IMPERMANENCE and SYNONYMY

This article is an excerpt from my self-published book, Splendor in Spines. Copies are so scarce as to be almost non-existent, so don’t bother looking.

IMPERMANENCE and SYNONYMY, by Michael J. Papay
No landscape is permanent, no life form is permanent, no plant is permanent, and thus no garden can be permanent. Changes come second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, year by year, generation by generation. Changes come. To garden is to engage with the inevitable changes of the universe. The grandest gardens with the most spectacular views are nature’s untended landscapes. Gardeners tend to think that the plants need us, and many of the ones we select for our gardens probably do, but what nature’s landscapes mostly need is for humans to leave them alone, to stop bulldozing and flattening and digging and ditching and damming and cutting down and paving and poisoning. The moment we stop suppressing nature it will resume its processes of checks and balances. Nature’s equilibriums are not permanent. They are in a constant state of flux – by changes in season, climate, weather, geologic activity, and natural calamities. Nothing is permanent. Impermanence allows change, progression, renewal. Transition is the essence of life. It is the way of the universe. It is the dynamism of species. It is the nature of gardens.

Each time a species reproduces, the offspring are a little different from their parents and from each other as well, usually in multitudinous and subtle ways. This is the inherent fluidity of life – and of species. Just as each individual of a species is different from all the other individuals of the same species, every generation is slightly different than the one before it. Setting aside a “type” specimen of a species is like setting aside a bucket of water from a stream.

If geologists categorized mountains by comparing descriptions of only each summit, they would miss all the geology that is present below the summits where each mountain merges into the surrounding landscape. Geologists don’t do that of course, because it is obviously a silly thing to categorize mountains by only their summits, yet this is in essence what taxonomy does when setting a “type specimen” for each species. Mountains of important information are left out. The diverse and fluid nature of a species is downplayed, and we are led to believe that a species is a “fixed” thing rather than a dynamic composition of all of its individuals that changes with each generation. And by thinking of species as fixed things we do not think about the fluid ways in which each species is in flux through its own reproduction. We are led to think of hybridization as unusual rather than important. In essence, our view of species has been the wrong way around for a very long time. We have been looking at the summits of mountains while the world below remained to us something we didn’t know that we should know.

John Ray (1627-1705) helped invent modern taxonomy, and gave us a definition for “species.” In Daniel J. Boorstin’s fantastic book, The Discoverers, the then Librarian to the Library of Congress admiringly wrote, “What Newton did for students of physics…Ray did for the students of nature.” John Ray recognized the problem of continuums, and made no bones about it. In the preface to his Methodus Plantarum Nova (New Plant Method) published in 1682, John Ray wrote, “I would not have my readers expect something perfect or complete, something which would divide all plants so exactly as to include every species without leaving any in positions anomalous or peculiar; something which would so define each genus by its own characteristics that no species be left, so to speak, homeless or be found common to many genera. Nature does not permit anything of the sort.” John Ray got it right. His axiom is intrinsic to life.

The primary colors (red, yellow, blue) appear to be clearly separate. In fact, however, there is a continuous gradation from one end of the spectrum to the other. Understandably we have difficulty coming up with meaningful names for all the colors in-between, let alone spectra invisible to our eyes. Taxonomy is faced with the same problem, only with living things and their constituent molecules. Just as a species is a pool of its individuals, interaction amongst species is a matter of fluid dynamics, not stringent lines. Scientists now inspect the molecular spectrums of life in ever increasing detail. Life’s chemical rainbows provide endlessly diverse and often interwoven continuums, all realms of fluid dynamism. In its origins, taxonomy relied upon observations of how a living thing looked, behaved, and where it lived to ascertain if and how it was different. Where a thing lived, what it looked like, and how it behaved were all tangible things that even nonscientists could understand – and that knowable quality of early taxonomy made it successful. As we discover the true fluid nature of molecular relatedness amongst living things, we must make all that we discover knowable, comprehensible, and thereby useful.

When a species is named but later deemed the same as a previously recorded species, the newer name is retired in favor of the first given name. Retired names are then said to be synonyms of the original name. Yet it is often true that a synonym was used to describe a population that differed from the “type” in an interesting way, thus tracking down synonymous plants can prove rewarding.

Nurserymen are slow to adopt taxonomic name changes. Doing so would require the nursery stock to be re-labeled and re-organized almost constantly, the result being that only the most up-to-date taxonomist would know where to find a plant - a situation entirely unhelpful to the usual customer.

פורסם על-ידי mjpapay mjpapay, ינואר 01, 2021 03:24 אחה"צ