Aloe pillansii (Bastard quiver tree)

An Aloe pillansii on Cornell’s Kop in Richtersveld National Park. Image from

It is an unlikely place to be found within a biodiversity hotspot: a dry, desolate wilderness where temperatures can reach upwards of 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) and flora and fauna must survive on the moisture of the fog that sweeps in early each morning from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Nonetheless, the Richtersveld National Park region of Namaqualand in southern Namibia and the Northern Cape province of South Africa is part of the Succulent Karoo, the most biologically diverse arid region in the world, and the home of approximately one-third of the planet’s 10,000 succulent plant species.

The Succulent Karoo of the west and the Nama Karoo of the east.

“The flora of Southern Africa is extremely remarkable, not merely for the number of its species and their generally very restricted range, but also for the frequent singularity of their aspect and manner of growth. In each of these particulars the genus Aloe is no exception to the general rule,” wrote Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, future director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in “The Tree-Aloes of South Africa” in the journal Nature in 1874.

A more contemporary description of the landscape and its tree aloes is given in Wild Flowers of South Africa by Colin Paterson-Jones and John Manning. “A lunar landscape of forbidding mountains and arid plains blasted by both sun and wind marks the northern limits of Namaqualand. Here, the austere beauty is barely softened by a sparse covering of plants adapted to survive in this harsh land of searing summers and scant winter rain. Yet this forbidding country harbours the richest diversity of succulents in the world, dominated by the gaunt silhouettes of giant tree aloes.”

Despite the visual prominence of these gaunt silhouettes, there are actually very few trees endemic to the Succulent Karoo region—three, to be precise, and one of them isn’t really a tree.

Pachypodium namaquanum Halfmens
The Pachypodium namaquanum, or Halfmens. Photo © Martin Heigan (

The half-tree is a half-man, or so its name and local Khoisan legend would have it. The Pachypodium namaquanum, or Halfmens (Afrikaans for human-like or half-human), is a tree-like stem succulent whose vaguely human form is said to be the consequence of the Khoisan people’s yearning for their homeland. Driven from the Kalahari by invading tribes, some of them turned for a final glance at their birthplace and were transformed into the northward-leaning halfmens.

The two succulent species endemic to the Karoo that are actually trees are the Aloe dichotoma (Common quiver tree) and the Aloe pillansii (Bastard quiver tree). Though they’re found within the same area, they were “discovered” more than 150 years apart—a sign of how difficult the Karoo could be to botanize.

A. dichotoma and A. pillansii are visually similar, but A. pillansii can be distinguished by its drooping yellow flower spikes (A. dichotoma’s grow upwards) and white thorns (A. dichotoma’s thorns are yellow). A. pillansii also has larger leaves and fewer, thicker, and more erect branches.

In her book The Plant Hunters, Alice M. Coats states that A. dichotoma was discovered in November 1774 by Francis Masson (the Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter) and Carl Peter Thunberg (one of Carolus Linnaeus’ collectors, and an important figure in the history of Japanese botany). Unfortunately, the pair missed the main flowering season by two months. While in the Karoo, Coats writes, “they found [a] ‘great treasure’ of new succulents, but dared not stop to botanize; to save the lives of their oxen they were obliged to press on to the next water, nearly three days’ journey away.”

A. pillansii was not collected until over 150 years later, when the South African botanist Neville Stuart Pillans found it on Cornell’s Kop in Richtersveld in Little Namaqualand, the southern/South African portion of Namaqualand, in October 1926. Pillans’ name was given to the tree aloe two years later by Louise Guthrie, but unfortunately for Pillans’ memory this taxonomic name is joined to a common name that is a real attention-getter.

