black and white and color.

Back in Washington in 1932, now forty-eight years old and graying, he was tired and unprepared for the shock of finding that Ernest Wilson had been unfairly critical of his collecting. He had written to Wilson from the field many times and had wondered why his letters were never answered. He was stunned to learn the seriousness of the financial climate in the United States at this time. He failed to find another sponsor and eventually, sold some of his Chinese and Tibetan artifacts, then dipped into his personal savings to finance another journey.

One bright spot in this visit home was an invitation from Baylor University to invest him with an honorary degree. Now he had the right to be called 'Doctor' Rock. Admiring audiences stimulated him to expound brilliantly on the adventures, the hazards and the achievements of his travels.

Returning to Likiang, he encountered no bandits, but did hear that George Forrest was, also, heading for Likiang. Quickly, he moved farther north, avoiding Forrest, while collecting orchids.

Disaster hit China in 1937 when the Japanese invaded. Peking, one of his favorite cities, was evacuated, Tientsin was captured and Shanghai threatened. Rock stayed stubbornly in the interior until 1938 when he yearned to see his family again. He was very disturbed by what he saw in Berlin, for he could see and feel the militaristic fervor there. After his return to Yunnanfu, his current home, he kept a radio watch on world events. Hitler was far away, but the Japanese were not. On September 28 at 9:00 a.m. he heard the boom and the thud of bombs and saw the pursuit of a brave lone student flyer. His city was defenseless. He began to pack his 4000-book library, gave his Nakhis money to see them home and left the country to sit out a year in Indo-China. Once more he flew back into Yunnanfu, but health problems plagued him continuously and he deemed it in his best interests to accept a post at the University of Hawaii.

Before leaving Calcutta on his way out, however, he met quite by accident some members of the American military personnel. They recognized immediately the tremendous help that he could offer from his experiences in China. American flyers were risking their lives daily flying over that Minya Konka Range that he had mapped, flying a dangerous airlift from India to Chungking over the 'Hump'. Rock was placed aboard a top priority plane and sent to Washington where he was employed as an expert consultant with the Army Map Service.

It was unfortunate that he suffered a grave loss at this time. His belongings were on board a ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Arabian Sea. Manuscripts, translations, years of work sank to the sea bottom. Now only three volumes remained for they had been photostated, then placed in the Library of Congress.

It was the fall of 1946 before he was free again to return to China and this time, the Harvard Yenching Institute agreed to underwrite his Nakhi research.

By 1948, the Communists and the Nationalists were competing for power in northeast China. Though it had not affected Yunnan as yet, Rock recognized that his China Adventure was almost at an end. He proposed one last expedition to members of the American Rhododendron Society, offering to spend two months in the field. He asked only $2500 to buy supplies and to hire porters. From this exclusively American collection came quantities of rhododendron seed from 165 varieties. He collected seed from prostrate 'repens' to plants the size of 'sino-grande'. E.H.M. Cox noted that seed sent home by Rock was cleaner, had fewer rogues and a better percentage of germination than from any other collector.

Chinese villagers told Rock that he was no longer welcome. They cursed his retainers as slaves of a foreign devil and depicted the United States as the great enemy of the Chinese people. It was enough. He decided to leave China. Later he wrote, "I will see how things go during the next year and if all is OK, will go back to Likiang to finish my work. I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone." He had never married and had not maintained consistently good relations with his family.

Though he stayed, hopefully, in India for a time, political conditions did not improve. He flew to the United States. To implement his income, he sold his library to the Far East and Russian Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle for $25,000. Dr. Rock was appointed an Honorary Research Associate and spent some time there.

Later, he went out to the Islands to botanize and to edit his Nakhi studies. He made short trips to Europe, to South America and to the Orient - but never to China! While living with friends, he suffered heart failure on December 5, 1962, in Hawaii, as S.B. Sutton put it, "half way between West and East". Now you know that it is impossible to put all of the events, the adventures, failures and achievements of such a man into thirty minutes - so ends this story of Joseph Rock, Plant Explorer.

ARS Quarterly Bulletins and Yearbooks

The Romance of Plant Hunting.............F.K. Ward

Plant Hunting in China...........................E.H.M. Cox

Rhododendron Species, Vol. I...............H.H. Davidian

The Larger Species of Rhododendron. .P. Cox

J.F. Rock 1884-1962, Part I and Part II..A.K. Chock

In China's Border Provinces....................S.B. Sutton

Joseph F. Rock 1884-1962.....................Helen Moodie