Friday, July 06, 2007

Botanizing With Linnaeus

May 23 was Carl Linnaeus' 300 birthday, and this year, 2007, various organizations have uploaded commemorative Web sites and articles. Linnaeus is a fascinating figure, a favorite of mine, seldom given his due in modern treatments of biology. For example, I've always bridled at how explicators of evolution cast Linnaeus as the unenlightened old school against which Darwin rebelled. Firstly, picturing Darwin as a rebel is quite funny, and secondly, Linnaeus laid the groundwork for understanding many biological processes, including evolution.

Even my stumbling reading of his taxonomic work in Latin showed me that he really delighted in plants, and this article from National Geographic, Linnaeus: The Name Giver, indicates that he was inspiring and fun, at least if you were in his good graces.

His life back in Uppsala entailed more than authorship. He was a wonderful teacher, with a vivid speaking style, clear and witty, and a terrific memory for facts. His lectures often packed the hall, his private tutoring earned him extra money, and he made botany both empirical and fun by leading big festive field trips into the countryside on summer Saturdays, complete with picnic lunches, banners and kettledrums, and a bugle sounding whenever someone found a rare plant. He had the instincts of an impresario. But he was also quietly effective in mentoring the most talented and serious of his students, of whom more than a dozen went off on adventuresome natural history explorations around the world, faithfully sending data and specimens back to the old man. With his typically sublime absence of modesty, he called those travelers the "apostles." In 1761, the government ennobled him, whereupon he upgraded his linden-tree name to von Linné. By then he was the most famous naturalist in Europe.

I've been in the field with entomologists, birders, and botanists, and botanists are definitely the most fun to travel with. Now I know it's a Linnaean tradition.

3 comments:

OfTroy said...

Are you familiar with Edward Lear --maybe from your childhood (he wrote The Owl and The PussyCat

He was also a botanical illustrator, and just like his poetry, he also did nonsense botany.
see some here:
http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/ns/nb.html

he has books of the stuff (and books of serious stuff too, ) but when he tired of serious stuff, he made up botany.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Thanks for this great link! I'd seen "Manypeeplia Upsidownia" in a textbook years ago. This is a treasure!

Larry said...

Thanks, oftroy, for the Lear link! I just loved those parodies of botanical nomenclature and illustration.