Beware of the dog (1999)

The title of this article could also be “Haworthia is people”, but titles are difficult. This one is prompted by an article I saw in Readers Digest. The article was about the impact of the (in?)famous Kinsey Report on human sexual behaviour. The closing sentence was “As far as Albert Kinsey was concerned, the watchdogs of science were asleep at the switch”.

I find myself in a curious role. How many writers have a long trail with so many followers crossing it behind? I can actually vaguely remember meeting G.W. Reynolds as a four-year old. Looking back I regret that I did not make more of the contact I had with people who were part of Haworthia and my interest. These included G.G. Smith, Prof. Compton, R.A. Dyer, Miss Verdoorn, W.G. Armstrong, G.J. Payne, Meiring, Beukman’s daughter, Mrs Taute’s family, Doreen Court (daughter of Mrs Morris), Gordon King, Grace Blackbeard, Frank Stayner, J.W.Dodson and so many others. Why did I never write to J.R. Brown to whom I owe so much?

Who else has stretched their interest over so long a period and found their trail becoming so criss-crossed behind. Looking over my shoulder I see quite a string of prospective and aspirant writers on Haworthia. I see myself occupying the same kind of place in their minds that the people above have done in mine. Not being dead yet, makes me realise that while alive and available for comment and information, there is no call.

What my disappointment has been, is that despite so many interested people, there have been very few that I have felt to be kindred to. If I consider where I started, I have also to consider where I end. If I consider what I learned, I can consider what I can teach. To my dismay I seem to have learned too little, and tried to teach too much.

Now I have written a second book to examine myself as much as what those on my trail are doing. I do not want to throw in the towel like Smith did, and neither do I want to leave unfinished business. What unfinished business is there? Haworthia has not been fully explored nor explained.

1. Exploration.
a. I myself have many records which are not part of the herbarium record and neither are they part of the source from which collectors have drawn. There are also records gleaned by others which are available to some collectors but not to me. One reason is that I have actively discouraged collection and avoided undisciplined and unprincipled collectors like the plague. A principle of science is ‘No secrecy’. I would like to observe this and have tried to keep locality records on the basis of “well you never asked”. It is not nice to mention names and I will not do so, but there are several persons who have really exceeded the bounds of the rational in their collecting activity.

Conservation agencies are, in my experience, helpless to do anything other than create a climate which deters honest people from venturing to pluck so much as a leaf. Less conservative, conscientious and sensitive souls function without qualm at the other extreme. Do I hide the records or do I appeal to the Haworthiophile community to institute their own code of conduct?

b. Records can also be ‘intellectual and experiential individual property’. I saw that in the ‘Aloe’ era, that there were collectors where this concept was manifest at extreme levels. Persons with no insight or understanding of what Reynolds had done in terms of record, were accumulating, obscuring and losing data which could have enriched that considerably. This is, and has happened in Haworthia too. For a decent book to be written on Haworthia there has to be a decent physical record. Several people have fiddled and faddled with Aloe since Reynolds, and have made several big changes. In the light of knowledge and record, the changes they have made are trivial. These fiddlers have not done more than what Reynolds did, and neither have they even reached the experiential level that he had.

2. Explanation.
a. I have tried to see classification as a scientific process based on facts and undisputeable observation. It is very evident that it is not treated like that. In the subgenus Haworthia, classification is just imagery. What I have done is to place this imagery in the real physical world of geographic space, based on a life-long experience of ‘classification’ of this kind, and thus inferred from my knowledge of other genera. In order to question the image I have, the viewer has to stand either where I have stood, or to seek a better and higher viewpoint.

b. Science is driven by question and answer. Answers generate more questions. Science is knowledge and knowledge is only really referable to that which is true. The philosophy of science is expressed at an intellectual level that few of us are able to reach and I do not pretend to.

So what has this to do with dogs? Science is driven by publication and peer review. A scientist becomes recognised by publications and responses to those publications. A scientist and science writer is kept on the track of truthfulness and knowledge by the responses he gets. These responses by competent and peer scientists constitute the watch tower of truthfulness, credibility and authority. These place beacons along the path of knowledge which is surely the one we wish to travel.

My complaint, first expressed in 1986, was against reviewers. My strongly held view was that instead of providing direction, they were doing the opposite. I thought the dogs were asleep, untrained or just turning a blind eye to the scene. Where nomenclature is concerned, it is another matter. There is another hungry breed here which scavengers for scraps. I have indulged in ‘polemic’ because it is is the mechanism for attack and defence of doctrine. The doctrine I have tried to defend appears to be a fantasy of my own. I have felt the absence of competent and wakeful watchdogs and have tried to fill the role myself – in vain. So that is the dog I have been, apparently barking at the dark – alone.