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Horticulture as a field for investigation of semantic reactions.

IT IS WITH the greatest hesitation that I accept the invitation of my friend Alfred Korzybski to contribute to the program of this Congress at Denver. I recognize that my knowledge of the subject of general semantics is too fragmentary and too superficial to permit me to say much that will be of use in spreading the non-aristotelian system which forms the basis of the discussions at the meetings,

I recognize that perhaps I am in a rather unusual situation here in Florida; I see certain semantic difficulties here in connection with horticulture which might not be so apparent were I living in the northern latitudes and surrounded by plants with which I was familiar from my youth. Here I find myself in the midst of species which have been brought in from all over the tropical world. Many of them do not even have their names printed in Professor Bailey's Encyclopedia of Horticulture. Not only are the species new to America, but the people who have come here to live are new to the region. They know little or nothing about tropical plants, but they either want to know, or feel they ought to know, their names.

This creates a situation different from that in northern horticulture. Here the species which the residents want to know the names of are not what they would term just insignificant, wild, nondescript plants. They cannot overlook such plants easily without anyone's knowing they are ignorant of what botanists call them. These are species which produce fruits excellent to eat and make preserves of, or to plant for their shade or for their fragrant flowers in outdoor yards.

The people here have come down into this new world, so to say, and they are a bit bewildered by the new symbolism with which they find themselves surrounded. Some of these people insist on learning the names of the new plants, others shrug their shoulders and say, "How can anyone learn such names anyhow? It's no use trying!" Still others devise 'common' names for the species they take a fancy to and let it go at that. Of course the vast majority immure themselves in their houses with their familiar toys and amuse themselves as usual. There is a small percentage of curious-minded people in the world anyhow--curious in the sense of wishing to know what plants are named and where they come from.

It is this situation that has made me conscious that perhaps in horticulture there is a field for semantic investigation which might yield positive results. I am too ignorant of what has been done to state that I believe such an investigation would reveal something of great value, but I have a notion it might. First of all I would claim that properly evaluated, the world of plants offers a field for human activities that is much less 'emotional' in its character than the world of human beings or domestic animals. Allow me to illustrate this.

I have come down here to my little study in the early morning before my neighbors are up, thinking I would have the quiet hours in which to write this paper, a time free from any 'emotional' excitement. I see down the road a little dog coming along and I hear next door another dog yelp. (I happen to be a bit 'prejudiced' against dogs. I am ashamed of it, but I have not been able yet to cure myself of that prejudice.) So two reactions have broken the quiet of my thoughts. Now beside the road is a new large-leaved aroid which I brought back from the forests of the Philippines. It has leaves four feet across and I have built a shade for it to enable its leaves to spread and show their marvelous shape and color. I find one of these leaves is caught in the shading mat of bamboo. I have to get under it and with my hand gently pull it loose so that it will not be torn. I am 'worried' about this pet plant, but my worries are not increased by its snapping at me or barking at me or whining or even weeping. It does not say "thank you" when I release it although I can imagine it does feel grateful--if I wish to go so far in my anthropomorphization of my beautiful new aroid. I have been spared, as regards the aroid itself, any signal reaction.

Had I found one of the dogs digging a hole under it, however, there would have been a decided signal reaction, the effects of which might have lasted for days and spread to its master, even leading to a disruption of our friendly relations for the rest of our lives.

This reaction would arise not in connection with the plant itself, but because of the ownership of it or of the dog which was destroying it. I do admit that when in my walks about the place I find a special plant languishing for some reason or other I am disturbed. Like everyone I am disposed to 'blame' someone, unless I delay my reactions by remembering the long chain of events which brought the plant to where it is now and the difficulty of fixing a cause for its troubles, much less placing the blame for them on anyone.

The disturbance over the behavior of a plant does raise a ripple of unpleasantness and worry, but I believe that this worry is a very mild one indeed compared to the excitement of a whole family for weeks over the death of a pet animal. The two worlds are different in regard to producing these signal reactions. If they were not, my place here with its hundreds of different species of plants would be about the most 'emotionally' disturbing place imaginable. Just consider what this quiet garden would be like were all of the plants in it able to move around and make noises. The ordinary zoological garden would be quiet in comparison, for I have thousands of individual plants and hundreds of distinct species.

But there is another angle here. This quiet world of plants is often ignored and I have wondered if this is not the reason why. Perhaps things that can move about have a greater importance, impress the human eye and senses, more than those which are fixed in their places. Visitors who come to see my plants occasionally bring along a dog. I have noticed often that a large part of their attention is fixed on the movements of the dog and so they see very little of the plants, even though they may be taken and shown to them personally. I have observed also that when in a tropical forest there is no breeze evident and everything is quiet, a single small leaf that may be far up in the tree top will be instantly singled out by the eye if it moves or is moved by a bird or animal. The other leaves of the dense forest make no impression--are a kind of a green blur, but that moving leaf rivets one's attention and takes on an importance even though it is only a tiny current of air that is moving it. Am I correct in assuming that this may explain why so many people may live in a garden all their lives without actually seeing the plants which compose it?

Now returning to this matter of the names of the plants and the memorizing of those names for purposes of conversation about them; here we at once enter a world which is not so peaceful. One of the boys visiting the garden tried to read some of the special legends which I had placed under the trees to inform people what they were called. Frustrated, he remarked, "Why can't the fellow write it in English so that I can understand it?" Aye, there's the rub. Why can't he?

