Friday, August 24, 2007

A weight of intellect

Robert Lloyd Praeger, in his classic work on Irish natural history, The Way That I Went, recounts an anecdote that captures as well as anything I have ever read the spirit of science. The incident took place in Roundstone Bog, Connemara, in August, 1935.
A number of botanists had foregathered at Roundstone, and the particular occasion was a kind of symposium on bogs, held in the middle of the wettest of them. There were A. G. Tansley from Oxford, H. E. Godwin from Cambridge, Hugo Osvald from Stockholm, Knud Jessen and H. Jonassen from Copenhagen, G. F. Mitchell from Dublin, Margaret Dunlop from Manchester. We stood in a ring in that shelterless expanse while the discussion raged on the application of the terms soligenous, topogenous and ombrogenous; the rain and wind, like the discussion, waxed in intensity, and under the unusual superincumbent weight, whether of mere flesh and bone or of intellect, the floating surface of the bog slowly sank till we were half-way up to our knees in water. The only pause in the flow of argument was when Jessen or Osvald, in an endeavor to solve the question of the origin of the peat, would chew some of the mud brought up by the boring tool from the bottom of the bog, to test the presence or absence of gritty material in the vegetable mass. But out of such occasions does knowledge come.
I love the image of this ring of naturalists standing in peaty water in the wild west of Ireland, all of the men no doubt wearing coats, ties and vests under their waxed outerwear, their mustaches dripping, rain poring off Margaret Dunlop's broad-brimmed hat. A multinational, multigenerational, bigendered congregation, united by sopping feet and omnivorous curiosity. The bogs of Ireland, once their provenance was understood, became -- with their almost magical preservative powers, of pollen, timber, fossils, and human artifacts -- repositories of the island's natural and human history.