Science Service, Up Close: Emma Reh Paints Fruits and Flowers with Words

The 1943 and 1944 letters of science journalist Emma Reh contain vivid descriptions of the flowers and local life she observed while living in Paraguay.

Emma Reh (1896-1982), 1935, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-2156]. During World War II, Science Service correspondent Emma Reh (1896-1982) spent several years living and working in Paraguay. Her letters home, like the ones written when she worked in Mexico and the American West, typically combined personal and professional news with her colorful descriptions of the countryside and people.

Emma had known Science Service’s director Watson Davis since school days in Washington, D.C., and had been close friends with botanist and biology editor Frank Thone since she began working at Science Service in the 1920s. To save time and precious paper during the war, she would write to one friend or colleague with the understanding that the letter would be shared with (and read by) others. The following are transcribed excerpts from three letters written by Emma Reh in 1943 and 1944, exemplifying her style and her keen insight to human behavior. Emma used words to assemble bright bouquets, to paint vivid images of an exceptionally vivid culture, where she experienced seasons and flora dramatically different from those at home. Her letters are useful reminders of how familiar, and unfamiliar, foods influence how we perceive the natural world.

  • October 4, 1943, Emma Reh, Asuncion, Paraguay, to Frank Thone: “...This is also the most citrusy place I’ve ever seen. Oranges everywhere, altho’ the orange season is just ending with spring about to come. The country people have orange thickets about their homes, and orange peels everywhere until the bugs come around to pick them up. Cows like oranges too. ... It was so cold when I first came that it was a hard life. No stove in the whole country, and the temperature so often only a few small degrees above zero. At the same time orange blossoms on the trees. I meant to tell you that oranges also grow wild and unprotected in the woods, so good is this habitat for them. Also, I think Asuncion has the most beautiful roses I have ever seen. Such colors and shapes in combination, and perfection. Even the leaves are perfect and no blotches. And the roses grow abandoned in the parks. In these cold winter months that have passed there was also quite a bit of jasmine tumbling over garden walls.”

Emma Reh (1896-1982), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-2157].

  • March 24, 1944, Emma Reh, Asuncion, Paraguay, to Watson Davis: “We have summer over now, and the tinge of fall is in the air. There has been an interesting progression of flowers in Paraguay, since I have been here, mainly in the form of blooming trees, completely covered, at one stage with yellow blooms, another with pink, then flame, followed by a second kind of yellow, and now the trees featured along the roads and sticking their tops out of forests, or standing out in yards, are covered with large orchid colored blossoms looking almost like orchids of the kind we know. The fruits have changed too in the months I have been here. The most important in August on my arrival were the citrus fruits, mainly oranges, and they were everywhere under foot. These lasted until September or October, and then almost disappeared, although there has always been a trickle of limes and a few mandarins. When the citrus fruits faded out with the coming of hot weather in October and November, melons started coming in, that is, cantaloupes or rather honey dew or cassavas and watermelons. These latter were to be had in the pink-fleshed as well as white-fleshed and yellow-fleshed kind. The white fleshed never looked ripe to me, even though the seeds actually got black. After the melons got fewer (There are stragglers even now), pineapples came in. That was in December. They were quite small, although very sweet and good, but lasted only a month at the most. Mangoes suddenly filled the place for about a month in the middle of January and February. All this time too I forgot about the bananas. These were puny and not good in August and September, and improved as the season went along. They are with us the year around, and are now very nice. We have only the short finger-length kind here. Now, with melons, pineapples, and mangoes gone, the first half-ripe citrus fruits are coming in again. I won’t tell you the same story about the progression of vegetables, however.”
  • June 8, 1944, Emma Reh to Frank Thone, Asuncion, Paraguay: “Winter is supposed to be here–this month corresponding to your December, but thank goodness we have had marvellous crisp sunny weather, blue skies, etc., with flowers that change every month to something else I’ve ordinarily not seen, tho’ this month it is my old Mexican friends, poinsettia and bougainvillea. Orange season is back. Everybody eats them and babies suck them ad lib. Mothers just cut off one continuous circular rind, leaving the white stuff to hold in the juice but cutting a little lid off at the sucking end. The rest of the orange is squeezed. Everybody in the house waits for the balance of the orange. The ox, the burro, the cow, the pig and the dog. I gave a collie my left-over the other day and he opened it up, eating all remaining pulp, leaving only a bit where some yellow rind adhered. Cows eat oranges (and leaves) from orchids, pigs vie for leavings too. The other day when I was gazing out into the sunny street contemplating the orange’s many uses in this country, a bull pranced by with an orange stuck on each horn.” 

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