Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Ex Arbore Nomen Habet

Linnaeus is a suitable name, an aptronym, for a botanist. It is a Latinized form of Swedish lind (alt. linn) = linden tree (Tilia europaea). Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 19, tells the story behind the name:
Linnaeus' father, Nils Ingemarsson, had named himself Linnaeus to celebrate a triple-trunked linden tree growing next to the family farm, Jonsboda Östragård, in Hvittaryd parish, Sunnerbo hundred, Växsjö bishopric, Småland. So magnificent was the tree that two of his maternal uncles also gave themselves family names in its honor. According to local tradition, it was a magic growth (vårdträd), and its well-being was linked to that of the families who farmed its land — now calling themselves Lindelius, Tiliander, and Linnaeus. Some hundred years later, in 1820, high winds tumbled its rotting trunks across a field and onto a Bronze age cairn. The farm people let the "ruin" lie. As the romanticizing local parson contentedly noted, they still adhered to "that prejudice, which I am happy to forgive and do not want to exterminate, that it would not be good luck to remove the least splinter of that linden tree."
A bust by sculptor Paul T. Granlund on the grounds of the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, shows the botanist as part linden tree, part human:

This reminds me of Bernini's sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, in which the girl turns into a laurel tree (daphne = laurel in Greek) while being chased by the amorous god. There are lots of metamorphoses into trees in ancient mythology (Baucis and Philemon, etc.). Similarly, in Tolkien's world, the Ents came to look like the trees they shepherded. Treebeard was
a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 4.

In the eyes of some, Thoreau was half tree, half human. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Thoreau," Atlantic Monthly X (Aug. 1862):
"I love Henry," said one of his friends, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree."
Emerson's son Edward, in Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend, tells the same anecdote and adds:
He, himself, said, "When I am dead you will find swamp-oak written on my heart"; but under this oak-bark was friendship and loyalty in the tough grain, through and through.
Bronson Alcott wrote in his Journal (Jan. 22, 1851):
Thoreau passed this morning and dined with me. He was on his way to read a paper at Medford this evening—his "Life in the Woods at Walden"; and as refreshing a piece as the Lyceum will get from any lecturer going at present in New England—a whole forest, with forester and all, imported into the citizen's and villager's brain. A sylvan man accomplished in the virtues of an aboriginal civility, and quite superior to the urbanities of cities, Thoreau is himself a wood, and its inhabitants.
In Concord Days (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872), p. 11, Alcott wrote that Thoreau "united these qualities of sylvan and human in a more remarkable manner than any whom it has been my happiness to know."

The title of this blog post is a pun on Ovid's ex re nomen habet (Amores 1.8.3).

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