An Aloe pillansii in the Richtersveld. Photo by Alberto Ballerio (

The name “bastard quiver tree” suggests all kinds of colorful etymological possibilities, but its definition is actually a sort of portmanteau referring to the tree’s location and usage. The tree aloes of the Succulent Karoo are also commonly known as Kokerboom trees. Kokerboom is Afrikaans for quiver (as in arrow quivers, not shaking and trembling). The Khoisan Bushmen would hollow out the interior of the tree’s soft branches, seal one end, attach a strap, and use them to carry their arrows.

The “bastard” portion of the name is likely a remnant of Southern Africa’s legacy of racism. A. pillansii could be found in the Richtersveld region that was one of the Baster states of South Africa, lands that were populated by the biracial descendants of white colonists and indigenous Khoi. There are still some 35,000 Basters remaining in South Africa today. The website is dedicated to their history and current legal status.

Succulents are uniquely suited to surviving in the hostile environment of the Richtersveld. For example, the waxy surface of their leaves helps them to retain water, and they’re more efficient photosynthesizers than other plants. Yet the challenges to survival that A. pillansii faces are formidable, and its place in the region has become highly precarious. It’s one of the world’s most endangered plants, and is protected by law in South Africa and included in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It’s also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

A young Aloe pillansii. Photo by Alberto Ballerio (

In 1997, the journal Biodiversity and Conservation published an article entitled “Population ecology of tree succulents (Aloe and Pachypodium) in the arid western Cape: decline of keystone species” by J.J. Midgley, R.M. Cowling, H. Hendricks, P.G. Desmet, K. Esler, and P. Rundel. In it, Midgley et al. examined the ongoing population decline of A. dichotoma, A. pillansii, and P. namaquanum (aka halfmens).

“In the Richtersveld,” Midgley et al. wrote, “all three species have very few [seed] recruits and both Aloe species have a high incidence of mortality especially of large individuals… This is especially serious for A. pillansii because it is endemic to a small area…” In fact, A. pillansii is “near endemic” to the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, particularly Cornell’s Kop, according to the Conservancy’s website (

Midgley et al. cited “excessive, but localized, herbivory by baboons and porcupines,” who gnaw the stems of the trees, as a leading cause of their endangerment. Theft by plant collectors was also cited by a 2006 Vegetatio article as a probable cause for the loss of seedlings.

Were Aloe pillansii or its fellow tree succulents to disappear from the Richtersveld, it wouldn’t merely be the loss of an aesthetically interesting plant, Midgley et al. added.

“Besides their human intrigue which encourages visitors to the area, they appear to be a moderate form of keystone species. They are often the only tall plants in an area and thus they are vantage points for raptors and are safe sites for birds which nest amongst the leaves or which bore into the stem.”

Little has changed since the article’s publication, despite above-average rainfall and favorable seed recruitment conditions in recent years. The likely fate of A. pillansii within the Succulent Karoo is summed up best by the description of its population on the 2009 IUCN Red List: “A serious decline in the population has reduced the numbers to less than 200 individuals. There is no recruitment and the older plants are dying.”

Radio Drama: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus starring George Edwards – Part II (1938)

Another Arctic scene from Automata LA‘s “Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)”, their puppet version of the classic tale.

In this episode, after a night in which the crew of the Voyager stood guard against the appearance of the monster, Baron Victor Frankenstein confesses to Captain Walton how he proceeded with his experiment despite warnings from his fiancée, best friend, and assistant.

Tune in next week for another exciting episode in the radio drama of… Frankenstein! And coming soon: the first Strange Plants entry in this cabinet of curiosities.

Some Engravings from Christoph Jamnitzer’s Neuw Grottessken Buch (A New Book of Grotesques) (Nürnberg, 1610)



Images from

Radio Drama: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus starring George Edwards – Part I (1938)

A scene from “Frankenstein (Mortal Toys),” a puppet version of the story that was produced in Los Angeles by Automata in 2006 and 2008.

In this episode, Captain Walton and the crew of the Voyager encounter Baron Victor Frankenstein in the white wastes of the North. Tune in next week for another exciting episode in the radio drama of… Frankenstein!

