May 23, 2017   Carl Linnaeus was born on this date in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in 1707.  Last July, James Prosek, a painter and writer, retraced part of the journey that Linnaeus made at age 25 to Swedish Lapland. At the outset, Prosek found something “distasteful” about the binomial nomenclature that categorizes plants and animals by genus and species. As he recounted in the  New York Times:

I think what bothered me was his hubris. Before binomials, names of plants in books were lists or strings of words that formed a kind of nuanced description. Plants and animals already had names in indigenous languages, and Linnaeus, in a show of imperialism, renamed them with his Latinisms. He believed he could take nature — holistic, fluid and constantly changing — and fragment, label and systematize it. 

By the end of his life, Linnaeus had applied his binomial names to roughly 14,000 species. Today over 1.5 million have been anointed with a genus and species name, and there are said to be in excess of 10 million species on the planet that are still nameless.

…The main purpose of his trip, as outlined by his patrons at the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala, was to discover and record anything of economic interest for mother Sweden (impoverished after the multiyear Northern Wars) — including ethnographic information about the Sami, such as the medicinal uses of plants — not unlike a modern bio-prospector in South American rain forests today.

Linnaea borealis, Linnaeus’s namesake flower, painted in Jokkmokk. Paintings by James Prosek, courtesy of the artist and Schwartz-Wajahat, New York

…From Uppsala, we flew to Lulea, a seaside town of 70,000 at the mouth of the Lule River. Linnaeus traveled from here into the mountains by foot, by horseback, by boat, often with Sami guides. By the late 1600s the Sami had already lost their native religion to Christian missionaries and had become “tourist guides of their own culture’s destruction,” as the historian Lisbet Koerner writes in her book “Linnaeus: Nature and Nation.” But the Sami were still herding reindeer seasonally from high country to low when Linnaeus came, as they do to this day.

In this country, Linnaeus was enraptured, botanizing among the unique high elevation tundra flowers. The ground at first glance is like a greenish carpet, but up close you notice myriad diminutive flowering plants. If you get down on your hands and knees it feels as if you’re drifting over a coral reef…

In “Flora Lapponica,” a later work in which he synthesizes his plant discoveries in Lapland, Linnaeus describes how he named one of the alpine plants Dryas octopetala. He writes, “I have called this plant Dryas after the dryads, the nymphs that live in oaks, since the leaf has a certain likeness to the oak leaf.”

We found it, a gorgeous white flower with eight petals that quivered in the cool breeze, and I painted it back at the backpackers’ hut where we stayed. Linnaeus made a drawing of it in the Lapland journal. At times like this I questioned my distaste for the man and his work — many of his Latin names are thoughtful and carry physical and quantitative characteristics, metaphor and allusions to myth.

Arctic flowers from the hills near Lake Virihaure named by Linnaeus, including Dryas octopetala.  

On his return, Linnaeus lied to his patrons at the Uppsala Science Society, greatly exaggerating his hardships, saying that he had traveled 4,500 miles, double the amount he actually traversed (he was being paid by the mile), going so far as to draw an entire inland leg on his map that he never made. Lisbet Koerner, the historian, calculates that during his five-month journey, only 18 of his days in Lapland were spent outside the homes of Swedish homesteaders or on the coast.

To my mind, his fibs do not diminish his accomplishments; he had uncanny skills of observation and an incredible eye for tapping into the order of nature, such as it exists, within a larger cloak of chaos. What comes across in his journal as romantic exuberance for the beauty and harshness of the Lapland countryside is not overstated. Swedish Lapland is dazzling and mysterious, a wonderful place to visit, perhaps now as much as ever because of a Sami cultural revival afoot.

Linnaeus was enterprising and opportunistic, but he left us with many gifts, systems for helping us to see and communicate nature that “conform to the manner in which the human mind works,” as the biologist E. O. Wilson told me. It is very possible that Darwin would not have been able to envision his ancestral tree of life without the Linnaean hierarchy (his other most lasting innovation, a structure for organizing nature into groups from species, genera, families and orders on up to kingdoms).

As for that binomial system I had such an aversion for, I learned that it was something Linnaeus actually came up with incidentally, as a convenient shorthand while he worked, and that he didn’t even approve of it. Linnaeus didn’t realize until later in life that his accidental invention would become his most enduring legacy.

I’ve come to realize that my agitation was not really any fault of Linnaeus’s but the larger problematic relationship between word and world, names and nature — which has become a lifelong inquiry. Nature is one interconnected system, but language necessitates that we chop it up and label the pieces, giving a false impression of what it’s really like.

Once we put a name on something, as Linnaeus did compulsively, we’ve identified ourselves as the observer and the named thing as the observed — a barrier is placed between, lines are drawn. If I am observing, it suggests that I am separate from nature, but in some of my best and most memorable moments I am part of it, when a certain amount of the knowing is shed. Such a moment happened on the vast lake in Lapland as we watched a thousand shades of day flirt on the horizon with darkness in colors beyond names and perhaps even beyond language.