Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/October 1907/Linné and the Love for Nature

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SPRING, always the delight of the lover and of the poet the world over, becomes more and more so the farther we go into the north. Nowhere are the spring songs so full of feeling as in Scandinavia. When the northern winter, over-dark and over-long, is past; when returning light and warmth inspire sleeping nature with new life; when the blue anemone, close to the fast-retreating snow, looks up into the cheering sun; when the birch puts on its delicate fresh green; when the thrush pours into the fragrant air its love-song, then, as Linné puts it, "love seizes even the plants," and the spirit of spring awakens the heart of man into a new joy. It was when this Swedish spring was at its best that the blomsterkung (king of flowers), Carl von Linné, was born, and in the romantic north, where fancy is still free to roam, it is natural that the good people should imagine some bond between the season and the child. And surely the May child, who in his cradle stopped crying when a flower was placed in his hand, grew up to be a lover of the flowers and of all nature.

This love for nature, which marked the whole life of Linné, was inherited; and he was brought up among the flowers in the garden of Stenbrohult, his father's Smaland parsonage. The flowers were his playthings and their names almost the first words on his lips. Once when hardly four years old he followed his father to a lovely äng, or flower-covered meadow, and overheard him telling his friends the name and properties of each of the plants. After that, he never ceased to ask his father for the name of each plant he met. Once, when rebuked for forgetting and asking again in the childish way, he made up his mind to put his whole energy on keeping in memory all that he was told, for he did not wish to miss hearing about the things that were dearest to him.

Linné never forgot the race of peasants and priests from which he rose, nor did he forget the humble flowers of Stenbrohult. Years afterward when at the height of fame, he visited his early home and wrote in his notes, "To the flowers, my childhood's play-brothers of Stenbrohult on the banks of Mökeln, now I bade farewell," and then he goes on to call the plants and the weeds by name.

When the boy came to go to school he eared less for his books than for his flowers. Instead of allowing himself to be put through the educational mill of the times he preferred to roam over the fields and, when there came time for reading, to devour the books that would tell him more about his friends, the plants. He thought his teachers unfeeling and rude, and they thought him stupid. His father and mother, who wanted him to become a pastor, were discouraged and came near making him a cobbler. But the boy was not stupid, nor lazy, nor worthless. All the while, his powers of accurate observation were growing and he was storing up the knowledge that would be useful to him in the life that he was to lead. In time his powers came to be recognized and Dr. Rothman, one of his tutors at the school at Wexiö, more sympathetic than the others, assured the father that of all the scholars studying in Wexiö there was no one that gave as much hope as Carl. Thus the way was opened for him to devote himself to the study of natural science and of medicine, instead of theology, but not until after long family discussions. Once the boy heard his father say, "What one has inclination for, that will he have success in" (Det man har lust för, det har man lycka till). The boy asked him if it was really so, for if it was, he could not have success as a pastor, for which he had no inclination. The father suggested how costly his chosen scientific studies would be. The boy replied, "If the proverb has any ground, God will provide the offering. If I have success as I have inclination, so ways-out will not fail me." The father, with tearful eyes, gave his consent: "Then may God grant you success. I shall not force you into that for which you have not inclination." And so the boy set out for the University of Lund, where he won the life-long friendship of Stobæus. Here, and later at the University of Upsala, he read all the books he could find on botany and studied the plants of the gardens as well as of the fields and woods. His knowledge of plants was so unusual that Celsius, who came upon him by chance in the Botanical Garden at Upsala, took him home, and interested himself in the scientific advancement of the student. At the universities Linné put his serious energy on the sciences for which he was fitted, but never did the book learning nor the passion for acquiring knowledge cool his inborn love for the flowers.

If a childhood and youth like Linné's suggests a spring morning, so the passing from that youth into the fullness of life is like the passing into a sunshiny day, a day so beautiful that it never loses the color and the freshness of the dawn. Few lives have been more crowded than Linné's. He had time to study not only his beloved botany, but all the natural sciences, even assaying, and to earn his living as a physician. He had time to go on collecting trips throughout Sweden and parts of Europe; time to identify, name and classify thousands of plants, insects and animals; time to write ten score scientific books and treatises; time to direct hundreds of students who gathered at Upsala from near and far to be guided by the new organizer of science; and yet in all that busy life he never was too busy to let his true feelings come out, never too busy to love the sunshine and birds and flowers. The wonderful hold he had on his students and followers shows his never-slacking enthusiasm, and even to-day this is felt by reading his travels and his scientific addresses and papers, or by following his life, so admirably recounted by Fries. He trained himself to see and note whatever was essential and to express this in as few words and as directly as possible, and yet it seems natural for him to pass from scientific description to poetic prose full of the beautiful Northern imagery, which is so rich in the Swedish language. Indeed there is so much of the imaginative in his writing that the Swedes, as Levertin has done, like to name him with their poets.

He starts on his scientific trips with a bird-like delight in the outdoors much like that of the old ballads:

Hit befel on Whitsontide,
Erly in a May mornyng,
The son vp fejre can shyne,
And the briddis mery can syng.

