In Linnaeus’ Garden: What We are Made of Will Make Something Else

Ever the anthropomorphist, sometimes I like to imagine Religion as a fiery spirit, rising disdainfully from the ashes of Folklore, then Science rising inquiringly from the ashes of Religion. Picture each spirit, tentative at first then gradually triumphant – feeling the updraft of rising acceptance, forgetting that ideas are ephemeral. Then along comes Art, never the possessor of power, poking through the cooling ashes for relics to use in a provocative installation elsewhere.

There have been times in the past when these disciplines have seemed more meshed. And then specific times and places when they began to come apart. One such important time was during the Enlightenment. And one very important Enlightenment thinker was eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus.

This article is about my journey along the paths and through some of the thinking of Carl Linnaeus. Why Linnaeus? Well I’m an artist interested in natural history and an editor involved in taxonomy. I paint a lot of pictures of plants and spend other times choosing my words.

My curiosity began as an urge to tap into the source of something: to a period when science began to rise from the pyres of folklore and conventional religion. And when art no longer had to serve these philosophies but could reincarnate as something else.

In June this year I visited Sweden with my ten-year-old daughter. I didn’t travel to research Linnaeus exactly. I’m not an academic; I haven’t learnt Swedish or Latin and I’ve only read bits of his books. Rather I went there to imbibe him, and then to bring him back to my studio, relic-like, and to turn him into art.

Linnaean Gardens of Uppsala.

Uppsala: 23 June 2017 – I respectfully stand upon the etched flagstone tomb of my muse in Uppsala Cathedral. Dead since 1778, Linnaeus is nonetheless present in the form of atomic particles in many sites around Sweden, especially Uppsala where he studied, worked and lived for 50 years. I inhale.

Carolus Linnaeus, also called Carl von Linné after his ennoblement, was born in Southern Sweden in 1707. Through his intense interest in nature and inclination to develop systems to describe it, he contributed hugely to what has become known as the Enlightenment or Age of Reason – when many say Western science flourished from the dark ages.

Edvalla: 24 – 27 June 2017 – It’s midsummer in Sweden and the sun barely sets. Coupled with jetlag, we could do with a bit less enlightenment right now. We spend time in the country in a summerhouse without curtains. Waking to false dawns several times between 1 and 7am, I re-adjust my thick eye mask. Thus blindfolded, my inner eye tries to remember a real night. There are no stars to be seen here in this light sky. Instead fallen stars grow in wild profusion in gardens, meadows, trees and roadsides. Every summer flower bursts with enthusiasm for the sun that lacks heat but keeps outrageous hours.

Our hosts, Emma and Magnus, are academic scientists and usually Uppsala apartment dwellers. Now they are excitedly planting potatoes at 11pm in their new country garden. I’m not sure how the Swedes adapt to long days all summer then long nights all winter. Can one store sleep credits seasonally? I suppose bears do.

What did Linnaeus think? He seemed to have an opinion about most things. Did progress during the Enlightenment in Northern Europe happen more in the long summer days where there was more time to observe the world? Or during the long nights of winter when it was possible to sleep and think without delirium? Was the Enlightenment seasonal?”

Uppsala: 6 July 2017 – Now known as the Linnaean Gardens of Uppsala, the original gardens were built in 1655 but were deteriorating by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The current Curator, Jesper Kårehed, told me, ‘When Linnaeus came to Uppsala 1728 as a student there were only a couple of hundred species in these gardens and when he took over as director of the gardens in 1741 only 50 foreign species remained… Then an impressive development took place… Linnaeus wrote that over 1,000 foreign plants were introduced to the gardens in 1742, that seeds from 567 “different species” were sown that same year, 500 the year thereafter and 1,000 in 1744… perhaps Linnaeus had 4,000 “different herbs” some years.’

