Subverting the Scala Naturae


Field guides are an indispensable trail companion, but nothing compares to a knowledgeable friend. I've learned a lot from nature walks with John Anders Gustafson during my tenure in Richmond, particularly when it comes to edible plants and mycology. (Or if not learned, at least listened with interest). So I was happy to see he'd made a field guide of his own. 


The ordering and classification of the booklet observes a personal set of rules, as well as an invented   numbering system. The way an author chooses to organize these things always interests me - because it creates a snapshot of the way they view the world. Should the subjects be listed by color, or shape, or heredity, or by the kind of sounds they make? Is it more important to separate humans and apes, or apes and bacteria?

It's intriguing how imaginary systems of classification are so much more effective than scientific ones at encapsulating the natural world. The imaginary hierarchical totem pole of scala naturae, for example, has dominated western thought on the matter for most of western history. (This system categorizes all of creation from rocks to humans to God according to discrete value measurements, most often based on perceived levels of "holiness"). Only in recent centuries has this concept started branching into the "tree of life" idea most of us are exposed to in elementary school. Far from helping solve the problem of classification and natural order, the more we learn about the evolutionary relationships between living things, the more complicated this challenge becomes.


This ongoing mystery makes the creation of field guides a unique and challenging endeavor. The author's task is to interpret a given slice of the natural world in a user-friendly manner. On the one hand, they need to make it easy for the user to locate and identify species. Organizing by color or range is acceptable, even if it ignores less obvious underlying relations between subjects. On the other hand, they are also expected to present a picture of that "slice" as it exists in scientific consensus's current view of the cosmos. Family relationships should be maintained in the text, even if they are not obvious from a practical standpoint, or even practically relevant. It's not acceptable to call a koala a "bear" simply because it is reminiscent of one.


The author of a field guide is an interpreter of nature. Does an interpreter owe their allegiance to science, or art?

John's guide is shirt-pocket-sized and printed in grayscale on old receipts. He produced the drawings in a single evening.