It is much to my despair that botany is a dying subject. At least, botany as I understand it. I’m sure you are aware that we are firmly into the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth. Truly, the winds of mankind are shedding leaves from the tree of life at a remarkable rate. So why am I here to lament an academic pursuit in the face of such loss? It’s all to do with names.
Botany departments have in many institutions moved away from traditional habitat assessments and taxonomy and into new areas, termed “plant science”. Whilst this may seem like a simple change in terminology, I fear it is indicative of a far greater tragedy. I’ve heard from more than a couple of sources that it is now possible to spend 4 years in certain third level institutions studying plants and then come out of it being unable to name a single wildflower. So, as has often been asked before by far greater minds than mine, “What is in a name?”
To take only but a part of this philosophical colossus, my interest is existence. True, that we name something does not give it life, but it gives it our attention. It becomes part of our shared history. More on this later. But what is the greatest concern to me is that if the names fall out of the common vernacular, then it can just as easily fall out of existence. This is especially worrying when you consider that words such as “acorn” and “blackberry” are no longer in the Oxford Junior Dictionary. If we no longer know the name of a species, how will we notice when it has gone? When we talk of biodiversity, we often refer to the number of species, and we differentiate these species with a name.
It is not just the existence of a species that is threatened by our ignorance, it is also our culture. There is tremendous power in a name. Words that have been spoken for generations root us in our culture, our history. Think back, how many generations of your family are likely to have sat on a patch of grass threading the venerable daisy Bellis perennis together, or plucking its petals with the words “He loves me, he loves me not” on the tongue. Those innocent days of childhood are woven back through our cultural and personal history, these memories linking us much like the daisies themselves.
Through my time leading nature walks, I have been offered a glimpse into the average level of people’s knowledge of the natural world. The diagnosis is not good, especially if I recall one particular school trip. I had a class of around fifteen 8-9 year olds and after a quick introduction we set out to see what wildlife we could find. I thought I’d start them off easy and pointed to a magpie in the car park. My heart sank when not even one of them knew what it was or had so much as heard of one. Not only did they not know the name of this beautiful and incredibly common bird, it also dawned on me that neither did their parents. Surely, at least once the child and parent would have seen a magpie together and the parent would have said “Look! A magpie!” even just to distract the child for a few minutes while they try to desperately gulp their cold cup of tea in peace.
Of course, it is unfeasible to expect everyone to know the name of everything they see. It is nigh on impossible to do that even for experts. It certainly is a goal of mine, but I am aware that this probably pushes me towards the more eccentric of lifestyles. However, if we don’t appreciate the common then there is no hope for the rare.
Meadowsweet – Filipendula ulmaria
As a field scientist, I stick to the ecological facts. But the power of our imaginations is tremendous. As a motivating force, narrative is spectacular. If we intend to engage the wider public in conservation, then we may need narrative on our side. It is far easier to remember a species if you know a story about it. For example, right now the fields and hedgerows are full of Filipendula ulmaria and Prunella vulgaris, or meadowsweet and self-heal, respectively. Meadowsweet is called so for it’s fragrance and it was once regarded as sacred by the druids. Self heal is believed to be a miracle cure for almost any ailment you can think of in any part of the world it is found, also going by the name “heal-all”.
This isn’t limited to plants. I’d be intrigued to know how many of you know the rhyme about magpies. I’d be even more interested in how many of you still salute a single magpie to ward off bad luck. These rituals and superstitions are also part of who we are. They are traditions from our shared heritage. How will these survive if we don’t know what a magpie is? It isn’t just species that face extinction, it is also a part of ourselves.
Self Heal – Prunella vulgaris
Recently, there has been a bit of a storm over the publication of a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben in Germany that attempts to anthropomorphise trees. It has been criticised for mis-selling nature and giving people an inaccurate understanding of woodlands. Whilst this is true, it has reached the top 5 best sellers in Germany and has engaged an enormous audience. This audience may well take into account that the wood is more than just trees.
This isn’t new by the way, James Lovelock proposed Gaia theory back in the 1970s, which suggests that our Earth behaves as a single living organism. The name was suggested by the author William Golding and the idea was, at first, derided. However, it has been a motivating force in society, literature and science and despite many criticisms, it is seen as “a metaphor, not a mechanism”. It is utilising the imagination to view our Earth as something more than a rock hurtling through space.
I guess what I’m driving at is that this kind of knowledge requires devotees to exist. With forward apologies to those watching American Gods or who haven’t already read it (it was published 2001, get on it). I feel I must draw parallels. The old gods, like our knowledge of the natural world, like our shared heritage, requires a form of worship and devotion to exist. Our ignorance of them may lead to them fading from existence, with no fanfare or ceremony. Our time and effort put in to learn about the wonders of the natural world may very well be key to saving them. Without this, species will continue to fade away, evaporating and taking our heritage with them. And we shall be all the more impoverished for it.