Ask a philosopher why we name things, and the reply will be: human nature. It's how we distinguish a chair from a couch, a pond from an ocean, them from us. First among the things we learned to name were plants. Our long evolution would have been a very short one had we not found ways to, say, differentiate hemlock from basil.
Yet while all people in all places name plants that they use, it took the discovery of the New World to inspire the idea that one could or should classify all plants. For 233 years, generation after generation of botanist has been trying to know North America root and branch. What began as an epic quest for knowledge's sake is now seen as an urgent bid to record our "biological heritage."
As scientists, they are assaulting the mystery of mysteries--the search to understand the origins of life. As environmentalists, they are in a race against the boundless forces that built this country: bulldozer and plough. To those taking part, it could not be more important: These plants provide the air we breathe, food, shelter--life itself. Recording their ranges means that if they retreat to higher altitudes and ever more northerly parallels, it will be the clincher to demonstrate to a disbelieving government the reality of global warming.
Since 1983, a vast modern effort has gathered up more than 850 botanists now working on the "Flora of North America" project. To critics, the scientists have eyes bigger than their walking shoes. The study takes in the U.S., Canada, Greenland, St. Pierre and Miquelon. To cover it, each botanist is assigned a plant group. From recorded sightings going back centuries, they establish a range where this plant is known to occur. Cascades and the Sierra for pines, the Appalachian Trail for hickory, the Great Plains for buffalo grass, and so on, thousands and thousands of times.
Then they add their lifetimes to the trawl. There are organized collecting trips in the wilderness, but life becomes an expedition, says Helen Jeude, technical editor of the project. "Botanists are terrible drivers because you'll be going along an interstate at 70 and they'll spot something and--screech--they're off to the side to photograph it. They're always in search of one more plant. Just to be sure. One more." Having determined a territory, the botanist must then look close, closer and closest at a single specimen, characterizing it past the outward appearance, past the thickness of the hairs on the leaf, right down to its chromosomes. The DNA will be used to plumb its ancestry right back to primordial sludge. It will be measured and drawn so painstakingly that the artist must wear magnifying glasses.
Learned studies will be written, maps rendered, and everything will be reviewed and reviewed again. The slowly accumulating load of detail is then sent to the Missouri Botanical Garden where, say the project's organizers, it will constitute an environmental check-up for America.
The continent is not proving easy to doctor. The project is four years overdue and less than half-finished, and government funding has all but dried up. Discovering rare plants isn't good for housing starts, agriculture or oil exploration. Moreover, only essential publishing costs are paid, with botanists working for free. The country that spent $260 million on the "Genesis" probe for solar dust, whose capsule crashed in the Utah Salt Flats last September, has in the last decade put less than $1 million of government funds into the Flora of North America project.
As the odds of success worsen, the sense of urgency has redoubled. A wilderness once too vast to comprehend is being eroded at a furious pace. The visionaries are not just aging, but dying. The people with the money are losing faith. Two years ago, in a last-ditch effort to save the project, the organizers brought in Peter Stevens, a former star of the Harvard University botany department. James Reveal, botany professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, whose stock in trade is using exact scientific terms, calls this disheveled Englishman "an out-and-out genius."
Nobody has a better grasp than Stevens of how the language of botany was forged, and how it is now being re-forged. If botanists working today studied the subject, they read Stevens. If they're part of a rebel group out to revolutionize their field, they admire Stevens. Yet as he answered a plea to lend his name to the project, it wasn't at all clear which it needed: genius or heart?
Another man in his place would have played the conservation card. Stevens will listen politely enough to environmental pleas, then say in his precise English accent, "We do this kind of thing in general because we like it."
American plants brought back to Europe by tall-ship botanists inspired the golden age of botany, but the man who set the tone was a Swede and, by all accounts, an egomaniac: the 18th century physician Carolus Linnaeus. Toward the end of his life, he dubbed himself the "prince of botany."