What do collectors need?

Previously published in Alsterworthia International Volume 12, Issue 2. July 2012.

I ask this question because too often the views of the collector are espoused as an excuse or defense for some or other argument about classification.  It has often been said to me that collectors are not interested in taxonomy and they are at the most, happy just to have a name.  This argument does not impress me because as a society we have a trust and a belief in science and whatever is written, outside of fiction, should seriously address the truth.  It should not matter what the reader may want to make of the product other than that the reader may just by chance really want to know and understand something.  On reflection, one writes for the reader who must surely be reading because they want to know something, and names are the key to the “something”?

This is why I have responded to reviews of my writing that have been published at various times.  I have written as a communication and am glad to know what the reception or rejection has been.  Recently Steven Hammer wrote what is listed under the title of “Book Review” comment on a recent book by Ingo Breuer and of Update Vol. 6 by me.  It is a wonderful piece of prose and worth every bit of reading and appreciation, but it does not pass as a Review.  Or does it?  I feel that it has a few mistakes as well as passing over the very real differences between the two publications.  So, I wrote a response in the way I treat any publication as an invitation to think and form an opinion; and express it.  Passing a draft of this response to a competent observer, I got this reply…” Fortunately, there is little expectation of a review. The point is: was the review positive or negative? Did the reader learn something and gain deeper appreciation, or not? Will they buy the book, or did the review satisfy their curiosity? For most readers, the details are unimportant, as much as you may hate this very concept.”

Why I should hate the concept of most readers regarding the questions of detail unimportant I do not know.  But I do think the accuracy, in respect of detail or general, is very important.  What my commentator was implying is that the review met the requirements that he was suggesting, and he added that my response was “nit-picking” and would only be seen as criticism of someone who is widely held in high esteem.  The fact is that Steven Hammer is also held in very high esteem by me and I am so glad to be able to say that he expressed to me personally that his “review’ was rather a literary fantasy.  What Steven does comment on is a view of the needs of collectors.  That they care little about schemes of classification and that labels are necessary irritants.  I do not question the truth of this view.  But would not accept that this is a justification for the imposition of just any kind of scheme because that is what a writer wishes to propound for reasons of his /her own.

These then are the points I made in my response that I think Steven should have addressed.  The ‘mistakes’ are … a). The Audensberg population was actually shown to me by Elsie Esterhuizen many years ago and it is not the place where any haworthiophile  would ordinarily look for plants. b). The reference to Drosanthemum bellum is odd because Steven describes this as a “niche-sensitive species”.  This “species” is at the heart of a very long and detailed story of Drosanthemum micans that I once wrote and lies unpublished.  I would surely have used this as an example of the way in which botanical science has also failed us.  D. bellum is a pink flowered variant in a much-localized population of D. micans that also has white, purple and red variants.  This tiny population sits among a larger widespread population of yellow flowered variants that go by the name of D. hallii.  This is turn has variants that include the typical bi-colored flower of the older D. micans that is common north of Worcester.  Further variants occur north-east of Montagu, to Oudtshoorn and then south to Mossel Bay (D. edwardsii) back west to Bredasdorp, (D. lavisii, D. aureopurpureum and D. croceum?).  The problem here is the failure to establish what is meant by “species”.  To refer to D. bellum as a species is a misconstrual of science, or an example of the liberties that are taken with Latin names – botanists and collectors alike. c). ChameleonsWonderful words of Steven’s, but not quite complete.  The story about chameleons’ parallels that of the very low non-tech problem of impossible identification even when there are heaps of “characters” to use.  It fortuitously exposes the probability that we are being led up a garden path by high-tech.  I have used chameleons in the same way that I studied Oxalis ultimately demonstrating that species are complex systems of variables! d).  Kaboega is not the only area I know exceptionally well and it also figures in practically all the other volumes of Updates of which there are five.  I doubt if these have ever had much coverage, but they are an account of my voyage of exploration and discovery that is the concern of mine in respect of omission.  In the Updates I discuss the populations and their variants as they occur at many different places and show this impact on the application and use of Latin binomials.  There is a prevailing misconception that this is only a problem within Haworthia.  I show that this is not so.  I also make several references to the fact that Haworthia is by no means an integral single genus and that the nature of genera in the Alooideae needs proper attention based on a lot more than the fact that the Haworthia subgenera have small flowers. e) “Shaggy dog” for H. mirabilis Ballyfar is not a name I coined but Steven himself.

