Naming Nature (An Aspect of Reading the World)

I’m back from Michigan, and had a lovely conference: lots of good ideas bubbling up and rolling around and getting hit back and forth between people like ping-pong balls. But it’s also in Michigan, in the springtime at a campus on rolling hills and deciduous forests just waking up, and it’s always beautiful.
This time someone had the (friendly) audacity to point out that my pictures were of the trees, not the conference panels, and I was forced to acknowledge that part of my draw is to the woods; part of my time is spent sitting and walking outside.
It’s a medieval studies conference, so part of my imagination is always charged with that kind of life: I went to papers about Germanic myths and medieval material culture, so as I carved a path through the trees or took the one someone left for me, I felt a bit of that other world, living closer to nature than we do today. Certainly Michigan is no Scandinavia, but it shares enough for this Californian to have it work on my thoughts. I especially love taking pictures, finding plants I can identify, and plants I don’t recognize:  reading the forest.

Dogwood has been one of my favorite flowers since I was a child. My grandparents lived in Oregon, and Grandma loved Dogwood. I used to ask why there was Dogwood, but no Catwood, and finally concluded that there were wolves in the forest, but no lions, so that must be it. Grandma’s Dogwood tree was a Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli), and this was Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), but it still counts. They’re related, and the name indicates that.

It’s the names of nature I’m thinking about today. I bought a book about the character of Natura in the Middle Ages, so more will be coming about the grand idea, but Sunday there was an article in the New York Times about Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who invented the system of binomial nomenclature—the reason you can read the difference between Cornus nuttalli and Cornus florida on the page, and not just on the petals, so that’s the direction I’m headed today. Back to Scandinavia. Back to the woods. Back to the ways we bridge the gap between what we know and how we know it, by turning the world in to words. 
James Prosek, who wrote this article on Linnaeus, is working on a book “about how and why we name and order the natural world,” and his piece in the Sunday Times is a brief account of his retracing Linnaeus’s steps through northern Sweden:  Lapland. Linnaeus had traveled for five months, cataloging, collecting, and naming plants, and keeping a journal. Prosek followed skeptically, with a 21stcentury’s dim view of Linnaeus’s ego and privilege, as he ventured in to Lapland with some intent to exploit the Laplanders and some intent to name the world from his perspective. Prosek points out the flower he names after himself (Linnea borealis) as evidence of his ego, and then as he looks at others of Linneaus’s monikers, he discovers a pattern. 
Linnaeus uses Latin to name his specimens, which was the language of learning in 18th century Sweden. Prosek bristles at that, but softens when he sees Linnaeus’s attempts to be precise but also evocative in his naming. One example that changes his mind is a white flower Linnaeus called Dryas octopetala because the leaves reminded him of oaks, and dryads were the nymphs who inhabited oak trees. The flower has eight petals—a dryad in an eight-paneled skirt. 

Prosek finds this charming, as do I. He notes Linnaeus’s names attempt to be “thoughtful and carry physical and quantitative characteristics, metaphor, and allusion to myth.” It’s this storytelling aspect that appeals to me. Linnaeus attempted to encounter the unfamiliar with the tools of the familiar—to describe new flora in terms he and his readers would understand, to bridge the gap between the unknown and the known by creating names that tell a story. It is the oldest and best way to teach—to engage the imagination to help people remember the facts. 

And it still works, as I sat near the forest’s edge, daydreaming about wolves and a red-cloaked girl and the Dogwood she might pick for her granny on the way to the Chaucer panel.  

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