Nursery Blog

Thoreau’s Tao of Botany

When my grandmother, Lucille Jewell, passed away, I received all or most of her nature field guides. Looking through these books, whether about birds or plants, is a small adventure into my grandmother’s naturalizing world. Many field notes are scribed in the margins, most indicating where and when a bird or plant was discovered, or in the case of plants in particular, a portion of the very plant itself, dry and flattened, but not beyond recognition, would come slipping out onto my lap. Recently I took to investigate the book How to Know the Ferns, by Frances Theodora Parsons. While skimming the pages I discovered not only the aforementioned specimens, but a particularly wonderful quote by Henry David Thoreau (Mr. Parsons himself proving to be as interested in plants as he is Henry, which I suppose is par for the course for a naturalist). What is striking about this quote, which I am soon going to share with you, is Henry’s impartiality toward plant classification, something quite essential to the field of botany. I myself having read as much about Taoism as I have about plants, was struck as his tone was very similar to the Chinese taoist sages of old who shunned convention, but loved and studied nature as their greatest inspiration, and expression of the Tao, or Way. In investigating this similarity I found that a number of scholars feel the same way, and whom undertook to make a study of it, completed in the form of a book or essay, some of which can be read online. Yet, the need to make this comparison is not the central interest, but more so the ideas this quote conveys, something I believe the average naturalist would be a bit shocked by, yet which is embraced by the author.

In the words of H.D. Thoreau –

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s-breadth to any natural object, so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension, I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns, you must forget your botany. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose. You would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. you must be aware nothing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty? You must be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society. If it were required to know the position of the fruit-dots or the character of the indusium, nothing could be easier than to ascertain it; but if it is required that you be affected by ferns, that they amount to anything to you, that they be another sacred scripture and revelation to you, helping to redeem your life, this end is not so easily accomplished.





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