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How Botany Could Save the World

We can all engage with our faith and common belief to have a civil and productive discussion and action in caring for our God’s gorgeous work of art: Creation.

How Botany Could Save the World

Social Distancing with John Muir in My Own Backyard

As I step outside my kitchen door and take in a large breath of fresh spring air I happen to glance down and notice an excellent example of Taraxacum officinale peering up at my out of the decorative rock surrounding my front walkway. I would rather have preferred to see an early-blooming Tulipa gesneriana, but alas, the voracious Taraxacum has adapted to survive by growing quicker and in harsher conditions. It is the second day of the stay-at-home order amid this international pandemic, and despite the wonderful weather of the earliest spring in more than 100 years (the spring equinox came on March 19th this year), I am restrained to the very immediate confines of my home and neighborhood for the coming 3 weeks…at least. 

While the reality is all this seems like a terrible and yet essential inconvenience to slow the spread of COVID-19, I am fast (and out of necessity) becoming one of the great proponents of “finding the sunny-side” of what all this can teach us about ourselves. Despite my desire to be the optimist, my first lesson in “How to grow during these pandemic times locked in Suburbia” came from an unexpected source, the wilderness, and from an unexpected person, a botanist.

A few days ago I picked up a copy of some of John Muir’s collected works that I had purchased a while back and was collecting dust on my side table. I knew and still know very little about the fascinating Scotsman who is heralded as the Father of the National Park System, but as an aspiring and very amateur mountaineer, I came across his story several times in the last few years. Well-known for his time spent in the Sierra Nevadas (I haven’t read that far yet), Muir began his journeys on A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, trudging from Indiana to Florida in 1867, just after the end of the Civil War. 

The twenty-nine-year-old aspiring botanist (and explorer and philosopher and etc.) had one plan only for his journey: “simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way [he] could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest (pg. 119).” One peculiar detail of the simple and yet exciting story of his travels catches my eye: he knows the name of every single plant and tree that he encounters. Hence my introduction to this article. Many of us have stepped outside and perhaps begrudgingly noticed yet another Taraxacum officinale (common Dandelion) making its way through a crack in the sidewalk to share its leafy existence with the world. We perhaps would be more edified by an organized row of Tulipa gesneriana (common Tulips), but Muir is slowly teaching me not to despise but rather comprehend the simple reality of the existence of the dandelion trying to make its way in the world. 

On the pages of A Thousand Mile Walk Muir has begun to give me an appreciation for the little things that our normal hurried lifestyle rarely offers us. To be honest, in preparation for this article I had to step outside and observe what plants were finding their way out of the soil during these first days of spring. I had to Google their scientific names and traits. Yet maybe, just maybe, thanks to Muir I can begin to appreciate the plants in front of my house that I haven’t spent 2 seconds observing in 6 years of residence here.

Dostoyevsky is quoted as saying “One cannot love what one does not know.” In another place, he is quoted as saying “beauty will save the world.” Dostoyevsky said it, and Muir seems to be teaching me (at least during my stay-at-home-order), how to live it. Muir has something to teach all of us. The immediate natural world around us is something to be cherished as a gift, and yet we are always living for what is next and shaping the natural world according to our volatility. 

One suggestion for this week. Go outside and look at a plant for a while. A tree, a weed, a flower, a blade of grass. Learn its scientific name, where it came from, how it grows and reproduces. Finally remember to thank it for existing, realize that it is just trying to do its thing, the only way it knows. Maybe you laugh at the thought of doing that. But seriously, let me know when you figure this out, when something clicks inside, you’ll know what I mean. At that moment we just might prove Dostoyevsky right.

In conclusion, even if you disagree with your Catholic neighbor about the veracity of the manifold climate studies, reports, and theories, we can all engage with our faith and common belief to have a civil and productive discussion and action in caring for our God’s gorgeous work of art: Creation. 

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