Volume 4, Chapter 5:- What did I learn yesterday?

I was in the field yesterday (March 14th -2007) and then in reflection thought I would relate it to why I write and to what I have written.  Someone had been at Sanddrift Drew to look for the Robustipedunculares that grow there, and reported that they could not find H. marginata. This was a bit disturbing to me because that marginata has very slender long leaves and in the vicinity it also hybridizes with H. minima and H. pumila. The particular locality is a fairly prominent flat-topped hill which seems to have been formed from river gravel.  Despite being so rocky and fairly steep-sided, the hill has been very severely impacted on by agriculture. The southern Cape soils are very skeletal and agriculture is fortunately concentrated on the lower flatter slopes and to the alluvial flatter areas and eroded shales which can be machined to lands. Rainfall is in winter and distribution is very variable across the landscape. Rainfall patterns have also apparently changed with time, at least as agriculture seems to have developed. There have also been economic and social changes which have altered the fabric of agriculture. There was a time when farming was a way of subsistence.  Tractors and fuel was cheap and there was an endless space to tame. The consequence is that huge areas of very marginal land was ploughed and contoured for cropping. This was the fate of most of the Sanddrift hill and H. marginata was thus reduced to a narrow band of Renosterveld vegetation above the very last contour reaching to near the top of the hill. The particular farm seems to have teetered on the verge of failure as both a subsistence farm and a commercial venture for the last forty years. Several very dry periods in that time have driven various owners to financial despair.  Presently, however, the farm seems to have fallen in to the hands of what may be a new form of commercial colonialism. It is owned by an english gentleman who has the resources to farm aggressively.  Water sees to have been obtained from an expanded and more flexible irrigation scheme and the farm has entered a new phase of development. This is of course happening throughout the country and the threats to the fragments of undisturbed vegetation and rocky outcrops which have given me so much joy are now hugely disturbing.

Haworthia pygmaea now exists (the story is told elsewhere – “The White Widow Reunion Haworthia Update Vol.2) as a few small seedlings under ageing Pteronia incana in a tiny fragment of very disturbed vegetation near the Sanddrift homesteads and farm buildings.  The marginata/pumila habitat along a lower stream is now grossly disturbed by fence and passage way. The marginata/minima habitat was in any case a low road verge cutting fortunately left intact when the road was straightened and moved. Because of the rock and the old road fence which was never removed the habitat has only been subject to grazing pressure. The plants have suffered and the population just survives because I collected and grew seed and then re-planted seedlings. I did unfortunately not do the same for the H. marginata that I thought was relatively safe. Yesterday we found a single plant. We cannot say for certain that it is the only one, so I know that something needs to be done to see if there are plants and propagules somewhere to plant back. There are many other small populations and habitats which are less isolated and more heavily impacted than this one. The future does not look good for them.

It seems almost weird and uncaring to bother much about the classification and names of plants when their very survival is at stake.  It is also curious that classification is also seen as an egocentric activity and route to name and fame, rather than as the language and communication process we all use to feel our blind way about creation.  What then did I learn from yesterday? What I can add to what I was thinking the day before?

I have been writing about closure.  After 45 years of writing about Haworthia have I learned anything?  My inclination is to say that I cannot in fact make a final statement and put forward a set of names which will satisfy any universal need and provide an adequate handle to what is out there.  Yesterday I was also seeing plants of the genus Acrodon and wondering if it could help me with understanding Haworthia.  It seems to me that Acrodon bellidiformis may have the same relation to A. quarcicola that H. mirabilis has to H. maraisii, and probably suggest that other Acrodon species may just as easily be superfluous names which just reflect spatial variation.

This brings me then back to Haworthia names and classification.  I have been saying that it is now up to the community to decide what system of names they want to adopt.  My contribution is only to have attempted to explain what I have explored in the field and what names or words I can use to do so, against my understanding of what others have done and said.  My latest manuscript is entitled “The brutality of reality” in which I expressed the point of view that a formal set of names following the principles of the code for latin names, should be taken far more lightly.  I suggest fewer binomials and abandoning the concept of “typical variety” such as H. mirabilis var mirabilis and any formal designation of ranks such as “subspecies” and “variety” or even “cultivar”.   Such names do not have, as I now like to quote, any semblance of reality. They only have meaning in relation to personal knowledge and experience.  My application and usage of names in Haworthia has been shaped by my experience of first the literature, then the plants and then personal communications; all changing with the passage of time.  My own writing is now available only as a source from which an interested person or group of people can extract and distill names which mean something to them in relation to their particular experience.

The conclusion is that a classification and its names only have meaning in relation to the “truth” (experience, skills, observation, education, intellectual capacity and thus knowledge) of the observer in relation to the “truth” of the user.  Conservation therefore should have as its primary motive, the minimization of any human impact on natural habitat which will lead to further losses in the diversity of the different phenomena we observe in our view of creation.  Truth itself has no reality within the range of our attachments and interactions within the creation.