Friday, February 24, 2012

`An Aesthetic Problem in Reading the Arts'

“Plants, like people, are given names by which they may be known. All names are made up of two parts, the genus, which corresponds to the family name such as Smith and Jones, and the species, which corresponds to our customary baptismal names, as John and Mary.”

That’s as concise and folksy an explanation of binomial nomenclature as I’ve ever read. The author is Ellen D. Schulz, writing in the foreword to her Texas Wild Flowers: A Popular Account of the Common Wild Flowers of Texas. This compact, pleasingly weighty volume (ideal for pressing flowers) was published in 1928 by Laidlaw Brothers of Chicago. In the Fondren Library I found an almost pristine circulating copy with an inscription on the front endpaper: “Harris Masterson Jr., Austin 9/10/28.” Schulz’s foreword goes on: 

“Better known are the common names, similar to nicknames, which are convenient for use because they are more easily remembered by those not educated in botanical terminology. Spanish dagger expresses more than Yucca treculeana and blue-eyed grass more than Sisyrinchium augustifolium.” 

One admires the clarity of the prose, the fine balance of phrases, and Schulz’s respect for the precision and poetry embodied in Latin and common names, respectively. The index to her 505-page book is lengthy – thirteen triple-columned pages – because the Latin and common names are listed together. In this case redundancy is a virtue. Like Adam, we name things, and taxonomy is democratic to the extent that anyone can name a flower. Whether the name is recognized by others is less certain. 

Consider the Spanish dagger. I’ve always called it yucca (“of Carib origin,” the Oxford English Dictionary unhelpfully reports) and see it every day in landscaped yards around Houston. Schulz supplies other common names – Don Quixote’s lance and pita – and I’ve heard it called Spanish bayonet, in keeping with the cutlery theme. Under the heading of “General Information,” Schulz writes: 

“This yucca is well named for besides being a veritable arsenal of weapons, it has gone through time with a reputation quite as bold and harmless as the Don Quixote of mediaeval [sic] fiction.”

She adds another two paragraphs of folklore, Anglo and Mexican, and includes this nugget:

“In pioneer days when economy played its part in daily living, the blossoms were gathered in quantities and cooked and prepared like cabbage, or made into most delicious pickles.” 

What I most enjoy about reading Texas Wild Flowers, besides the brute data any good field guide ought to supply, is Schulz's assumption that basic botany is of interest to everyone. She dumbs down nothing and takes for granted, because you are reading her book, that you’re at least as fascinated by the subject as she is. How flattering that is to a reader. 

In 1963, Guy Davenport edited The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz, a selection from the Swiss-born professor-naturalist’s voluminous writings. In his introduction, later collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), Davenport writes: 

 “Louis Agassiz assumed that the structure of the natural world was everyone’s interest, that every community as a matter of course would collect and classify its zoology and botany. College students can now scarcely make their way through a poem organized around natural facts. Ignorance of natural history has become an aesthetic problem in reading the arts.”

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