Monday, January 9, 2012

linneaus eleison

I always enjoy reading news during the first week of a new year: summaries of the past twelve months' activity, previews and prognostications for the next twelve, and the occasional notice that things will never be the same.

Thus a bolt from the blue on Thursday's New York Times editorial page. The New Universal Language of Plants describes two major milestones"as of January 1, diagnostic botanical descriptions may be written in Latin or English, and the electronic publication of new names is accepted." These new standards and procedures are expected to expedite naming the more than 2000 new species of plants (including fungi and algae) now being identified each year. Meanwhile, of course, human impact on the environment is measurably shortening our list of 200,000 named species.

As Tennyson's King Arthur so quotably says from the deck of his funeral barge: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new" (Morte D'Arthur, line 240). In this case, however, we're also talking about old and new ways of ordering*.

I'm  relieved to see that binomial nomenclature, the real heart and soul of the Linnean system, is alive and well. The first new vegetable species to be described in 2012, Solanum umtumais a spiny eggplant native to South Africa. It gets its name the old-fashioned way -- from its genus (Solanum) along with an epithet (umtuma) chosen from the Zulu language by identifying botanists M.S. Vorontsova and S. Knapp, who have boldly written it in "the cloud" of cyberspace.

Years ago I wrote a poem about "the true and graeco-latin names of all the plants," including a number of references to Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin. I had fun "ringing the changes" on preoccupation with botanical names as a kind of idolatry, and ended with the hybrid line "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Linneaus eleison."

I think Linneaus' resonant tradition is showering mercy upon us in 2012, as new ways of thinking and doing build upon an infinitely expandable world of learning and enjoyment.

A Happy New Year indeed!

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* Oh, yes -- kingdom, phylum, class, etc. raise their heads and beg for more puns, but I am lashed to the mast and will ride out this storm.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License