15 October 2007

The known world

As this project continues into its second month, I wonder about my quest to identify local grass species. What does one gain by being able to name each grass I see on my walks? Is this linked to some Enlightenment dream of naming all parts of the world and thus feeling I have more control over the landscape?

Am I really interested in appreciating nature or is this more like the effort in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to catalog and display the natural world in zoos and botanical gardens?

And how much of my interest in the common landscape of grasses is linked to the English 19th century fascination with the natural world? The Victorians believed that the study of nature was in some ways an act of worship--a way to study the bounty of God's gifts to the world. (Some of this can be seen in Thoreau's own writings as well.)

While I do believe that looking and admiring the natural world is a worthy goal, I also know that my esteem for nature is derived from the British and American conception of nature as both divine and a healing force.

In my defense, the point of this exercise is not just to memorize dozens of local grasses, but merely to look at the diversity of the ordinary landscape. I may never be able to identify half the grasses I see, but I have learned to look closer, to focus on what makes each species different--from the complex seed head to the way the small stems shoot off from the larger stem or culm of the plant.

Image from the Smithsonian (American Memory Project) website: Baboon sitting in a cage in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, 1927.

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