Many of these species are present today and arranged in the same places in ‘order beds’.  As the Professor of Medicine and Botany, at Uppsala University, Linnaeus used these beds as the textbook from which he taught his sexual system of plant classification based on the number and arrangement of stamens and pistils in flowers. Although this ordering method didn’t last much more than his lifetime, his metaphors for flower parts – ‘husbands, wives and perfumed marital beds’ scandalised European botany. His much greater contribution later as a taxonomist no doubt benefited from such juicy publicity.

Astrantia major L., aka Stjärnflocka, aka Linné’s ladies.
Linnaean Gardens entry motto.

Linnaeus’ commendable motto ‘Omnia mirari etiam tritissima’ is set into a plaque at the gate of the Linnaean Gardens. It translates to ‘Find wonder in everything, even the most commonplace’.

Commonplace compost is a source of wonder as well as joy, sustenance and rebirth. If I had a religion, it would be compost-based reincarnation.”

Linnaeus had a slightly complicated relationship with soil improvement and soil types. As a practical gardener ‘well-aged horse manure was like gold for Linnaeus’, according to Anki Sporrong, head gardener at the Linnaean Gardens. However in the order beds Linnaeus, ‘purposefully disregarded his own experience’, Sporrong says. ‘A plant that liked peat or sand, would have to accept clay or gravel. And another that likes shadow would have to accept a sunny place and so on. So even if he knew a lot about gardening, he didn’t always accept it.’  Maintaining the Linnaean gardens continues to be tricky because of these conflicting requirements.

An impressively huge compost heap is kept at the Linnaean Gardens to the side of those tricky order beds. I know his atoms are in there somewhere. Perhaps only three or four plants in the gardens are direct descendants of those Linnaeus grew, however it was here that he shed skin cells, exhaled breath, recycled water though his body and left his ideas.  At an atomic level some of those elements will always remain.

Linnaeus began working at a time when it was difficult to communicate new thoughts about nature. Long-held traditions of alchemy, folklore and magic survived amongst emerging empirical scientific practices and, even within cultures, common names for plants varied from region to region. During the eighteenth century the world was still being ‘discovered’ by Europeans and rumors of extraordinary plants and beasts from the nether regions must have confounded rational thinkers every week. Early editions of Linnaeus’ opus, Systema Naturae, even list and describe creatures such as hydra, satyrs and dragons, collectively categorised as ‘paradoxa’ though they are flagged as dubious. Later editions omit mentions of the paradoxa.

Other scientists developed naming systems but most failed because they relied on long-winded description. By 1753, in Species Plantarum, Linnaeus named plants simply by genera and species. Some say his major contribution to science was really his promotion and persistent use of this binomial system, so much so that it is still used today. Binomial nomenclature enables all serious naturalists to discuss plants and animals across cultures.

But while Linnaeus’ motive to provide a framing language to discuss all living things was admirable, his naming system necessarily diminished pre-Enlightenment, indigenous and folk knowledge.”

And for all of his rationality, until the end of his life Linnaeus held fast to a belief in a creator God whose works he was charged with explaining.

New life grows from the compost heap, Linnaean Gardens of Uppsala.

Gotland: 12-13 July – We’ve left the mainland and are following Linnaeus to two Baltic Sea islands where he was sent by the Swedish Government to discover potentially useful natural resources. By now I’m calling the pilgrimage my ‘Linnaeus Stalking Tour’, although he sometimes stalks us. I’m with Emma and our two daughters and occasionally we try to be ordinary tourists taking a holiday. We visit the exciting sounding Lummelunda Cave, knowing our girls will love the story of its rediscovery and secret exploration by three boys in 1948. We reach the entrance and find a sign describing what Linnaeus thought of the site in 1741. Later we come upon a beach of brilliant white fossils in Kappelshamn. There too we read of Linné’s wonder at so much ‘coral’. This happens all over Gotland. Whether we’re looking or not he’s been there before us nearly three centuries earlier. His conscientious diary notes, elevated by his subsequent fame, confer further status to these landmarks. Some are even renamed in his honour.

