The Oldie

How your garden grows

- DAVID WHEELER By Jason Roberts riverrun £25

Every Living Thing: The Great and Deadly Race to Know All Life

The year is 1707. Separated by some 700 miles (as the Corvus comix flies), two naturalist­s are born, destined for world fame.

Social climbing (sorry, mobility) saw their names elevated in search of greater status. Carl Linné’s father had already Latinised the family’s Swedish name to Linnaeus. George-louis Leclerc, a salt-taxcollect­or’s son, in later life appended ‘de Buffon’ to his handle, echoing his origin in the ‘minuscule settlement’ in the rural Burgundy village of his birth – which he eventually bought lock, stock and barrel.

Both penned colossal works in an attempt to name and classify the every living thing of the book’s title. Their rivalry stemmed from Linnaeus’s seeing all species as created à la Genesis, while Buffon viewed them in ‘a swirl of constant change’.

Aged ten, the diminutive (no more than 5ft tall) Linnaeus was schooled in the three subjects of ‘classic academic trivium’: grammar, rhetoric and dialectic.

He began a lifetime’s writing in ‘workmanlik­e’, rather than ‘elegant’, Latin. Later, at Uppsala University, botany professor Olaf Celsius (uncle of Anders, inventor of our adopted temperatur­e scale) found the student Carl in the botanic garden, drawing from life. He was able, ‘in an accent thick enough to mark him of peasant stock’, to give all the plants their (then) scientific name, in accordance with the ‘notoriousl­y difficult’ Tournefort system of identifica­tion.

Meanwhile, the young Leclerc, ‘neither failing nor excelling in his schoolwork’, inherited a vast fortune. Fortuitous­ly for us, he chose a scholar’s rather than a playboy’s life, graduating as a young adult from Dijon’s Jesuit academy, ‘moving confidentl­y within a circle of well-born friends’.

Linnaeus published the first part of his magnum opus in 1735. His Systema Naturae introduced us to Linnaean taxonomy (his ‘sexual system’, as it came to be known), which gave each animal and plant a unique two-word (binominal) tag, consisting of genus and species.

The Systema grew to over ten volumes and, despite first being considered as nothing more than a ‘minor curiosity’, remains a foundation­al text.

While congratula­ting himself on his considerab­le achievemen­t, he neverthele­ss confessed to being exhausted and depressed at the age of 50, saying in a letter to a friend:

‘My hand is too weary to hold a pen… I am a child of misfortune. Had I a rope and English courage, I would long since have hanged myself… I am old and grey and worn out.’

Meanwhile, Buffon (‘He carries himself marvellous­ly,’ quipped Voltaire), at a similar age, ‘remained vigorous and seemingly at the height of his powers, a fact he attributed to his continued regimen of sparse diet, physical exercise and regular hours’. In 1739, he had been appointed head of the Jardin du Roi in Paris, a position he held until his death half a century later. In that time, he published his 36-volume, 1,600-page Histoire naturelle – considered stylistica­lly ornate and long-winded by modern-day readers – in which opportunit­ies were taken to side-swipe at Linnaeus and his opposing theories.

The two great men never met. However, in 1782, ‘the formidably busy Buffon’ was stopped in his tracks at the Jardin du Roi by the appearance of Carl von Linné the younger, Linnaeus’s 42-year-old son and successor. He was welcomed effusively, taken on a

personal tour of the garden, providing Buffon with ‘an unpreceden­ted opportunit­y to defuse the old perception­s that had been the father’s nemesis and perhaps forge a form of peace’.

Buffon similarly appointed his son Buffonet as his ‘successor’, appealing to Louis XV to promise that the nine-yearold would eventually inherit his position.

Linnaeus, fond of writing in the third person, said of himself, ‘He can hardly walk, talks confusedly, can scarcely write.’ In the spring of 1776, he was barely able to speak, prompting one of his students to observe that he managed only a few steps ‘with extreme difficulty’.

He dwelt in ‘private twilight’ for another 18 months. Two former students were sitting beside his bed when he died at 8am on 10th January 1778.

In his time at the king’s garden, Buffon increased its stock considerab­ly, taking the number of plants grown there from a mere 2,000 to more than 60,000. Nearing death, ten years after Linnaeus’s, he asked to make one last tour of the garden, ‘in as solitary a fashion as possible’. Supported by two servants, he was seen on an April afternoon, wrapped in warm furs – a gift from Catherine the Great of Russia – among the trees when a warm sun was gilding new shoots.

On 14th April 1788, hallucinat­ing, and after confessing to an imaginary bedside cleric, he ‘drank three teaspoons of Alicante wine, closed his eyes, and died at 40 minutes past midnight’.

Jason Roberts, an American (as are the book’s spelling and punctuatio­n), has given us a remarkable insight into the lives of two extraordin­ary men in extraordin­ary times. Having laid our two protagonis­ts to rest, he brings the history of botanical science slap up to date in a further 100 pages, adding Darwin, the Huxleys, William Stearn and other notables to a cast of outstandin­g characters and discoverie­s.

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