Shane Randle: Ways of Knowing

shaneLeaves made of a single whorl of diverging leaf-parts, with barely visible netted veins.  Thin, wispy white hairs coat a leaf-stalk which fades in color from the bright green of the leaf down to a bright magenta where the basal leaf stems sprout from the top of the root.  Only four specimens are visible within this small square of habitat, hidden among the diverse montane undergrowth.

How long does it take to get to know someone?  How much individual time do you have to spend with them?  A day? A week?  A year?  A lifetime?

How about a native plant species?  In order to get to know an individual plant, I spent three hours with it despite the fact that it’s only a four-inch-tall piece of the world.  Over the course of this time, I examined everything I could about it—the leaves, the stem, the root.  I sat, I paid attention, I wrote down every detail I noticed, I drew pictures.  By the end of my time, I felt that I’d gotten to know the plant truly.

But I didn’t know its name.  I still don’t know its Latin species name.  I know this single specimen of this certain species with such intricate detail, but I don’t know its name.

Before our “Plant Study Assignment,” when I thought about “knowing” a plant I thought about naming.  To me, if I could identify and name a plant I saw in the wild, I “knew” it.  (If I really knew it well, I could also spout out some fun or medicinal facts about the plant.)  But now I’m not so sure that this form of naming is knowing or vice versa.

Through this class experience, my knowing became intimately structural.  I got to know my plant by how it is physically instead of how to communicate it to others.  I believe that the act of naming a plant inherently ties it to the human world, as names are a way for us to describe and explain our experiences.  This communication, however, only passes on a superficial form of what we’re talking about.  In terms of plants, if I start talking about a buttercup, you’ll understand the general concept but you won’t necessarily know the exact stem-and-leaf structure, or the habitat, or even what type of buttercup it is.  You would only understand what I’m talking about on a surface level.

When I spent three hours with my plant, I got to know it in a way which cannot simply be communicated through its name.  I could point to this plant and tell someone that it’s a buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) and they may remember and later identify it by name, yet that wouldn’t mean they “know” the plant.  Or, at least, they wouldn’t know it in the same way I do.

How would it be possible to “know” an ecosystem if you can’t even know a plant species within it?  We use names to describe plants, plant communities, ecosystems and landscapes.  With the words we have, we attempt to learn about and explain the places which we care for.  It is with the same words that we write policies to protect these places.  But if we cannot truly know what these words describe, how can we create accurate conservation policies?  It is not until we truly know the land that we can do what is best for it.

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