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Archive for February 5th, 2011

Kinship with all things

For thousands of years humans have tried to categorized plants into systems that could be memorized and recalled when needed. At first plants were named after the color, smell, location and how it might be used.  Then came the domination culture and plants were named after the tribe or culture who won the battle. Wars were fought over control of trade of a plant (spice wars).  Naming a plant or species was also done to gain control over a culture. A prize of a conquest was to re-name all indigenous species. 

Over thousands of years of conquests humans began to search for a common language or naming system that would allow them to explore any area of the planet and identify a species of plants, animals or minerals – it was a search for connection to what was already known. Thus the bionomial Nomenclature method was born.

The binomial nomenclature method is a formal system of naming species of living things.  The system was devised over many centuries but was formally organized by Carl Linnaeus.  Linnaeus (1707 –1778) who was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature.   I am going to be very clear here that Linnaeus began to organize the names of species after the culture of Europe was destroyed by hundreds of years of war, genocide and domination. During these hundreds of years most of the healers, naturalists and scientists were killed or impisoned.  Plants had names before Linnaeus but much of that information was lost due to oppression.  Institutions such as the Roman Empire and then the domination by the Roman Catholic Church destroyed the community and family education systems of European culture. In North America mass genocide decimated tribal First Peoples. The knowledge of plants was mostly lost or kept very secret by the indigeous people.  Europeans came to North America and renamed the plants and animals and geologic areas of this continent.

That said, Linnaeus was paid to name the species and he inherited a complex and confused system of knowing. The system of knowing was intentionally kept complex so that only a few knew the secrets of the plants. Plants were the key to food, medicine and access to nature and the land.  For hundreds of years a person who needed healing had to go through a priest or physician caste for prayer, herbs, and treatment (much of which was very destructive to human health and wellness).

Much of Linnaeus’ work was done in Sweden.  In the 1750s and 60s, he continued to collect and classify animals, plants, and minerals, and published several volumes. At the time of his death, he was renowned as one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe. He added knowledge to a system of hierarchical kingship with humans at the top of the pyramid.

The essence of the binomial system of naming is this: each species name has two parts, the genus name and the species name (also known as the specific epithet), for example, Homo sapiens, which is the scientific name of the human species. Every two-part scientific name is either formed out of (modern scientific) Latin or is a Latinized version of words from other languages.

The two-part name of a species is commonly known as its Latin name. However, biologists and philologists prefer to use the term scientific name rather than “Latin name”, because the words used to create these names are not always from the Latin language, even though words from other languages have usually been Latinized in order to make them suitable for this purpose. Species names are often derived from Ancient Greek words, or words from numerous other languages, including tribal languages. Frequently species names are based on the surname of a person, such as a well-regarded scientist, or are a Latinized version of a relevant place name. This person was identified as having “discovered” the species. 

Plants had names before Linnaeus and other scientists came along and named species after themselves.  Many First Peoples find this re-naming of plants and other species as offensive and part of the genocide and domination of their culture.  I agree. But there were problems with local naming of plants.  The same plant found over large geological areas could have different names, in a different tribal language.  For instance, take the plant name “Kinnikinnick“.

 In Cascadia the scientific name is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  It was called Common Bearberry by European immigrants. And it had several tribal names as well.  The word Kinnikinnick is a eastern North American tribe (Algonquian) term meaning “smoking mixture”.

According to Erna Gunther 1 some Cascadia tribal names for the plant include:

Tribe               Tribal language name for Archtostaphylos uva-ursi

Chehalis –“ kaya’nl”

Klallam – “Kinnikinnick”

Makah –  “kwica’”

Skokomish –  “Sk!ewat”

Squaxin –  “s’quaya’dats

 But what is identified as Kinnikinnick throughout North America and Europe is actually several plants. And the word “Kinnikinnick” means “that which is mixed”.  It is also known as “a mixture that is smoked”.   By using the Binomial nomenclature method of plant identification, botanists, herbalist and naturalists can accurately identify this plant found in a certain geographical area.  And so Binomial nomenclature can be very useful in learning about native plants.  I learned this method and I also search for the ancient names and knowledge of the plants or the ethnobotanical knowledge of plants.  It all works, it all has meaning and it all is worth knowing.

Some plant specialists such as Alan Kapuler have come up with a connection between species that are based on “Kinship” and view all species as equal.  Kapuler says “Plants and other species do not need Kings”.2    There is no ruling species.  Kapuler believes strongly that we must place more value on the relationship between species as the core notion for optimizing diversity and subscribes to the Dahlgren Coevolutionary Layout.  That is, we should realize that a Giant Sequoia or a sunflower is just as important as a human life. We humans cannot continue to destroy whole groups of species and expect to live.  When we allow one species to become extinct, we are moving ever closer to our own extinction.

The Binomial nomenclature is used in “keying Plants”.  Learning to “key” a plant will allow you to identify any plant that you find.

Next time:  In part 3 of this series on plant identification I will teach you how to “key” plants

Until next time: See you in the deep woods.

References

1. Gunther, Erna (1945) Ethnobotany of Western Washington, The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

2. Kapuler, Alan M (1997) System Tree and Kinship Gardening, Peace Seeds Resource Journal, Vol. 8. Peace Seeds publishing, Corvallis, Oregon

3. Kapuler, Alan M (1997) An Ark for the Plants, Construction, Planting, and Growing a Kinship Garden Using the Dahlgren Coevolutionary Layout, Peace Seeds Resource Journal, Vol. 8, Peace seeds Publishing, Corvallis, Oregon.

Online resources

More on Alan Kapuler

Mushroom’s Blog (Alan Kapuler) http://mushroomsblog.blogspot.com/2005/01/descriptions-from-dr-kapulers-peace.html

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