Excerpt from Princely Toys: One Man’s Private Kingdom (1976)

“To be an automaton is to exist for the sole purpose of performing a predetermined repertoire: endless, unchanging, without ambition, but without care.”

An Account of the Sad Mischief Befallen the Inhabitants of the Isle of Sorea, Near Unto the Molucco’s, for Which They Have Been Forced to Leave Their Countrey (From The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Volume 19, London, 1695, abr.)

<strong>Moluccae insulae (1602) by cartographer Petrus Bertius</strong>

Moluccae insulae (1602) by cartographer Petrus Bertius

An Account of the Sad Mischief Befallen the Inhabitants of the Isle of Sorea, Near unto the Molucco’s, for Which They Have Been Forced to Leave Their Countrey. Contained in a Letter, Written in Those Parts, to the Right Worshipful, Nicholas Witzen, Burgermaster of Amsterdam, etc. in the Year 1693. And by Him Communicated to Dr. Martin Lister, S. R. S.

In the beginning of the easterly season, the isle of Sorea, situated towards the south-east of these islands, consisting for the most part of one mountain, which now is more terribly shaken than ever before, casting out abundance of fire and smoke, only with some short intermissions. And when the easterly wind had blown about six or seven weeks, till about the 4th of June, the inhabitants being almost so far used to the trembling and casting up of fire that they were careless, the mountain Sorea began early in the morning to cast out more fire than ordinary, which continued for five or six days, during which it was dark and cloudy weather, till at last it brought forth not only a most prodigious flame, but also such a black and sulphureous vapour, that the inhabitants of Hislo, a village in the western part of the island, and nearest to the opening of the mountain, were wholly covered by it, and afterwards followed a whole stream of burning brimstone, which consumed many that could not escape. Afterwards the inhabitants perceived that a part of the mountain was sunk down, and three or four days after another part; and so from time to time, until the burning lake was become almost half the space of the island. Wherefore the inhabitants went on board their vessels and boats, from whence they perceived that huge pieces of the mountain fell into this fiery lake, as into a bottomless pit, with a most prodigious noise, as if a large cannon were discharged. It was remarkable, that the more vehement the fire was, the less the island was shaken.

The inhabitants of another town, called Woroe, upon the east side of the island, not thinking themselves in so great danger, the opening or fiery lake being yet at some distance, remained a month longer, until they saw the same continually approaching them: they observed that when great pieces fell down, and that the lake became wider, the noise was so much the greater, so that they saw no likelihood but that all the island would be swallowed up; wherefore they unanimously transported themselves to Banda, leaving all their moveables for want of vessels.

Evgeni Bauer (aka Evgenii, Yevgeni)


Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is the largest silent film festival in the world. It’s been held each year since 1981 in the northeastern Italian town of Pordenone, population 5,155. In 1989, the cinephiles, critics, and academics who attended this week-long event were privileged to be the first non-Russians since 1917 to see the films of director Evgeni Bauer. According to Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “It’s not easy to shock and awe the international authorities who attend Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, but it happened in 1989 as it never has before or since when the films of this Russian director were screened.” For their technical innovation and “remarkable psychological sophistication,” Turan later wrote, “Bauer’s films have justly been called the work of the greatest director you’ve never heard of.”

Turan’s statement isn’t just the effusiveness of an idiosyncratic film critic. Bauer is “one of the unknown greats of the era,” The Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has written, a director whose “lush morbid melodramas are distinguished by a feverish psychological intensity.” In his essay “Notes on Evgeni Bauer,” film historian and critic Philip Kemp places Bauer in the vanguard of the film directors of his time. “Bauer had a sense of cinematic space, an insight into the creative use of light and an audacity in the handling of the camera that set him far ahead of more celebrated innovators of the period such as DW Griffith or Victor Sjostrom.”

