Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Desire for Knowledge and the Names for Things

In Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow, Dr. Gruner's ne'er-do-well son Wallace has a scheme for a new business (chapters 2-3):
Here's what we've come up with, as an enterprise. Aerial photographs of country houses. Then the salesman arrives with the picture—not just contacts but the fully developed picture—and offers you a package deal. We will identify the trees and shrubs on the place and band them handsomely, in Latin and English. People feel ignorant about the plants on their property.


'All men by nature desire to know.' That's the first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics. I never got much further, but I figured that the rest must be out of date anyway. However, if they desire to know, it makes them depressed if they can't name the bushes on their own property. They feel like phonies. The bushes belong. They themselves don't. And I'm convinced that knowing the names of things braces people up.
You could hire people to tell you the names of the plants on your property. Or you could figure out the names for yourself. Here are two accounts of people whose desire to know impelled them to learn the names of things.

Donald Culross Peattie, The Road of a Naturalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941; rpt. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986), pp. 121-122:
I went out into the rambling wide yard, over the uncut spring grass beneath the tall oaks that I had always known. But I did not know them; it came to me, with Gray's Manual in my hand, that I had never known them at all. Two had been cut down, and the others were marked for felling, for most of this tract had been bought already and houses were to be crowded upon it. The city was shouldering its ugliness close. This sweet May day was outgrown. An era was over when there was plenty of time, and money enough, and you could still put off making up your mind. The world was at war, and I was twenty; and my father was working too hard in New York. Time for me to get to work, then. No time left to learn.

Except the oaks. I wanted to salute them, once, by name before I left them. Standing beneath their old green boughs, I opened my book and with a forefinger went tracing through the keys and their descriptions. These trees, whose burning garnet autumn foliage, whose fringed and top-shaped acorn cups I had known so long, whose yellow inner bark of twigs my teeth had discovered early, now were proved to me by these evidences to be black oaks. Quercus velutina. They became fixed for me, like stars. Let the axe take them. They were in their place. And like a firmament slowly broke over me the grandeur of a system where every oak puts down its roots eternal and unshakable, yes, and every transient flower. Like stars, I saw, each plant, perhaps each animal, had not only its place but its relation with all others, its measurable distances from them, as if, in evolution's slow tremendous course, all exerted pulls of varying strength upon the others. Species and genus and family, class and subkingdom and kingdom and kingdom glittered, still dimly, in that infinity. This, with the breath of lilac in my nostrils, the watchman's rattle of a flicker calling after me, was Nature. I closed the book, and walked away from the old address that I would never give again. I had no other, but I had at least a new sense of direction overhead, astronomically sure, and spreading over all the living earth.
Baron Wormser, The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir of Living Off the Grid (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006), p. 131:
We walked the old roads to learn. Initially we knew next to nothing. We could not name a tree or flower or bird beyond the simplest ones—pine, daisy, blue jay. We had field guides to go by; we had our lived-here-forever neighbors to consult. Often the combination of a field guide and Stanton was confusing. Was rock maple the same as sugar maple, ironwood the same as hophornbeam, quaking aspen the same as trembling poplar? Was a porcupine the same creature as a hedgehog? What kind of mock orange was it that we dug up from around an old house foundation? It was fragrant, but the ones at the nursery weren't. What sorts of old apple trees were across the road from us? How come tamarack (also known as hackmatack and not to be confused with tacamahac) dropped all its needles in the fall? Wasn't it an evergreen? It looked like an evergreen. Identifying terms grew up like trees in a field—here and there, at once random and yet trying to make something like sense. The old-timers laughed and snorted at our books. What, Ella wondered out loud, had the world come to that people needed such things?

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