Oath Visits Linnaeus

Posted: March 31st, 2010 under Life beyond writing, Reader Help.
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Ulrika Rydberg sent several pictures of Oath in Uppsala, all of which would have made a good picture here, but the bust of Carl von Linne did it for me.

Photo courtesy of Ulrika Rydberg

Why, you might wonder, would a fantasy & science fiction writer be so affected by a man whose work was in systematics and taxonomy?    Who devised the binomial nomenclature that is still in use?   Who picked up the chaotic mess that was plant classification before Linnaeus…chose the right threads to grasp…and then, with a swift shake, reorganized the understanding of all living things so that all later taxonomists and field biologists and museum directors knew what was related to what (although, not without some errors that DNA analysis has now revealed.)

It was thanks to Linnaeus that the explorers of North America in the 18th and 19th c. could classify what they found–or he could classify it for them, since his lifetime–1707 – 1778–meant that specimens could be sent to him (and were, in bundles and boxes.)    When you see a scientific name on an organism and there’s an L. after it, that means Linnaeus named it.   (Scientific names are binomial, genus and species, but formally also have the name of the person who assigned the name.)  Thus opening my massive Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas at random, and hitting oaks, I find Quercus macrocarpa (Michx), named by the famous naturalist/explorer Michaux, and on the next page Quercus prinus L.   There is only one L.  and that is Carl von Linne (as he’s known at home in Sweden) or Linnaeus (as the rest of the world knew him, for like every educated man of his day, he could speak and write Latin, the common language of educated men.)

The first time I saw an L. plant and recognized both it and its nomenclature was a special moment.   I had been recognizing resemblances in plant families before I knew about taxonomy but it was not until after college that I discovered a) field guides and b) Linnaeus as more than a name in a book and connect on a multiple choice test to “father of taxonomy.”   The connection was finally made in a book by the naturalist/writer Donald Culross Peattie, in which he described Linnaeus’s spring explorations–taking a train of students, with picnics and a marching band and banners flying,  out to the fields and forests near Uppsala to find and classify plants.   As my own study of the natural world continued, before and through the next college degree, finding the L. plants was always a thrill (the echo of those trumpets and drums and banners flicking in the wind.)

So: Oath is visiting one of my heroes.   And if you look closely (I wish I could show the image full-size) the bust of Linnaeus is not your standard bust.   His head is emerging from a tree…you can see the trunk and branches; his shoulders are clothed in the leafy canopy…on the plinth below, the sunlit side shows the delicate engraving of little flowers.  My brain’s not working or I’d recognize them…I’m betting they’re among the first he named, but I can’t remember.

And there’s Kieri, in a kingdom of trees and plants connected into one consciousness, the taig…his rule supported by the taig, as he serves the taig, and so the resonance goes.   (There’s more, but don’t want to bore you.)

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