Nor was Bauer unrecognized by his peers. As Yuri Tsivian, one of the foremost experts on Bauer’s work, writes in his biographical sketch of Yevgeny Bauer in The Oxford History of World Cinema, “Bauer’s unique directorial achievements were singled out as early as 1913, as ‘being above praise in their artistic taste and intuition—something rarely found in cinema’.” Iran Perestriani, an actor who worked with Bauer, recalled that “his scenery was alive, mixing the monumental with the intimate. Next to a massive and heavy column—a transparent web of tulle sheeting; the light plays over a brocade coverlet under the dark arches of a low flat, over flowers, furs, crystal. A beam of light in his hands was an artist’s brush.” What’s more, Bauer was also known as a “woman’s director,” and displayed a perspective of gender issues that was unusually complex and contemporary, at least for his time.

Still from Evgeni Bauer’s Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

So with credentials like these, why isn’t Evgeni Bauer as well known as early Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov?

The foremost reason is unquestionably Bauer’s early death. Evgeni Franzevich Bauer was born on January 20, 1867 (though most Bauer bios say 1865), to a famous zither-playing father and opera-singing mother. He studied at, but did not graduate from, the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture before working as a caricaturist, satirical journalist, and photographer.

As Tsivian details in Bauer’s Oxford History bio, it was as a set designer for operetta and musical comedies that Bauer would first make his name. He was hired in 1912 as a contract set designer for the Pathé Frères Moscow Department. In 1913, after designing sets for Alexander Drankov and Aleksei Taldykin’s The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov, Bauer directed four films for Pathé’s and another four films for Drankov and Taldykin’s studio. He joined the Khanzhonkov company in January 1914.

Over the next 3 ½ years Bauer built an oeuvre of more than 80 films. It’s an impressive number, but it could have been much higher. In 1917, while working in Crimea, Bauer fell over a cliff and broke his leg. He was able to continue working from a wheelchair, but complications ensued that would leave him bedridden, and he eventually died of pneumonia on June 9, 1917.

Of course the other reason for Bauer’s obscurity is the political revolution that was taking place in Russia the year of his death. Bauer’s films and their lush aestheticism would be condemned by the Soviet government as decadent escapism epitomizing the values of the bourgeoisie, despite the fact that the February Revolution had allowed Bauer to more explicitly criticize Tsarist society. As Kerr writes, “In both The Revolutionary and The Alarm, the last films he was able to complete, he showed his sympathy for the revolutionary cause, and, had he survived, Bauer would surely have become a major figure in Soviet cinema.” Tsivian suggests a more enigmatic outcome. “There is no way to tell what [Bauer] would have achieved had he lived into the 1920s.”

The Obscure Films of Evgenii Bauer

Only 26 of Bauer’s 82 films are known to be extant, and of these 26 only three are currently available on DVD (though if you want to go the VHS route, the British Film Institute’s Early Russian Cinema series contains more of Bauer’s films). Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, After Death, and The Dying Swan were released together by Milestone Film & Video on a disc titled Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer. The films were restored by Gosfilmfond, the Russian film archive, and feature new scores that were commissioned by the British Film Institute.

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is Bauer’s earliest surviving film, and though it’s less cinematically advanced in some ways than either After Death or The Dying Swan, it features some remarkable lighting and intriguing camerawork. Above all, it brilliantly exemplifies what Russian film scholar Rachel Morley wrote in her essay for the Milestone DVD: “Bauer’s female characters are consistently shown to be emotionally stronger and more engaging than their male counterparts.”

A viewer wouldn’t exactly guess this from the film’s initial scenes. “Vera feels lonely in her luxurious surroundings” is the intertitle that introduces its heroine. As the picture below illustrates, Bauer uses lighting and deep focus to create a sense of isolation. Later, after being summoned from her room to attend the party that’s being thrown by her wealthy mother, Vera slips away, and the camera follows her solitary pacing with a brief but important tracking shot which Yuri Tsivian praises in his visual essay that appears as a special feature on the Milestone DVD. As Tsivian wrote in his Oxford bio of Bauer, “His tracking shots display a sympathy towards the ‘inner life’ of the characters rather than merely stressing the vastness of the décor”—an innovative technique in Bauer’s time.


