A recent outing with LDSES members at Rock Canyon in Provo has inspired me to revisit the question of the importance of botanical literacy. Youth programs, including Boy Scouts, often require a fundamental literacy in the nomenclature and qualities of local biota, but then this knowledge seems to fall into disuse. We might memorize the names of a few trees, a few wildflowers, only the then move to a new place and face the prospect of learning them all over again. So for most folks, the names of plants is a relatively unknown language and what is perhaps more important, the qualities of a plant—its potential value as a food source or as a medicine and its inherently interesting way of life—are also ignored.
Just a scratch on the surface of the botanical world around you is enough to expose the many layers of history that have shaped the landscapes you look at every day. There are native plants and trees, such as the Big Toothed Maple and the Gambol Oaks that populate the canyons and mountains of my home in Provo, Utah, and the invasive species too, some relatively benign like the well known Butter and Eggs wildflower and some quite harmful, like Cheat Grass or Tamarisk. Each species has a history, a story of its arrival into the particular climatic zone where it finds itself. And that history is both a story of slow change and deep time, a story of slow adaptations and evolution into a temporary form and function in its place where you find it, and a story of the many disruptions we humans have caused to happen either intentionally or inadvertently. Hillsides, riparian systems, forests, and prairies—all of these bear the indelible marks of its human occupants. There is no true wilderness in this sense, since you cannot find a natural landscape on the planet that has not been modified by human activity.
We are the proverbial Midas, changing everything we touch, everywhere we live, except that there is no guarantee that these changes are for the better. Indeed, precisely because the potential for human-caused damage is so high, it is paramount that we have some method for accounting for the change we cause. Botanical literacy seems to be one small way of not only learning a little bit about where we find ourselves, about our more-than-human neighborhood, but also about the impact that we have on the world.
I also think that learning a botanical vocabulary is useful in making sure that our culture and language are grounded in specific places and not just a bunch of borrowed knowledge or clichés. Don’t feel intimidated by the way Latin names sound imposing and official. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with learning the Latin names for species, a language that has an important place in assisting our scientific understanding of the world, but it would be misleading to assume that a Latin name for a plant is its proper name. No living thing has a proper name. Everything has many, many names, names in Latin, names in a variety of foreign languages, and all of the beautiful and idiosyncratic titles we might feel inspired to give them in a moment of artistic inspiration. All names are metaphors, including Latin ones, and some of them are downright poetic. They are leaps of the imagination to begin a relationship with things. This was presumably Adam and Eve’s great responsibility and maybe Noah’s too, when the world called out for human beings to begin a relationship, when things stunned us with their unusual variety, beauty, and originality. We go on hikes and find ourselves in wonder of things around us. If you can’t remember the name of a plant, try giving it a new one. If you can’t find a photograph of the plant in a book to help you identify it, try describing it or sketching it on your own. It won’t disrupt any sacred order of things, and it might even begin a new relationship of endearment that will last for years. But whatever you do, just don’t ignore the world.