"This is a mery mornyng," seid Litull John.
"Be hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man then I am one
Lyves not in Christiantë." (Robin Hood and the Monk.)

Is this very different from the spirit of Linné when he set out from Upsala to study the plants and the rocks and the people of Lapland?

I journeyed from Upsala town the 12th of May, 1732, which was a Friday, 11 o'clock a.m., when I was 25 years old, all but twelve hours. Now began all the ground to delight and smile, now comes beautiful Flora and sleeps with Phœbus.

Omnia vere vigent et veris tempore florent
Et totus fervet Veneris dulcedine mundus.

Now stood the winter rye quarter of an ell tall, and the grain had newly shown a blade. The birch began now to burst forth, and all leafy trees to show their leaves, except the elm and aspen. . . . The lark sang to us the whole way, quivering in the air.

Ecce suum tirile, tirile, suum tirile tractat.

The sky was clear and warm, the west wind cooled with a pleasant breeze, and a dark hue from the west began to cover the sky. . . . The woods began to increase more and more, the sweet lark which ere now had delighted our ears, deserted us, but yet another one meets us in the woods with as great a compliment, namely the thrush, Turdus minor, who, when she on the highest fir-top plays to her dearest, also lets us joy therein. Yes, she tunes in so high with her varied notes that she often overmasters the nightingale, the master of song.

As he goes on and the season advances he notes that "no place in Sweden is pleasanter to travel through in the summer" than the woods of pine, fir and "overflooding" (ofverflödig) birch. He says that although summer may be shorter here than anywhere else in the world, nowhere is it pleasanter, and he holds the midnight sun as not the least of nature's miracles. On midsummer day he gives praise for the beauty of summer and of spring, and for the air, the water, the green plants and the song of birds.

On this Lapland journey, Linné became fascinated with the little creeping pink-and-white twin-flower, calling it by his own name, and it has ever since been known as the linnæa (Linnæa borealis Gronovius), and even when found in the cool shades of the Adirondacks or on the pine-clad slopes of the Sierras it seems to carry with it some of the dreamy cheerfulness of the Northern midsummer.

When he gets up into the mountains, he revels in the freedom of the bracing mountain air and rejoices to find the flowers more numerous and more beautiful than he expected, and when he climbs Vallivare there is so much that is new he imagines himself in a new world. He goes through a cold driving snow-storm as he crosses over the fjäll into Norway and looks down on the landscape below:

When we at last came down what pleasure did I not find for my tired body? I came then out from a cold and frozen fjäll down into a warm and seething valley (I sat me down to eat wild strawberries [smultron]); for snow and ice I saw green plants standing in their sweetest bloom (such high grass had I never seen in any place); for violent weather a striking scent from Trifolio florente [flowering clover] and other plants. . . . I was able to cool myself with cow-milk and refresh myself with food, also to sit in a chair.

Perhaps only those who have feasted on the wild strawberries (smultron) of Scandinavia can appreciate how that little naïve touch makes the whole scene full of life. From a purely scientific point of view it might have done to have told us that as he reached a certain altitude on his descent he found certain flowers in bloom and the fruit of certain plants already ripe. But personally I am glad to have my mouth, like his, water over those smultron.

And I feel sure that he had the smultron still in mind when years afterward he rejoiced at bidding a disciple God-speed on a journey to Lapland, sending with him greetings to the Lapland fjälls and flowers, and assuring him that the trip will give him memories that will be a life-long pleasure. The joy of the fjãll comes on him again in the same way as Wordsworth's heart, filled with pleasant memories of his chance walk by the shore of Ullswater, "dances with the daffodils."

Even more noteworthy than in his travels are the expressions of his sympathetic love for nature in his scientific papers and treatises. In his "Deliciæ Naturæ" he classifies the plants by comparing their families to a great commonwealth, saying of the grass:

The grass, in its simple dräkt [costume] makes up here the peasant class; it is the most numerous and contributes the most, it takes care of itself the best, although it is daily tramped upon and vexed.

To one with such a true, sympathetic and enthusiastic love for nature, life must needs be full of meaning. There is a saying in Swedish, "Som man ropar i skogen, får man svar" (As one calls into the woods so is he answered). Linné called into the woods with a voice of love, and in like tones all nature answered. He took delight in coming upon the creeping twin-flower trailing through the pinewoods, in listening to the little chaffinch (bofink) with a great butterfly in his mouth calling home his children to dinner. He marveled at the endurance of the Lapps in going over mountains and with a human sympathy entered into their fresh, free life. He enjoyed watching the young men and women of Skåne dance about the midsumer maypole. For him everything is worth observing and noting. With so many things to see, to think about and to love, his life is one of sunshine, and he is full of thankfulness for having been permitted to know and enjoy so much. Truly to such a human heart, as to Wordsworth,

the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Linné is not like the swine which "become fat on acorns, but not once look up at the tree from which the fruit fell, much less think upon him who established the tree so splendidly." He says of himself:

I sought after God's footsteps over nature's plain and perceived in every one, even in those I could scarcely discern, an unending wisdom and power, an impenetrable completeness.