The next day, Vera accompanies her mother on a philanthropic visit to the homes of the poor while wearing a fur hand muff the size of a large dog. This comic innocence becomes tragic when a workman whose arm she’s bandaged turns Vera’s naivete against her. That night, the worker, Maksim, sneaks through her window to deliver a letter begging for her to visit and tend to his injury. Meanwhile, Vera has had a dream that prompts a decision to dedicate her life to the poor (unlike the elaborate dream sequences in Bauer’s later films, the dream is a simple bit of double exposure). Alone, she goes to visit Maksim, and Bauer further signals the workman’s malignant intentions with a hawkish point-of-view shot as Maksim peers down at her from his garret window.


Maksim rapes her, but then the film takes a surprising twist: after he falls asleep, Vera kills him with one of his own tools. She returns home and broods over the event, but tells no one. Shortly thereafter she meets Prince Dol’skii, a somewhat pompous figure who wins her heart with a display of martial skill. Fencing and pistol shooting with his peers while Vera looks on, he fires each of his three shots into the bullseye. The Prince and Vera are soon engaged.

Vera makes multiple failed attempts to tell the Prince of the rape and subsequent murder, and succeeds in doing so only after the wedding has taken place. The Prince is unable to accept her “shame,” and Vera leaves him. Regretting his reaction, the Prince attempts to find Vera, but she’s left the country.

Two years later, the prince returns from his search. Attending a performance of La Traviata, he recognizes the lead actress as Vera, only now she’s going by the stage name of Ellen Kay. (I’ve not seen any comments on this by Bauer scholars, but I strongly suspect that Vera’s stage name was inspired by the Swedish feminist and suffragette Ellen Key, whose book The Woman Movement was published in 1912, just a year before Twilight of a Woman’s Soul was released. If so, it adds an entirely new layer of commentary to the film’s gender dynamics.)

The Prince visits Vera after the performance and declares his love, but the now worldly and experienced Vera rejects him. The Prince returns home, pulls out a pistol, and shoots himself through the heart—an unexpected coda in which his masculine martial prowess is ironically turned against him. “There are no clear winners in Bauer’s battle of the sexes,” Morley has written, but in this case the winner is indeed clear. The film ends abruptly, without even a glimpse of the dead man’s face.

After Death (1915)

After Death is essentially a tale of impotent, outdated masculinity confronted by the boldness of a modern woman. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s 1882 short story “Klara Milich,” After Death is about a reclusive photographer (in Turgenev’s story he was a scientist), Andrei Bagrov, pure in mind and body as the film’s intertitles relate, who reveres and idealizes the memory of his dead mother.

Zoia stares at the seated Andrei, who has just endured a momentous tracking shot.

Though the opening of the film features an unmoving shot through a half-closed doorway that uses distance, lighting, and staging to suggest an isolation similar to Vera’s in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, by 1915 Bauer had learned some much more exciting tricks that display his directorial prowess while also revealing something about his characters. Dragged to a social event by a friend, the reclusive Andrei travels down a long hallway, a social gauntlet of sorts, and is introduced by his friend to small bodies of people on both his left and right. Bauer shoots the entire affair in one astonishing three-minute tracking shot that is the silent film-era equivalent of the tracking shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas. The camera moves slowly backwards the entire time, dollying out with brief left and right pans, a shot that required Bauer to rig up a two-bicycle platform with which to move the camera.

Near the end of the shot the camera pans left to a curtained doorway through which a woman appears: Zoia Kadmina, an actress. She immediately commands Andrei’s attention, yet he’s too shy to approach her. Shortly after, he attends a charity event where Zoia gives a performance. Andrei leaves immediately after, rejecting the opportunity to be introduced to Zoia, but her eyes follow him in an eerie closeup.


