The Art Of Science

The Art Of Science

Book brings together two unique efforts in education

Photo courtesy Kelly Mulhollan
Bonar sits with his copy of “The Atlas and Annotated List of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas,” which is now in Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries.


For nigh onto 30 years, Kent Bonar traversed the hills and valleys of Northwest Arkansas carrying a tome the size of an Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t even his book, although it did have its roots at the University of Arkansas, but it became a journal of his experiences in the woods and all the flora and many of the fauna the naturalist saw there.

Now, thanks to the University of Arkansas Press, the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies and the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, the original “Atlas and Annotated List of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas” by University of Arkansas botanist Edwin B. Smith has been reprinted with some 3,500 of Bonar’s drawings. Now titled “An Arkansas Florilegium,” It is, says Bob Cochran, a professor of English and folklore, a record of two “monumental undertakings by two Arkansas characters.” And “Arkansas Character” is not coincidentally the name of the series it’s published in at University Press. “Character,” says Cochran, means both to exhibit integrity and to be something of an odd duck, and it’s an appropriate description of both men.

Edwin Smith, who died in January, was a professor of botany and curator of the Arkansas Herbarium at the University of Arkansas for 32 years. Cochran describes “The Atlas and Annotated List of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas,” released in 1978, as the seminal survey of the state’s flora and on Smith’s part, a “solitary, heroic endeavor” that included the book being literally self-published on a mimeograph machine — although on very good paper, he points out.

It was, he explains, never intended to be a coffee table book. An entry for Trifolium vesiculosum, for example, reads: “This species has apparently recently been introduced in cultivation in Arkansas and is escaping. It was reported as new to the United States in 1969 (in Louisiana and Mississippi), new to Alabama in 1970, and new to Oklahoma in 1974.” Only a diligent reader would get beyond “arrow-leaf clover.”

Bonar was that diligent reader and more. Raised in Johnson County, Mo. — the Warrensburg area — he spent most of his childhood with his grandparents, “out squirrel hunting when I was barely walking” with one grandfather and learning the difference between weeds and vegetables in the garden with the other. In addition to studying the ways of game animals, Bonar was taught how to forage in the woods, which plants were edible and which were delicacies. By junior high, he was picking up field guides in bookstores when he could, and after high school, he enrolled at the University of Missouri. His adviser, he remembers with some awe, was the son-in-law of American author, philosopher and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and he understood Bonar’s desire to “get an education, not just a degree.”

Photo courtesy Kelly Mulhollan
The “Atlas and Annotated List of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas” was published by University of Arkansas botanist Edwin B. Smith in 1978. Naturalist Kent Bonar added the illustrations over about 30 years.

“But I did set a 35-year curve [for grades] in ornithology,” he says proudly.

Bonar left school behind when he was offered a job as a naturalist in the Arkansas park system about the time the Vietnam War was winding to a close. He says the state really didn’t know what a naturalist was supposed to do, so he set out to “take the job seriously.” He met Smith at an Arkansas Academy of Science meeting in 1975, he recalls, when the state was trying to come up with a preliminary biota — a survey of the animal and plant life of the region — to get some kind of grant. When Smith spoke, he mentioned his plan to publish his treatise on vascular plants, and Bonar says he bought the book at the University of Arkansas bookstore within a month of its publication.

“It was the first comprehensive guide for Arkansas since 1943,” he says in the tone of voice someone might use for a much-anticipated video game or movie these days, then takes off on a side story about how a competition between two scientists in 1943 called their results into question. But Bonar didn’t set out to illustrate it for anyone but himself. “The best way to learn stuff is by drawing it,” he says simply, explaining that he would find extant examples at a herbarium or photos or even line drawings to work from, then draw the plant again in situ when he found it. “It was real enlightening when the plant didn’t look anything like what I expected,” he says with a ready chuckle.

It was on an expedition at Hurricane Creek four or five years ago that Bonar realized he needed to take steps to save his drawings: He slipped crossing the creek and dumped himself, his backpack and the book into the water. He spent the night drying the pages over a campfire, and says that “wake-up call” led him to Special Collections at the UA Libraries.

That’s about the time Cochran comes into the story. An outdoorsman named Trey Marley made him aware of the book with Bonar’s illustrations, and the new “Arkansas Character” series was serendipitously kicking off at University Press with the publication of “True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley” by Fayetteville musician and history collector Kelly Mulhollan.

Photo courtesy Kelly Mulhollan
Kent Bonar lives in rural Newton County with a passel of dogs and cats, a well for water, a solar charger for his radio and his passion for the outdoors. In his lap is the book on Arkansas flora he illustrated over the course of some 30 years.

Cochran got his brother, a rare book specialist, to come and take Smith’s now illustrated manuscript apart, and it was scanned by UA staffer Joshua Youngblood for reprinting by University Press and saved for posterity in Special Collections.

“So there’s this group of people who sort of kidnapped the book from Bonar — with his cooperation,” Cochran says. “Edwin Smith spent about 30 years writing it, and Kent Bonar spent about 30 years illustrating it, and now it’s coming out this week.”

Bonar really just wants to get through all the festivities and get back to his cabin near Nail, in Newton County, where he says he tries to live like it’s the 1800s.

“I do have a solar charger for flashlights and the radio,” he admits. “I like to listen to UA football and basketball games and NPR.”


‘An Arkansas Florilegium’

WHERE — Available from University of Arkansas Press at

COST — $75

INFO — 800-626-0090

Categories: Cover Story