pierre laszlo


Botany, which I did study awhile in my youth, holds a continued interest. Plants are remarkable organisms. In writing about them, in these small vignettes I try to combine the scientific and the cultural, the bucolic and the utilitarian, and to convey some of my sense of wonder - in brief to try and emulate some of the eighteenth-century natural historians, with the information now available to us.

Linum usitatissimum (Linaceae)

‟Vêtu de probité candide et de lin blanc:‟ this line by Victor Hugo — that translates literally as ‟clothed in candid probity and in white linen‟ — was memorized by many a French schoolchild, the undersigned included. Besides its reference to white linen, it also mentions a moral quality, ‟candid probity.‟ This association of the physical with the abstract much antedated the nineteenth century — or the twentieth, with for instance Alec Guinness playing the central role in the Man with the white suit movie, a gem of a film.
As a genus, Linum (flax) numbers approximately 200 species in the flowering plant family Linaceae, native to temperate and subtropical regions of the world. The genus includes the common flax (L. usitatissimum), the bast fibre of which is used to produce linen and the seeds to produce linseed oil. The species is known only as a cultivated plant. 
It had a single domestication origin, from Linum bienne. The evidence points to its first domestication for oil, rather than fiber, about 11,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of its culture and use comes from the sites of Tell Abu Hureyra and Tell Mureybit in Syria.
Linen was the very first fiber cultivated by mankind. The most ancient such fiber was found in the Dzudzuana cave in the foothills of the Caucasus, with a radiocarbon date of - 36,000 years: our ancestors in the Paleolithic already processed flax. Some of the earliest preserved and identified linen fabrics in the Ancient Old World are those excavated from Nahal Hemar, a desert cave in Israel; twined fabric from this site is radiocarbon dated 7065 BCE. In the circum-alpine area of Europe the earliest preserved linen cords, nets and textiles come from Middle to Late Neolithic alpine lake dwellings, roughly two thousand years after the earliest flax seeds in the same area. Flax in Western Europe was part of the agricultural revolution and use of its fiber was a late development. 
Woven linen had been known in Egypt since 5000 BCE. The oldest depiction of a loom was found at Badari on a pottery dish dating from the middle of the 5th millennium BCE while the first known pictures of weavers were drawn during the Middle Kingdom. Egypt saw the widespread use of linen fabrics for a wide variety of uses, such as shrouds, clothing, sails, nets, ropes, etc.
All the textiles wrapped around the manuscripts from Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls found in the caves there date from the first century BCE to the third century CE) were made solely of linen. Moreover, the Qumran devouts differentiated themselves from the rest of the Jewish population by wearing only linen. 
This custom returns us to the line by Victor Hugo and to theology from biblical times. Only the initiated among the Essenes, if we are to believe to Titus Flavius Josephus their contemporary during the first-century CE, were allowed to share meals, only after they had bathed and dressed in special clothes made of linen. 
The association of purity with clothes made of linen did not originate with the sect of Essenes though. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus wrote already of a similar distinction Egyptians made between woolens and linens: "Nothing of wool is brought into temples, or buried with them; that is forbidden. In this, they follow the same rule as the ritual called Orphic and Bacchic, but which is in truth Egyptian and Pythagorean. For neither may those initiated in those rites be buried in woolen clothings." 
In other terms, woolens were considered garments related to earth and death, whereas linens were associated with resurrection and the eternal life. The Fathers of the Christian church later made theirs this distinction between carnal woolens  and spiritual linens. To the most influential Saint Augustine (354—430), the linen shirt, since it is closer to the body, represents the spiritual man. Whereas the woolen cloak worn over it is thereby exterior, and represents the baser carnal person. 
As noted by the great erudite Leo Spitzer, it was under the influence then of the Northern Barbarians —not any longer of the Ancient Egyptians, nor of a small sect among the Jews — that the ruling class in Rome, later echoed by Augustine, came to prefer fresh white linen to wool, and even to Oriental garments dyed with purple — with their connotation of supreme power.

Salix viminalis (Salicaceae)

For centuries, if not millennia, willows have assisted mankind: it will suffice to mention baskets, on one hand, aspirin on the other — the drug derives from natural products in the bark. Willows were a significant part of the domesticated area, in the Western European countryside, as an easy-to-reach supply of pliant fiberwood for basketry. Local dwellers sooner or later would discover their pharmacological benefit.
Willows, at least in my mind, have thus a close connexion to England - to Good Olde England. For one thing, the healing properties of the bark were first taken advantage of by Englishmen: the Reverend Edward Stone (1702-1768), from Chipping Norton, in Oxfordshire, who treated more than 50 patients with malaria ; Samuel James (c 1763-1831), from Hoddesdon, in the Lea Valley between Cambridge and London,, who used pussy-willow bark to reduce fever and brought more widespread attention to Stone’s contribution.
Moreover, the phrase, wind in the willows, sends a shiver down my spine. Readers may recognize the title of Kenneth Grahame’s Georgian pastoral, an enchanting masterpiece. First published in 1908, it justifiably celebrates the English countryside — without exaggeration, a wonder of the world.
Grahame’s book, apparently a mere gentle animal story for children and grownups alike, is much more: a bucolic ode to mankind partaking of nature in a gentle and mutually respectful manner. The writing is exquisite, a romp among the luxurious English language, as in this example:

"The 'poop-poop' rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment's glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass and rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back into a droning bee once more."

`One may, alternatively, rejoice in one of the main characters, Toad’s, philosophy of life:

"I've had enough of adventures. I shall lead a quiet, steady, respectable life, pottering about my property, and improving it, and doing a little landscape gardening at times. There will always be a bit of dinner for my friends when they come to see me; and I shall keep a pony-chaise to jog about the country in, just as I used to in the good old days, before I got restless, and wanted to do things." .

The Wind in the Willows is often compared to Alice in Wonderland. It is comparable indeed in both being masterpieces. In an interesting coincidence, the authors, Kenneth Grahame and Charles Dodgson / Lewis Carroll, were also both professional mathematicians, the former worked for the Bank of England.