Organization Man

Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago, brought order to nature’s blooming, buzzing confusion

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What forays they must have been! Botanizing with Linnaeus would have been the equivalent of studying geometry with Euclid, or taking a writing class with Shakespeare. In keeping with Linnaeus' orderly disposition, the expeditions were organized with the precision of a military campaign, with designated note takers, specimen collectors and bird shooters. A bugle would sound when rare species were found. At the end of the ramble—up to 12 hours during the Baltic summer months—the party would troop back to town, waving banners, blowing horns and beating kettledrums. At the botanic garden a shout would go up, "Vivat Linnaeus!"

In later years—after the rector of Uppsala University protested—these "inquisitions of the pastures," as Linnaeus called them, had to be curtailed. "We Swedes are a serious and slow-witted people," the rector explained. "We cannot, like others, unite the pleasurable and fun with the serious and useful."

In 1732, Linnaeus made a collecting journey that would influence his thinking for the rest of his life. Lapland, the glacier-carved Arctic region that caps Scandinavia, was for Linnaeus what the Galápagos Islands were for Darwin—a notional seed pearl around which layers of theory would be laid.

Linnaeus set out alone on horseback from Uppsala the day before his 25th birthday, equipped with little more than a plant press, a gun, a hand lens and a change of clothes. His aim was not just to collect specimens from Sweden's land of the midnight sun but to learn how the "happy Lapps"—indigenous Sami people—and Swedish and Finnish homesteaders made use of them. It was arguably the world's first ethnobotanical expedition.

To stretch the limited funds he had been given by the Swedish Royal Society of Science to make the journey, Linnaeus adopted the local lifestyle, including eating reindeer tongues. He admired the Lapps' resourcefulness. They baked bread from fir bark, pine needles, dried fish, moss and seaweed. They had 18 ways of using milk, including "fresh boiled and coagulated with beer" and "mixed with sorrel leaves and preserved till winter in the stomach of a reindeer."

His diary is filled with a young man's ebullience. Charmed by the sight of bog rosemary in full bloom, its blossoms the color of "a fine female complexion," he thinks of Andromeda chained to her watery rock, and decides to give the plant genus that name. On learning that Sami bachelors carry about pieces of sweet-smelling fungus as a kind of cologne-cum-aphrodisiac, he exclaims, "O whimsical Venus! In other parts of the world you must be wooed with coffee and chocolate, preserves and sweets, wines and dainties, jewels and you are satisfied with a little withered fungus."

As he traveled and collected—discovering and eventually naming over 100 new species—his thoughts turned to the floristic differences between Lapland and the rest of Sweden, and to the benefits that would accrue if species could be swapped between the two regions. But why stop at botanical rearrangement within the country, Linnaeus wondered; why not borrow from "God's endless larder" elsewhere in the world?

Other nations had overseas colonies that supplied them with goods they couldn't produce at home; Sweden could go one better by cultivating the crops of the world within its own territory. Linnaeus believed that acclimatization, the process by which organisms become habituated to a new environment, could be the engine of economic growth for his "dearest Fatherland." As his most recent biographer, Lisbet Koerner, writes in Linnaeus: Nature and Nation, the proud Swede sought to "re-create within his national borders a trans-oceanic empire."

Back in Uppsala, fired by patriotic zeal and a naive confidence in the adaptability of nature, he became obsessed with the idea of cinnamon groves and tea plantations flourishing under a Baltic sun. Unswerving in his belief that any plant could be "tamed" to withstand a more rigorous climate, he looked to a day when fashionable Europeans would wear Swedish silk, drink Swedish coffee and eat Swedish rice.

Ultimately, Linnaeus was mistaken in his view that plants are globally interchangeable—a conclusion he reluctantly came to accept after most of his horticultural transplants failed. (A notable exception was rhubarb, a native of Asia, whose introduction to Sweden was an achievement he took pride in.) Linnaeus was also wildly wrong about the number of living species. He thought there might be around 40,000 all told; estimates today range from 10 million to 100 million, most of which are microscopic.


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