And again after declaring that God's wisdom is shown in the smallest creature as well as in the elephant and is as worthy of wonder, he repeats a favorite phrase of his:

Great are the works of the Lord, and the one who takes heed of them he has joy therein (Store äro Herrans verk, och den som uppå dem aktar, han hafver lust deraf).

To appreciate fully Linné's love for nature we must remember that he began life early in the eighteenth century, in the very midst of the classical age of European life and letters. It was an age in which emphasis was placed upon the conventional, the formal, an age in which feeling and enthusiasm were restrained, an age of the court and the city, rather than of the country and nature. In the romantic movement, which meant a breaking away from artificial classicism, one of the most important features was the "return to nature." In the beginning of the eighteenth century no poet thought of writing about the birds and flowers, or if he did, of using anything but stilted and conventional phrases. In such an age, long before Burns and Wordsworth, before even Rousseau, Linné leaves the conventional city for the garden, the äng, the barrskog, the fjäll; he is bold enough to neglect the conventionalized nightingale in his joy over the thrush; he ignores the conventional rules and models of writing, and in his own simple and direct way sets down truthfully the things he has seen with his own eyes and felt with his own heart; he leads the way not only for a more scientific study of nature, but also for a more poetic love for nature. With the eighteenth-century world sleeping through a musicless night, Linné's enthusiastic love for nature, so joyously and continuously expressed, must have come like the dawn song of birds calling to awake. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that through his writings and through the hundreds of students who were held at Upsala by his powerful magnetism, something of his inspiring love for nature should have been spread through Europe and all the world and have helped in leading men back to the great outdoors.

To some it may seem curious that Linné looked upon flowers and nature, at the same time from the scientific and the poetic points of view. We have, of course, plenty of amateurs who have a love for nature without a true knowledge, and we have scientists who see only the material object under their microscope and who feel or love nothing. But the examples of such scientists as Linné and Agassiz and many more show us that a scientist need not be fossilized, nor a mere instrument for dissecting, recording and classifying. A little of the poetic feeling, a little of the love and enthusiasm of Linné need not interfere with the worth of scientific work.

With the love for nature developed more, and, perhaps with the scientific attitude developed somewhat less, we have the naturalists, men like Gilbert White, Thoreau, Burroughs and Muir. These are the men who with loving and appreciative eyes observe what is near at hand. Their value lies in that they see clearly, accurately and with a true sympathy, and in that they let us share in their joy over nature, Reading their writings is like walking through the fields and woods. It opens our eyes and ears, it opens our hearts and souls, and makes us feel with David Starr Jordan: "Nowhere is the sky so blue, the grass so green, the sunshine so bright, the shade so welcome, as right here, now, to-day." Welcome indeed are the words and example of every observer who can help us see and enjoy for ourselves our own sky and grass and sunshine. Linné does this, and therefore is to be placed with the naturalists.

With the emotional, imaginative side of the love for nature still more developed, but with the same close observation and appreciation of truth and reality, we have the poets, the nature poets of a high class, for we are not now concerned with the clever versifiers, the bookish imitators, nor with those who see nature and life morbidly or fantastically, through false and distorted glasses. The true poets, like Homer, or Shakspere, or Tennyson, see nature as truthfully as the scientists, they seize upon what is significant for their purpose, they base their imagination upon what is real and vital; they are like Wordsworth's skylark, singing up into the sky but keeping heart and eye on the nest upon the ground,

Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.

These poets are not the ones to make the nightingale and skylark sing in America, nor to be accused by Ruskin of pathetic fallacy in making their words express emotions which they know to be false. They are the ones who have a sincere insight into life and nature and express their true thought and feelings in all the imaginative beauty of their art. Linné was like a true poet in that he was capable of poetic imagination and beautiful expression, perhaps the chief difference being that with him this was incidental, with the poet supreme.

Like the scientists, Linné saw nature accurately; like the naturalists, he saw it sympathetically; like the poets, he saw it beautifully; like all of them, he saw it truthfully. Further still, like the prophets and seers, he saw the significance of things in the universe, he looked through what Carlyle calls the "show of things" into the things themselves, he penetrated into Goethe's "open secret."

The more we walk with Linné in the gardens, the ängs, the fjälls of his beloved Sweden, the more we shall appreciate how his inborn love for nature, showing itself in so many ways, was a vital part of his life, and the more we shall share in his joy in the works of creation. His love for nature leaves with us a memory, like that of a glorious morning, a sunshiny day, a calm and peaceful evening. Such a love for nature takes us out from the pent-up city and shows us, as it did Keats, how sweet it is

to look into the fair
And open face of heaven.

Such a love for nature fills our hearts with sunshine and joy, and, as it did for Linné, he who loved the little twin-flower, it opens our eyes to the truth and to the beauty of nature and of life.

  1. An address delivered at Augustana College, Rock Island. Illinois, on the occasion of the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnæus).