Wednesday, 20 April 2016

#6: Catkin

Out running yesterday, I saw some spikes of unisexual, apetalous flowers having scaly, usually deciduous bracts. Or to put it another way, some catkins (from the old Dutch katteken meaning ‘kitten’, says the Oxford English Dictionary, because the catkin looks like a kitten’s tail).

First, that definition – what is a unisexual flower? One that has only male reproductive organs (the stamen) or female reproductive organs (the carpel). Catkin flowers are often male only, as in the hazel, oak, alder and mulberry, (but sometimes they are male and female, as in the poplar). The ‘bract’ is like a leaf but is not really – sometimes it takes the form of the small green circlet at the base of flower petals, which has protected the petals when they were in bad. It can also look like a tiny leaf on the flower stem. 

I love these different ways of describing and exploring the natural world. I didn’t know until I wrote this that catkin comes from a word for kitten, but in English it has a childlike ring to it, and seems suitable for the early stage of a plant. 

The second, more scientific language, the language of my pocket-sized guide to identifying wildflowers, is harder work. I suppose it offers precise shortcuts to recognising parts of the flower and actually helps you to identify their function and even developmental history – for example, the crimson leaves of the Poinsettia are actually bracts – not petals – and the tiny yellow cluster in the centre is the true flower. 

American naturalist and conservation adviser Aldo Leopold takes the extreme imaginative approach to describing nature in his book A Sand County Almanac, which I am currently reading. In it he imagines the journey of an atom. He describes the ‘odyssey’ of the atom X, which ‘had marked time in the limestone ledge since the Palaeozoic seas covered the land’. X becomes part of a human body via the roots of a flower which becomes an acorn, which is eaten by a deer which feeds an Indian. ‘From his berth in the Indian’s bones’, writes Leopold, ‘X joined again in chase and flight, feast and famine, hope and fear. He felt these things as changes in the little chemical pushes and pulls that tug timelessly at every atom.’ We are taken on the atom’s journey back to the sea, via the carcass of a beaver, a ‘backwater bayou’ and an ‘Indian’. 

I wonder about the value of imagining and describing nature in this way. Can this kind of approach bring genuine insights into rocks, plants and animals, or does it obscure them? Is the austere language of my guidebook better for understanding the natural world? 

For me, an imaginative approach is a way of understanding and enjoying nature, and can raise questions. Fictionalisation opens up a space for uncertainties to exist and questions to be asked. We are told, for example, that atom X ‘moldered briefly’ underground when the Indian dies. Can atoms moulder? Does X change its nature on this journey? This could lead into understanding what an element is. 

And I do think it can encourage sympathy with the natural world. It can also tell us about the writer – Leopold sounds like someone who enjoyed the adventurous life and wanted to roam himself (and why is the atom male?). But I’m inclined to think more imaginative language should not be used at other times. Wildlife documentaries, for example, are sometimes too anthropomorphic. In other words, there’s a place for different discourses but it helps to decide what these are – when to bring out the pocket guide, when to leave it on the shelf. 


anthers of the Egyptian Star Cluster, with pollen grains
By Louisa Howard, Charles Daghlian - Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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