The bold Zoia writes an anonymous letter to Andrei requesting a meeting in a park. He guesses the letter’s author and keeps the appointment, but her declarations of feeling are too much for his solitary soul. They depart separately, and three months later Andrei reads a notice in the paper that Zoia has poisoned herself, a suicide rumored to be inspired by unrequited love.

Throughout the rest of the film, Andrei is haunted to death via elaborate dreams and visitations by Zoia. Yet her figure and mannerisms are suggestive less of her true self than of what Rachel Morley calls “an out-dated icon of idealized femininity,” perhaps an attempt by Andrei to vicariously fetishize Zoia with some of his late mother’s perfection. In one recurring and visually striking dream, a white-clad Zoia walks through a field of rye, the upper half of her body made blindingly bright via overexposed film.

The Dying Swan (1917)

Vera Karalli

The character of Zoia in After Death was played by Vera Karalli, formerly a ballet dancer, and so famous as a beautiful queen of the Russian screen that she was used in the plot to lure Rasputin to his death (Morley says “allegedly used,” but other accounts are less equivocal). Karalli also starred in The Dying Swan, this time as a mute ballet dancer named Gizella who becomes the morbid obsession of Count Glinskii, an inept painter. Seeing Gizella perform, Glinskii is convinced that by painting her, he will at last be able to capture “real death” on canvas.

The covert and ambivalent irony of Bauer’s treatment of Andrei in After Death becomes much more overt and sardonic in The Dying Swan, a film which “suggests that Bauer was perhaps growing a little impatient with the dilettantish obsession with morbidity popular at the time,” Morley writes. However, it’s more likely that the mocking tone the film takes toward Glinskii is directed not at others, but at Bauer himself and his obsession with death and the quest for the perfect image. As Tsivian says in his DVD essay, “[Glinskii is] an artist whose interest in death almost parodies Bauer’s own.”


The shot which introduces Glinskii is so replete with skeletons that it can be easy to overlook the fact that Glinskii is trying and failing miserably to sketch a realistic lifelike/deathlike head. Later, after Gizella has consented to a sitting, Glinskii proudly shows his self-professed work of genius to an older friend, who instantly voices his scornful judgment: “But it is untalented—terrible!”

The Dying Swan features an innovative tracking shot that in its subjectivity, if not in its length or technical prowess, is equal to the tracking shot in After Death. Gizella is asleep on a stormy night. Signaling the onset of a dream, the camera begins to move back, revealing flashes of lightning through the bedroom windows: the dream is going to be a nightmare. In fact, the dream foretells Gizella’s death, ending with a frightening shot of many pairs of disembodied hands reaching out to grab her.

“Viktor shall marry me if I’m not devoured by my table setting!”

Unexpected happiness becomes the cause of Gizella’s doom. After accepting a proposal from Viktor, a beau who had betrayed her with another woman in one of the early scenes of the film, Gizella visits Glinskii for a final sitting. The Count is astonished by her transformation. “Can this be the same Gizella? Where are those joyless, sad, exhausted eyes?” The film ends as it must, with a strangled Gizella futilely posed by the murderous painter. “Unlike the outcomes depicted in Soviet films, or, for that matter American films of the time, in the works of Bauer… evil rarely got punished. There was a great deal of suffering in them, but it was usually the innocent victim who suffered rather than the wicked person,” Peter Kenez writes in Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953.

Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer can be purchased through the Milestone website ( If you’re interested in reading more about Bauer and his films, I recommend an interesting essay by Galya Diment on the critically overlooked connections between Bauer’s films and the works of Russian novelist and cinephile Vladimir Nabokov.

Some Human & Inhuman Figures from Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa, Sive Mirabilia Naturæ et Artis Libris (Wurzburg, 1662)





Images from