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Book Review: "The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants" by Anna Pavord

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namingThe Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2005) is hardly a new book, but it's new to me and worth mention. This book reads like an exciting true life adventure -- a Raiders of the Lost Ark-type romp through 2,000 years of plant taxonomy (an enthusiastic description which, I confess, oversimplifies the subject matter somewhat).

I found this book to be a gem in its description of the history of how people came to tell one plant from another. Humans have needed to positively identify plants because of plants' usefulness as food, fuel, shelter, clothing, and last but not least, medicine. As an herbalist, this last part is of particular interest to me.

Consider how the discovery of North and South America and all the Pacific islands was the result of a search for herbs (i.e., a more direct spice route to the Far East). Consider how the first industry of North America was the export of vegetables and medicinal herbs that were quickly assimilated into the fabric of European culture. But despite this, it took until the 18th century and the system of taxonomy by Linnaeus for people to develop a way to to identify, name and classify plants!

From this wonderfully unique angle, Pavord weaves a fascinating and little known story, complete with beautiful illustrations. In The Naming of Names, we learn about most if not all of the most important herbals since the time of Dioscorides throughout the medieval period.

The book addresses several nagging questions that had been bumping around in the back of my mind for years. It also affirms at this crucial time the vital role Islamic scholars played in preserving and evolving the wisdom of the ancient world while Europe was mired in the anti-intellectual Christian "Dark Ages."

One question I had was: Why did the many versions of the old medieval manuscripts of Dioscorides' herbal have such primitive depictions of herbs described in the text? It turns out that such books were copied from original Arabic translations of Dioscorides by Islamic scholars, and enlightened as these scholars were when it came to preserving this knowledge, they were prevented from rendering real-life depictions of anything -- from Allah to his creation, including plants and animals. Thus, they had to resort to a more decorative rendering that often had little resemblance to any of the plants described in the text.

Of course this changed with the great herbals of the Renaissance and Enlightenment period, whose gorgeous and detailed botanical drawings and paintings are featured in The Naming of Names.

Pavord's book represented for me a fascinating 2,000 year-journey that helps us western herbalists to establish a connection with our past and perhaps even piece together the long-lost record of our own Western Traditional Medicine. Without the luxury of a written record like the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, we need all the information we can get, and this book provides it beautifully. You can find it at Amazon here.

P.S. Maybe you'd like to read another review of mine -- this one on my other love, music. These are my impressions of the recent Mozart Festival at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA.

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