Stora Karlsö: 14 July – 276 years and a day after Linnaeus, we land on Stora Karlsö off the west coast of Gotland. Linnaeus and his party of six students arrived here on 13 July 1741 and stayed overnight in an abandoned fishing hut. Now there is an unexpectedly stylish restaurant on the island, a lighthouse, a tiny museum and a cluster of huts for visitors. Most people come for the day and swim in another fossil strewn beach or take a terrific guided tour around sections of the island that is wholly a nature reserve. After the day-trippers leave we are allowed off the tracks and explore larger areas although most of the cliffs and shores are kept safe for nesting Guillemots (Cepphus grille L.) and Razorbills (Alca torda L.).

Linnaeus and his party were busy here during their short visit. They shot a few sea birds, searched fruitlessly for rune stones and fed his pet hedgehog on grasshoppers, delighting in its appetite. Linnaeus was drawn to an impressively wide though stunted Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior L.) growing from the core of a 1000 BCE burial mound on top of the windy island plateau. It is now called ‘Linnés Ash’ on most maps and guidebooks. Currently the tree is estimated to be over 500 years old and great efforts have been made to keep it alive, including pouring concrete into rotten sections of the trunk to support the living limbs above.

Stora Karlsö: 14 July – During our evening ramble Emma and I discover the Ash guarded by an insouciant mountain hare (Lepus timidus L.) that was anything but timidus actually. As we walk on, black-faced sheep scatter before us, large beetles swarm around our heads like thronging helicopters and fat grey pigeons fly alarmingly from the cracks in the rocks underfoot. Humans and beasts take turns to surprise and frighten each other here. Emma, ever the scientist, Googles the beetles later to assure me of their harmlessness only to find their Latin name to be Amphimallon solstitiale L. Moreover the crack dwelling birds are Stock doves or Columba oenas L. and the sheep are Ovis aries L. ‘L.’ – meaning all beasts and birds we encountered this evening were first formally described by Linnaeus. Even we Homo sapiens L. were named by him. I continue to be amazed at the way he bombards us when we’re not looking, bemused by his godlike tendency in naming so much of the natural world, yet impressed by his immense scope.

Kappelshamn fossils.
Penelope picking fossils on Kappelshamn Beach, Gotland. Photo - Emma Svensson

All together I spent a month in Sweden following Linnaeus’ trails around Uppsala, working in his botanic gardens and other properties and visiting important locations in Stockholm and the islands.

At each place I collected stories, photographs and specimens with the aim of capturing essences of Linnaeus in materials that might contain his genetic material.”

To bring these home we burned the plant specimens in the Uppsala forest where Linné so frequently walked. Reduced to tiny jars of ash and voodoo dust, these were quizzically examined then eventually accepted by the Australian biosecurity officials at customs. I am now making ink from these burnt offerings to include in art works of plants and ghosts. Additionally I will work with Anther Experimental Distillation in Melbourne to make an Enlightenment infused botanical gin to further confuse, or amuse, the spirits…

Accepted wisdom continues to ebb and flow through society and through time. Ideology, belief, power and education determine the ascendency of science or superstition in any branch of knowledge. Art can playfully borrow from all. This project ‘What we are made of will make something else’ respects science but also leaves space for re-enchantment.

Penelope Aitken is a Melbourne based artist. Visit her WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM for more info about her and her work.


For their contributions to this project I sincerely thank: Jesper Kårehed, Anki Sporrong, Emma Svensson, Magnus Eklund, Memo Mark-Aitken, Ida Svensson, Malin Kärn, Christoffer Rahm, Lisa Wimmerström, Kath Wilson, Michael Mark, Sebastian Reaburn and Dervilla McGowan.

Stora Karlsö cliffs.
Burning a Linnaean bay leaf Laurus nobilis L. Photo - Emma Svensson
Lepus timidus guards Linnés Ash from Emma Svensson and Penelope Aitken. Photo - Lisa Wimmerström