Encyclopaedia Botanica

Text: Tug Dumbly

Curious things, words. Most pass unremarked. Like spores in the wind they slip from the lips to shrivel and die on barren ground. Or spawn stunted slogans, the thistles of rhetoric, weeds of cliché. It wasn’t always so.

In times gone by there were whole forests spreading out and covering these plains, supporting an amazing diversity of word life. You’d walk through these massive book shelves into great thickets of poems, stories, essays and songs; a profusion of styles, a teeming, tangled riot of language – bawdy, comical, beautiful, wrenching and at times inflammatory, sparking raging fires of debate.

But the most impressive things in these forests were the old-growth novels. Towering tomes, chapters thick, they dripped with a rich and strange array of ideas. My Grandfather told me of this one – Russian, I think – soaring up from the forest floor above a canopy of pamphlets and novellas, its pages laden with lovely old words like numinosity and serendipity. But the real magic lay in the way the words wove together. There were moments of ravenous joy and molten rage; massive metaphors that snaked out, slippery and sinuous, like great root systems.

So vast was this novel that at times it seemed to contain almost all there was worth knowing in life. And close up it could be hard to appreciate. Some couldn’t see the words for the chapters. But given the perspective of time and distance it revealed itself, coming together, piece by piece – a magnificent jigsaw, resonating in the memory and becoming a small part of the beholder.

For generations people came from all over to view this novel, to refresh and stimulate themselves in its shady pages. And though not all understood, agreed with, or admired its every part, they couldn’t help but marvel at its achievement and wonder at the wisdom and patience of the person who nurtured that first seedling sentence all those years ago.

Of course it went. It took days to get through but they finally cut it down, razed and slashed and burned along with the rest of the forest. Not viable, said the word rationalists, who re-planted the land with language of a more practical nature. If in their richness and diversity the old-growth novels were akin to Oak, Birch, Beech and Cedar all growing together in the one forest, then the new plantations are like Poplars – vast tracts of Poplar novels and nothing but.

It’s argued they’re a hardy species that provide good dollar-value to the acreage. They can be quickly produced, cut down and pulped to make way for the next crop. And true, there are sub-species within the Poplar Novel. Some grow into Thrillers and Romances; there are Gothic revamps, full of rutting vampires; acres of New-Age, Self-Help and great thickets of celebrity biographies. All accessible, yes. But lacking any real sense of transcendence and wonder.

Meanwhile, words deemed rogue or redundant are culled by Linguicide Squads – a brutal breed of bonsai topiarists who savagely prune and hack what grows, to yield stunted little tracts. Conversely, The Department of Communicant Functionaries engineers bewildering briars of Franken-language, with words like Visioning and Incentivate, to mollify the concerns of ‘key stakeholders’.

And Dr Seuss wept.

I know life’s simpler now that we all speak the same language. Still – and I know what I’m about to suggest is highly criminal – why not plant a word in secret. Nurture and admire it, see what grows.


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