Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A color of his own

OK, what were those strange flora I posted several days ago? Identified by Lyra!

While poking among children's picture books in the college library's curriculum collection, I came across a charming work by Leo Lionni: Frederick, about a field-mouse poet. The author's name seemed familiar. Then I remembered a book I read 25 years ago, Parallel Botany, by a Leo Lionni, an amazing evocation of a kingdom of imaginary plants and a profound reflection on the nature of science, the uses of imagination, language, anthropology and philosophy. Could it be the same author?

It is.

Lionni's 1977 Parallel Botany apparently had a short shelf life -- in English, at least -- which is a shame. But he made quite a name for himself as the author and illustrator of children's books. He died in 1999 at age 89

The plants in my posted illustration are woodland tweezers, a social species whose propagational distribution resembles the patterns one encounters in the Japanese game of Go. This led to some disputes -- according to Lionni -- between Eastern and Western botanists, which reflected, of course, the different shades of knowing typical of the Eastern and Western minds.

And so on.

The book ends with these lines: "It is reported of the Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard that he once said to a friend: 'There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.'" As far as I know, Erud Kronengaard is as fictitious as woodland tweezers, but his words are no less wise for it.

Parallel Botany is a tour de force of scientific and philosophical whimsy that deserves to be brought back into print, to join Lionni's many children's picture books that live on. Lionni takes as his epigraph for Parallel Botany the famous dictum of Marianne Moore that poets should create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." The very best fantasy rubs our noses in the real.