Between Order and Mystery
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.
Interestingly enough, earlier this week one of our podcast listeners alerted us to a New York Times article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon that adds another perspective to the naming and ordering of nature. While Prosek’s words lament a loss of nature’s magic to the rigid confines of Linnaean classification (named after the “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), Yoon’s essay mourns the loss of popular interest in taxonomy:
In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.
And, she relates this loss to a divestment from the natural world:
We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.
I find it interesting that these two perspectives on taxonomy can seem completely at odds, while at the same time come from the same sense of wonder in the face of the nature. Perhaps these two viewpoints evoke a need for balance: without some system of naming we’re limited in our ability to understand the natural world, but pin everything down too neatly and we lose the life that makes nature so attractive and — as Prosek might say — mystical.
(image: A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system, from Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes.)
Fishing as Metaphor
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
I’ve never tried fly fishing, and I haven’t fished at all since I was a kid. But working these past couple weeks on our show “Fishing with Mystery” brought back a visceral memory of that unmistakable tug on my line. Though I haven’t experienced it in almost 20 years, I’ll never forget what it’s like to go from reeling in an inanimate object to feeling that sudden connection to a living creature beneath the water’s surface.
It’s no wonder people often use fishing as a metaphor to describe the creative process. While working on this show, I was trying to come up with literary references to fishing. Luckily, the availability of searchable online texts makes this kind of literary fishing a lot easier. I cast my line into the pond of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, searched on the word “fish,” and came up with a whopper.
The abridged passage below became a part of the show, and I think it perfectly captures one of the ideas James Prosek explores in his work. Namely, that nature can help take us away from reality, and into our dreams, but that it simultaneously pulls us back to the immediate reality that’s always there if we pay attention.
Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day’s dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight…communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below….It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.