On our morning walks to the bus stop we devote most conversations to what the natural world is offering – spiders, fog, dwindling chlorophyll, rabbits, the smell of apple trees and ozone. As usual, I emphasize connections – why crows tolerate human company, why lichens grow more heavily on dead and dying trees.
Such talk irritates the father of a girl who shares a bus with my ten-year-old. A self-described “nature-lover,” he believes nature is there for us to respect, and knowing too much about it—“dissecting” it, he calls it – disrespects nature. Those are my words but they don’t seriously misrepresent his incoherence. We might call him a Romantic shading into a Mystic (though he’s an atheist). Nature is a sort of idol to be worshipped, not explored or understood, and is best worshipped from a distance (slugs and slime mold are too icky).
On Wednesday, following up on a discussion of crows and ravens, I tried to explain to my neighbor the attraction taxonomy holds. He would have none of it: “Scientists are always trying to ruin nature for us.” I thought of him later when Dave Lull alerted me to a story in the Guardian about biologists editing the list of known flowering plants from one million to about four-hundred thousand. The three-year process consolidates known species and eliminates redundancy, which appeals to my innate tidiness and fondness for precision without inhibiting my love of flowers. The Guardian reporter, Juliette Jowet, writes:
“In one example, researchers calculated that for the six most-used species of Plectranthus, a relative of the basil plant, a researcher would miss 80% of information available if they looked under only the most commonly used name. On another database, they found only 150 of 500 nutritionally important plant species using the names cited in current literature.”
The more I know, the more understanding and enjoyment can grow. Knowledge doesn’t suppress an appetite but whets it. Early in life, Thoreau embodied the Romantic/Scientific distinction my neighbor divvies out among antagonists, but his thinking evolved. By his last decade, much of the grosser Transcendentalist fluff had worn off. He never numbered among the scientists but saw more than most of them. Thoreau’s eyes aspired to hawkish acuity. He read and assimilated On the Origin of Species while remaining a specimen collector for one of Darwin’s chief scientific antagonists, Louis Agassiz. By his final years, Thoreau resolved the false dichotomy between loving nature and respecting science. In his journal for Dec. 4, 1856, he writes:
“My first botany [book], as I remember, was [Jacob] Bigelow’s [Florula Bostoniensis, A Collection of] Plants of Boston and Vicinity, which I began to use about twenty years ago, looking chiefly for the popular names and the short references to the localities of plants . . . I also learned the names of many, but without using any system, and forgot them soon. I was not inclined to pluck flowers; preferred to leave them where they were, liked them best there . . . But from year to year we look at Nature with new eyes. About half a dozen years ago I found myself again attending to plants with more method, looking out the name of each one and remembering it . . . I remember gazing with interest at the swamps about those days and wondering if I could ever attain to such familiarity with plants that I should know the species of every twig and leaf in them, that I should be acquainted with every plant . . . I little thought that in a year or two I should have attained to that knowledge without all that labor.”