I do think the omission is in the comparison of the books where there is in fact none.  My Update Volumes revolve around the way that science has let us down to the extent that any pretender can take up the mantle of taxonomic expert.  Botany provides no species definition and hence the Latin binomial is not required to carry any meaning other than a guise of authority.  Whatever collectors may require has no import whatsoever in a process of classifying plants as biological entities.  They are focal points for the collection and storage of knowledge indicated by Latin binomials and these are not simply and only intended as labels.  Even I recognized this as a child when I wanted to know what the plant actually was that my father called H. chalwinii, and where it came from.  Every collector who refers to names at all surely expects and believes that there is some mystic or real knowledge associated with the names he is given and uses.  It is an injustice to any collector to coin Latin names outside of the context of science where the collector is entitled to believe they belong.

  The only predicable thing about Breuer’s system, which is a watered down version of a much more focused and detailed one by Hayashii, is that there are going to be a lot more names.  This is not only when someone else climbs the Audensberg, or recollects the Sandhills population, or drifts across into the Heatley Peak area.  Throughout the Updates, I warn and demonstrate that character fixated taxonomy may be very misleading.  Vavilov was a Russian botanist who pointed out that variations in a genus may be expected in all the members of that genus.  Species are therefore to be seen as systems that are natural assemblages of plants that can be associated in respect of ALL the forces, factors and features that generate them – not propagules of single clones that fill availability lists and price catalogues.  Drosanthemum bellum is just such an example of how Latin binomial names are used to describe variation within species, rather than to properly organize the basic entities that make up the entire living system.

I have, even in the Updates, shown how the watchdogs of science let us down.  I have tried to communicate my experience and observations to a wider and expectedly interested audience.  This, in the hopes that it would lead to greater understanding and comprehension of the problems of finding names as the backbone of communication, appreciation and understanding.  It is a huge disappointment to me that I have achieved very little other than to grow wiser myself.  One of my many critics makes a show of taking up middle ground between me and other Haworthia taxonomists.  My response is that taking up middle ground between myself and the ignorant is not going to be very productive.  In the first place there is not much space there as I am quite aware of my intellectual limitations.  In the second place I have not actually been all that certain that my overview is entirely correct.  Despite being credited with a lot of field work (and no good sense to go with it) I am extraordinarily aware of how much I have not seen.  This adds to my discomfort as I see a proliferation of new names, gaily forgetting the multitude that I moved aside in my Revision.  These are often based on propagules from my own collections (concealed by the creation of new collecting numbers that are not mine).  I recognize that the only predictive element in this kind of science is that we can expect many more Latin binomials in a collector driven system rather than one of botanical science.  So indeed I see no change from the failed methodology of Von Poellnitz, Smith and Scott.

There is no comparison at all between the two books that a true review might have suggested.  One book (Breuer) is a collector’s guide to a limited range of variants (albeit 336?), while the other (Bayer) is an account of a very wide range of variants and a hypothesis (not a statement) of how they are related.  The latter also throws some light on the universal quandary knowledgeable observers soon come to experience viz. Elton Roberts in the same edition of the Journal where he questions the identity of Mammilaria lasiacantha.  The problem he has is a classification fixated on superficial small differences rather than one based on the realities of the variation that should be expected in any system arising from, and actively responding to, differences related to time and space.   The essence of science is that an experimental method is applied to a sample and repeated, the result will be the same.  If everyone is coming up with a different plant classification, it should occur to us that there is something wrong with the method and perhaps also the hypothesis that is being tested.

I am curious why my commentator dismissed all the above as “nit-picking” when myself I feel that they deal with the most significant elements of writing at all.  Especially, they touch on the very core of why we even classify and name plants in the first place.  My response should not be seen as a criticism of my commentator, or of Steven, a remarkable man who is also very dear to me.  I also respect him enormously for his empathy with plants because if there is anyone who projects my view that this is a conscious creation all the way down to its rocks, it is him.  There is surely purpose in creation if only that we should seek and find what that is.