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Report from the Workshop: 06/06/22

[This was intended to be the report published in 06/06/22, but then Things Happened and I didn’t get it done. I’m publishing it now because I also haven’t had time to write a Report this week. Things Have Continued to Happen. If this post stops abruptly it’s because I’ve plum run out of bandwidth.]

Currently reading:

Yates, Frances: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

  • Quite long and very detailed, but still interesting. Scholars have improved upon Yates’ work since her writing, but still a good introduction to the Early Modern milieu before science and magic as we now understand them had been separated. Some of the arguments are directed at other specialists, but the book is still quite readable for someone outside of that field.

Wulf, Andrea: The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession [NB: finished in a couple days – worthwhile reading.]

  • Started over the weekend. A fascinating glimpse at the mid-eighteenth century and the birth of modern botany. I read Wulf’s book on Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, and I appreciate her style and the way she contextualizes her subjects. Probably most interesting to me so far has been reading about the lengths to which English noblemen went to acquire plants from North America since their native gardens were dead and colorless in ye olde English winter.

I’ve recently had avocations on the brain. I started (but gave up on – just too dense and long for me right now) Priest of Nature by Rob Iliffe, a biography of Isaac Newton a little bit ago. I’ve also been reading about the hermetic revival in the European Early Modern period, and now I’m turning my attention toward botany and plants in general. I wrote about the edifying potential of popular science books in an essay post last week, and I wanted to continue thinking about the importance of avocational work.

Modern professionalism is, well, modern. “Profession,” in the Medieval and Early Modern periods meant something a bit more specific than what we think of with the word today. A doctor, lawyer, or churchman had a “profession,” while any other kind of worker, even a skilled mason or merchant, had a trade. “Professionalizing,” then, meant a more extensive or “deep” education, as integration into a social hierarchy and institution. To study mathematics at Trinity in Newton’s time, for example, one typically also had to take holy orders in the Anglican church. Professions, then, also required a certain degree of (at least public) profession of orthodoxy. Newton got special dispensation not to take holy orders, but not because of his heterodox positions on the Trinity. Rather, Newton was making such important contributions to mathematics (still part of “natural philosophy” then), that pastoral and clerical duties would get in the way of his progress.

Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners gets into the question of avocations as well. The main characters of her account are Peter Collinson, an English cloth merchant, and John Bartram, a farmer in the North American colonies near Philadelphia. In the early eighteenth century gardeners in England practically devoured botanical specimens from the American colonies, and John Bartram provided many of their seeds, cuttings, and specimens with Collinson as an intermediary. Both men were Quakers, which meant that neither could have attended university, but Bartram in particular is interesting because despite his lack of Latin and his comparatively humble status as a colonial farmer, he developed a deep and extensive knowledge of botany and came to play an important role in the spread of botanical science and North American plants to the Old World.

One might think that botany as a sideline would be natural for a farmer, but it’s worth considering that farmers grow crops to support themselves and their families – while some knowledge of botany in a scientific sense would no doubt serve them well, a Philadelphia farmer who grows corn or potatoes might not care too much about the specific number of pistils and stamens that a flower from Jamaica has, and what this means for botanical classification, pace Linnaeus. These were the kinds of things that did fascinate Bartram, despite his botanical collecting initially making him no money and even resulting in injury.

I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing an education in fields abstract and humanistic. First history when I realized geology required calculus, then an interesting mishmash of humanistic subjects under the heading of “Liberal Studies,” and now philosophy. I’ve had jobs during the entire time I’ve been in undergrad and graduate school, many outside of or adjacent to academia proper: Lifeguard and swim instructor, grocery bagger and cashier, adult ESL teacher, high school English teacher, adjunct faculty at a community college, substitute teacher at an elementary school, science camp counselor, teaching assistant, and now library assistant at UNM.

Since staring on a more focused academic path I’ve come to realize that I don’t feel at ease with the majority of my classmates. Most of them are at least ten years younger than me and fresh out of undergrad, sometimes with little more work experience than some summer lifeguarding or grocery bagging. Their lives and priorities are totally different from mine, and it’s been difficult bridging the gap. I also find myself balking at the pressure to professionalize. Over the last year I’ve come to realize that academia has historically been my avocation, the thing I do that isn’t the thing that actually supports me materially but that I nonetheless spend a lot of time doing. I’m using vocation and avocation here in a modern sense. I don’t feel “called,” the root of the word “vocation,” to academia. If there’s anything I fell “called” to do, it’s the avocational projects I work at, like writing professionally and gardening. These aren’t “hobbies,” at least not in the derogatory sense of that word, and it’s interesting to note that “hobbies” are now increasingly becoming integrated into the “hustling” one does on the internet. No place is safe.

John Bartram, who spent years traipsing about the American colonies to gather seeds, cones, and cuttings for his European clients, started doing so because of his fascination with botany, as a favor for Collinson, and to the connected to the wider world of botanists, even for personal gain.

The point? My original goal was a PhD in philosophy. I think that has changed. I may need to run my farm like Bartram, but I’m still planning some trips to collect new and interesting specimens.