It requires many experiences here to teach people that there are no common names in English for hundreds of these plants and that were we to try to use those in the botany books of foreign lands, there would result a confusion which would be appalling. There would be any number of apples with prefixes of the various countries where they came from. I have on my place what some people call Ceylon Gooseberries, Barbadoes Cherries, Jay-pan Apples, Custard Apples, Rose Apples, Java Plums, Brazilian Cherries, Surinam Cherries, Alligator Pears, and a host of others.

It has taken many years for the old residents here to realize that the best way is to learn the scientific names of the plants, difficult though some of them certainly are. They may gird at such names as Syzigium or Antidesma, or Casimiroa or Arikuryroba, and they generally curse the poor botanists who invented the jaw-breaking names. Generally they forget that all the time they must memorize the names of the new human acquaintances they are making. They complain because two scientific names are necessary and this has always amused me. Particularly when the complainant is a woman, I can remind them that during recent years women have insisted that their friends remember and use first names on a scale undreamed of in my childhood. I confess to a bewilderment when it comes to remembering the combination of women's names, or men's for that matter. I can recall the name of Hawkins, but unfortunately there are in the family Mary and Jane and Susan and Elizabeth and Carrie and if I mix up these names I am put down as an old doddering idiot or something as bad. I have to admit that I cannot master the names of the fifty-two cards in a deck of playing cards, much less the names of the indefinitely many combinations of cards which are involved in the plays. But why the card players should complain about memorizing the names of a few dozen plants has been a matter of wonderment to me.

Another difficulty which creeps into this quiet world of plants and brings about signal reactions is that connected with establishing their names, their symbols. If I want to raise a row among those who deal with the names of plants I have only to question the correctness of a certain name and so, the botanist who named it. The systematic botanist will bring out a book with the 'correct' name in it and under this will be a half page of names which have for good and sufficient reasons been discarded. It has taken two centuries for systematic botanists to get the names in even passable shape so that the 'identity' of almost any one of the half million plants can be determined. This has been a colossal work in the field of symbolism and it deserves to be studied by the experts in general semantics, for there seems to be something peculiarly controversial in the field, and the play of signal reactions reaches a stage at times when personal antagonisms mount to a very high pitch of intensity. I may be criticized for saying that some of the controversies of systematists approach the bitterness of political orators. The international warfare over the principles which should guide botanists in the naming and classification of plants has not yet ceased. There are still adherents to the American Code as distinguished from the International Code.

I am too ignorant of the subject to offer any explanation of why the field of systematics in any science seems to be a field of special controversy. But I have a notion that perhaps in botany one reason lies in the fact that the word-descriptions of plants are very imperfect and that much of the misunderstanding comes about through the interpretation of those words (their over|under-defined character, etc.) which have to be used. It must be mentioned, however, that unlike the politicians the botanists have seen to it that somewhere, in some herbarium, there is carefully stored away an object, a dried specimen, which anyone can see and feel, with which the word description can be checked. The 'map' is not merely one of words; it includes a thing, a non-verbal symbol on a lower level of abstraction. It should be admitted and is by the systematists that the dried specimen is a first order abstraction which leaves out many characteristics of individual growing plants and varies in value greatly, for example, with the size of the plant concerned. A whole plant of a violet can be dried and mounted on a sheet, but what about a hundred foot palm with leaves forty feet long? Adequate photographs have in recent years been added to these specimens to make a more perfect 'map' and bring the abstraction closer to the actuality.

But this problem of abstractions, specimens, etc., does not cover the controversial field of classification. As soon as the process of generalization begins and the specimen is taken as a symbol of, let us say, a half a million individual plants in some out of the way part of the world there is ample room for honest differences of opinion between the man with the specimen and the other man who stands among the living plants themselves. Such controversies are of constant occurrence and may become very bitter.

I happen to be trying down here to get people interested in plants. I shall welcome any assistance in minimizing these destructive and disturbing reactions because they tend to turn people away from what seems to me a vast quiet world, into which those half-crazed by the insanity of the world of symbolism may enter. Here--by feeling of the plants, smelling of them, admiring their colors and forms and even tasting them--people can work their way out into the extensional world of living facts and leave the intensional world of words and vague generalizations behind. Am I right in believing that sanity lies in this field of living things?

Years ago Mrs. Fairchild and I found some red fruits lying on the ground under a large Ficus tree on the slopes of the Volcano Lawoe in central Java. We picked them up and sent home seeds taken from them. Fifteen years have passed. The dried specimen of those fruits still remains in a vial in the collection in Washington. The single living seed which was planted beside our terrace has grown into an immense tree fifty feet high and four feet through and two weddings have taken place under it. To me this example typifies the difference between the world of living organisms and the world of static symbols. Until mankind gets away from the present preoccupation with symbols, a slavish adherence I mean, any map of a reconstructed world, such as many people seem to think should be drawn now, can scarcely have much significance. The questions of population and birth control and food supply and human misunderstanding are problems connected with living organisms--from the single microscopic cell of their beginnings to the gigantic forest tree, or to the terrifically potent rabble rousers and racketeers and dictators who move multitudes with their clever use of symbols that have no extensional reality in a scientific sense.

When I tire of the talking of people I find sanity among the quiet of the plants.

From Papers from the Second American Congress for General Semantics, August 1-2, 1941, Denver, Colorado. Dr. Fairchild, a retired Plant Explorer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was President Emeritus of Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coconut Grove, Florida. His wife, Marian, was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. Dr. Fairchild's memoirs, The World was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer, offers a fascinating extensional view of the non-verbal world of plants. He was appointed an Honorary Trustee of the Institute by Alfred Korzybski.
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Author:Fairchild, David
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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