Volume 5, Chapter 1:- Winding down on Haworthia

During the last half of 2008 I decided that I would make a last concerted effort to try and further clarify the uncertainty of classification of these plants.  This involves the usual introspection, retrospection and reflection.  Where are we now and what do we understand?   I have had considerable correspondence and interchange of ideas with many enthusiasts.  There is a huge disparity between what I write and what other authors do and there are definitely massive misunderstandings.  The one reason is the obvious one that we each create our own realities and can only interpret the world around us in terms of our own experience and individual capacities.  The second reason is that there are flaws in the entire information system in which we operate.

Much of my correspondence has involved trying to bring someone through the very simple barrier of what a species is and what a Latin binomial is supposed to convey.  Several correspondents have remarked that they follow my revision ”Haworthia Revisited” and cannot reconcile themselves with what I have subsequently written.  Particularly revealing is the reaction to a very brief item I wrote entitled “A reality check” (reprinted in this publication).  In that piece I submitted six pictures of very different plants and stated that they were all the same one species.  Respondents expressed surprise that I could say that these were the same (thing), basing their opinions only on the fact that the plants looked so different.  They lose sight of the fact that this is the reality of “species”. The members of a species are not all the same and especially not outwardly; and to confuse the sameness of members of a genetic system with the sameness of superficial resemblance, lies at the heart of classification and identification problems.

Gordon Rowley kindly sent me a copy of an article by Sandra Knapp FLS entitled…”Naming Nature: The future of the Linnaean System”. Erudite and academic as the article is, is exposes the fact that there is a problem inherent in the system without actually defining what the problem is.  It seems to me that the alarm bells of a sinking ship are being taken for sounds inherent to the structure and performance of the ship. The problem is that here is not the universal definition of what a species is and Knapp informs us that attempting to arrive at one is ”ultimately not practical in the short or long term”.   My opinion is that a statement like this simply adds fuel to the fire.  We have to define the word species and in doing do recognize that in their very nature species are not equivalent.

It is botanists themselves who have led us into this morass of names where the whole process of classification and nomenclature is an intellectual and juristic minefield.  As collectors, growers and enthusiasts we have come to believe that a Latin name pins a plant into place simply by virtue of superficial resemblance.  This is where we fail.  Knapp cites Darwin as being unconcerned that the exact definition of a species was difficult to pin down.  My opinion is that this statement is at the core of the matter.  It is not the definition that is difficult to pin down.  What is difficult to pin down is where any plant (organism) fits in any of the boxes we want to fabricate.  There is absolutely no need to vacillate about a species definition because we do not know enough about the things we want to organize accordingly.

My plea to Haworthiophiles is now to try and think clearly and recognize that the formal system of latin binomials is primarily the domain of scientists.  They have not set us a very good example and we need to adapt our outlook and the way in which we approach the use of Latin names.

In these now twilight notes of mine I will use an informal system of naming and describe some really interesting experiences and finds that follow the very path that Knapp suggests will lead us forward.  Gordon Rowley wryly observed that “Bayer changes his mind”.  This is because I have been getting on with the job and using names, just as Knapp proposes; as hypotheses, subject to continual testing and change as I gain better insights into processes and pattern in the field where the plants are.  There is a misplaced confidence in technology and laboratory based methods that simply are no substitute for the information that is needed from direct field observation and experience.

There is one very disturbing aspect.  This is that there are commercial and egocentric interests in opposition to mine that may be using my information for their own interests and to the detriment of sensitive habitats and populations.  It is thus very distressing to know that the joy and delight these plants have given me on so many occasions is threatened or marred by the need I have felt to write about them.  I have been taken to task for revealing localities.  The thing is that there can be no understanding of these plants unless the spatial and distributional aspects are known and understood.  There is no way in which my writing can stand as a valid hypothesis that can be tested and refined without this critical element in the constitution of a sensible view of what species are.  I firmly believe that there is no merit in secrecy.  It is not my role to play policeman and neither do I think that strict conservation laws and implementation have any merit where they deny the expression of natural curiosity and wonder about this incredible creation around us.  What is important is for us as individuals to realize that we live in an extraordinary creation that is a conscious one and that we are individually tied to it and responsive to it.  We are responsible for it and to it: we need to get back to caring for it rather than scraping what we can out of it.

I have also not written all this because of what someone really unkindly suggested was my need to write.  I am writing now because I feel an obligation to do so, having started in an era where the available classification was simply woeful and ending in a situation that is a history repeating itself.  It is not about Haworthia, it is about what is true and what is meaningful.  It is about how we understand nature and about what nature should mean to us.  We have an incredible creation and it is time we woke up to the reality of its beauty and its purpose.  God did not write a single book that so many different elements of our society claim as one that only they possess and understand.  If there is any book it is everywhere around us as our birthright.