Monday, September 14, 2009

`What Others Know About the Same Thing'

The most common and conspicuous wildflower in the neighborhood superficially resembles a dandelion. The stem is long and spindly but strong, like green wire. The flower is yellow and attractively ragged. Like the dandelion it thrives in concrete and drought, and its leaves are simple and basal with the familiar toothy edges (dent de lion). On a crisp brown lawn or growing from a crack in the asphalt, it’s a micro-oasis, but the identity of this tough little weed remained a mystery I only half-heartedly pursued.

In bed Saturday night I was reading Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press, 2006) by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson. The book is intelligently organized, first by color, then by number of petals, family, genus and species. I browsed in the yellow section of the family Asteraceae (asters, daisies, sunflowers), the second-largest family of flowering plants (1,600 genera, 21,000 species).

A certain sameness was setting in – Hieracium cynoglossoides, Hieracium gracile, Hieracium scouleri – until I came upon a familiar face. There it was: the not-dandelion, a perfectly framed color photo of the flower growing 10 feet away from me on the front lawn. Turner (photographer) and Gustafson (writer) had solved my nagging little mystery: Hypochaeris radicata, the rough cat’s-ear or hairy cat’s-ear. Gustafson’s prĂ©cis is precise:

“Flowers entirely yellow, staying open in sunny or cloudy weather. An abundant weed found in lawns, roadsides, disturbed places, from coast to open woods, at low elevations. Sometimes confused with common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, when growing as a lawn weed, especially when not in bloom.”

I felt like the Adam of the plant kingdom (Genesis 2:20). Naming something, fitting an object to a body of knowledge, is an invigorating sensation. Without even trying, I had chipped away at my ignorance and found something useful I hadn’t even been looking for – a familiar experience on the internet.

I’ve been in the company of birders arguing savagely over the identity of a tuft of feathers in the underbrush. It turned into another fight over ego-turf, and I permanently swore off collective birding. Thoreau understood the pleasures and importance of naming. For him it signified knowledge and the possibility of communicating it. In his journal for Aug. 29, 1858, he writes:

“How hard one must work in order to acquire his language, -- words by which to express himself! I have known a particular rush, for instance, for at least twenty years, but have ever been prevented from describing some [of] its peculiarities, because I did not know its name nor anyone in the neighborhood who could tell me it. With the knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing….My knowledge was cramped and confined before, and grew rusty because not used, -- for it could not be used. My knowledge now becomes communicable and grows by communication. I can now learn what others know about the same thing.”

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