Classification and Species

Scott Ranger ranger at AMERICA.NET
Mon Mar 27 21:14:37 CST 1995

I find it interesting that we seem to look to remote places to find
examples of indigenous taxonomy.  The idea of usefulness as a basis
for naming "things" does appear universal among humans.

Two decades ago, when my botanical knowledge was primarily textbook
and U.S. west coast based, I happened to hike with an "indigenous" person
of the Smoky Mountains.  I knew a great deal about the families of
plants of theSmokies and even some genera, but knew few species.
Arnold, in his late 70's, knew the Elkmont area like the back of his
hand.  Hiking around with him, and my wife to be, he was instrumental
in my learning of the "kinds" of the Smoky Mountains.  I found myself
always asking Arnold if he knew another "name" for that "kind" of
plant, because I was unfamiliar with any of his names.  It took a lot
of asking to come up with a name from "the books" that matched one of
his "indigenous" names, but we did come up with many.  And the
"kinds" always matched!

What I learned from this brilliant, totally unschooled man, was that
his knowledge of the woods WAS based on utility.  If the plant had
some USE to him (which could mean avoidance due to toxicity or
structural weakness as well as the stuff that he could really use),
he knew its name.  If it was neutral, that is, had no real use for
him, he not only didn't know it's name, he didn't even pay attention
to it!

 Many of his local names were more colorful than the "common
names" in the books.  Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) to him was
"pisswood," a very accurate description of the color of the wood.
Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens) was "bear club pine" and if you
know how this closed cone pine clusters tight cones at the end of a
branch, it's not hard to imagine clubbing a bear with it.  Black
locust was said to be the best fence post wood possible, because "it
lives six months longer than a rock."

His taxonomy was just as real as the professionals, and perhaps a bit
more intellectually honest in that he implicitly understood why he
named the things he did.  It all boiled down to the usefulness of the
plant to his needs.

My first years in the eastern deciduous woods were influenced greatly
by a "taxonomist" who never made it past elementary school.

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