Sunday, May 18, 2014

Botanic gardens: coffee, wonder and "the nature of things"

I've a piece with The Guardian today, 'Our botanic gardens are about more than prettiness, or even science'.

While I was in the UK, I read of budget cuts at Kew Gardens. Hardest hit will be Kew's scientific research, which is recognised internationally for its expertise.

I'm defending the value of botanic science, and revealing the intellectual rewards of gardens more generally. A sample:
My point is that institutions like Kew, in the UK and abroad, are at the forefront of plant and fungus research, and this work is vital in the original sense of the word: to do with life and its healthy continuity. Nature is, as Marx once put it, our “body”. And man, he continued in his 1844 Manuscripts, “must remain in continuous interchange” with this body “if he is not to die.” (Insert the usual disclaimers about gender.) 
But there is more to science than immediate benefit. Botanic research, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted, can also be a “pure curiosity”. On the island of St-Pierre, the misanthropic philosopher enjoyed a daily ritual of solitude and botany. “The different soils that occurred on this island”, he later noted in his Confessions, “offered me a sufficient variety of plants for study and amusement for the rest of my life”. He wandered, picked, peered with a magnifying glass, wrote and reflected. 
Instead of looking for the medicinal or gastronomic secrets of plants, Rousseau was interested in the logic of the plants -- for the plants. In other words, he enjoyed their beauty, and the pleasure of analysis, but he had no professional or pecuniary agenda. For Rousseau, the plant was a small miracle of design, not a source of status, drugs or food. 
We need not applaud Rousseau's often eccentric Romanticism to see the point: there is, for scientists and the general public, a genuine longing to comprehend the natural world, above and beyond immediate utility. These botanic institutions safeguard, not only seeds, but also that very human drive: to wonder.
By the way, I didn't write the headline, which seems to suggest that I don't value beauty, and that philosophy and science are somehow necessarily at odds.

(Photo: Benjamin Evans)

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