Becoming Plant

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July 16, 2011. A draft of this essay is now up for review here; please feel free to comment. [1]


"So that a Plant is, as it were, an Animal in Quires; as an Animal is a Plant, or rather several Plants bound up into one Volume."

Packed into this short sentence -- from the dedicatory preface to Nehemiah Grew's Anatomy of Plants (London, 1682), the first botanical text to identify sexual reproduction in plants using microscopy -- is a theory of plants and animals as media circuits, both bound together and blocked by the book as a tool for disseminating scientific observations. Drawing on Leibniz's contemporaneous work on monads, vitalism and preformationism, as well as Deleuze and Guattari's notion of "becoming," this paper investigates how Grew's text and its accompanying microscopist plates (helped to) transform plants from living, signifying participants in the book of nature to objects of scientific inquiry, mediated through print.

The digital portion of this project takes up the metaphor of magnification to explore Grew's text alongside other seventeenth-century works of microscopy, such as Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665). Rather than reduce their significance to a series of now-prescient scientific truths, the digital invites us to recover the experimental (in all senses of the word) nature of these early works. For instance: what does Hooke's famous flea -- a plate that pops out of the page, inspiring Margaret Cavendish to dismiss it as a "lobster" -- have in common with Kafka's man-sized bug? When does the book's quired form metamorphose into Grew's blown-up plant plates, constructing new worlds -- new book-based morphologies -- in subvisible matter? And what can historical resemblance tell us about our own curious media ecology? For if medieval tropes such as the arbor inversa (the human as an inverted tree) or the screaming mandrake visualize a world teeming with plant-animal resemblances, the early microscope distances the human animal's eye from the dead, dissected plant tissue it observes, much as the screen both flattens and reanimates textual interaction. This digital wunderkammer seeks to revitalize these lost surface effects.

Working Bibliography

Allen, David Elliston. Books and Naturalists. London: HarperCollins, 2010.
Bacon, Sylva. (see William Rawley, ed., preface -- "an Indigested Heap of Pariticulars"; cited on 56, Smith 2009
Barker, Miles. "Putting Thought in Accordance with Things: The Demise of Anaimal-based Analogies for Plant Functions." Science & Education 11: 293–304
Bolam, Jeanne. "The Botanical Works of Nehemiah Grew, F.R.S. (1641-1712)." Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 27: 219-31.
de Bury, Richard. See Petroski 1999
Cohen, Adam Max. Technology and the Early Modern Self.
Coppola, Al. "Retraining the Virtuoso's Gaze: Behn's Emperor of the Moon, the Royal Society, and the Spectacles of Science and Politics." Eighteenth-century Studies 41.4 (Summer 2008): 481-506.
Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Fournier, Marian. The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Garrett, Brian. "Vitalism and Teleology in the Natural Philosophy of Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712)." BJHS 36.1 (March 2003): 63-81.
Grew, Nehemiah. An Idea of a Phytological History. 1673.
Grew, Nehemiah. The Anatomy of Plants. 1682.
Grew, Nehemiah. Cosmologia Sacra. 1701.
Highmore, Nathaniel. History of Generation. 1651.
Hunter, Michael. "Early Problems in Professionalizing Scientific Research: Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) and the Royal Society, with an Unpublished Letter to Henry Oldenburg." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. 36 (1982): 189-209.
Hunter, Michael. Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995.
Keller, Eve. "Embryonic Individuals: The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century Embryology and the Construction of Early-Modern Identity." Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.3 (2000): 321-48.
LeFanu, W. Nehemiah Grew M.D., F.R.S.: A Study and Bibliography of His Writings. Winchester: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1990.
Maplet, John. A Greene Forest, or a Naturall Historie. (1567) (see Smith 2009, 56)
McColley, Diane Kelsey. Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.
Nicolson, Marjorie. Science and Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1956.
Pavord, Anna. The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
Pinto-Correia, Clara. The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Verner, Lisa. The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Webster, Charles. "The Recognition of Plant Sensitivity by English Botanists in the Seventeenth Century." Isis 57.1 (Spring 1966): 5-23.
Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.
Wilson, Catherine. "Visual Surface and Visual Symbol: The Microscope and the Occult in Early Modern Science." Journal of the History of Ideas 49.1 (Jan-Mar 1988): 85-108.
Wilson, Catherine. The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.


Barnacle goose tree


Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). 1185-7. [3]

"There are many birds here that are called barnacles (bernacae), which nature, acting against her own laws, produces in a wonderful way. They are like marsh geese, but smaller. At first they appear as excrescences on fir-logs carried down upon the waters. Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies, to allow for their more unimpeded development, are enclosed in shells. And so in course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air. They take their food and nourishment from the juice of wood and water during their mysterious and remarkable generation. I myself have seen many times and with my own eyes more than a thousand of these small bird-like creatures hanging from a single log upon the seashore. They were in their shells and already formed. No eggs are laid as is usual as a result of mating. No bird ever sits upon eggs to hatch them and in no corner of the land will you see them breeding or building nests. Accordingly in some parts of Ireland bishops and religious men eat them without sin during a fasting time, regarding them as not being flesh, since they were not born of flesh. ..." -- quoted in Beare; from The History and Topography of Ireland, Part One, ch. 11; see also chapter 13
"One should remark that amongst both kinds of bird, ospreys and barnacles, some are found to be very like birds, but are, so to speak, deceptively and not truly so. They share the common nature of birds, and are far from having the characteristics of either type. Since the characteristic that makes the osprey different from ordinary eagles and falcons is that its feet do not match, only one being taloned, the osprey that has a deceptive resemblance to ordinary birds must have talons on both feet. In fact, all ospreys have talons on both feet. Gerald presumably had examined the feet of an osprey, and instead of rejecting the story that one foot was always webbed, he decided that there were two types of osprey. The characteristic that makes the barnacle goose different from other birds is that it does not mate or lay eggs. Some barnacle geese are found to be very like ordinary birds. They share the common nature of birds, that is, they mate and lay eggs. Their likeness to other birds is deceptive because in spite of appearances they were born from a floating log."

Exeter Book, Riddle 8. [4]

"I was locked in a narrow nest, / My beak bound below the water / In a dark dive; the sea surged / Where my wings woke -- my body quickened / From the clutch of wave and wandering wood. / Born black, streaked white, I rise / From the womb of waves on the wind's back, / Sailing over seals' bath. Who am I?" -- first came across this citation in Beare

Peter Damian. c11.

"Whence has that land in the western regions acquired this honour that from the branches of trees birds come forth, and, after the manner of apples, fruits burst forth animate and feathered? For as men report, who say they have seen it, it gradually happens that something pendant is suspended from the branch, and then is formed into the image and likeness of a bird; finally, growing feathers a little, it separates itself from the tree by opening its beak, and so this new inhabitant of the air learns to fly almost before it learns to live." -- first came across citation in Beare

Vincent of Beauvais.

"It is further to be noted that they do not hang in the tops of the branches but on the bark and trunks of the trees." -- from Beare

Thomas of Cantimpre.

"The tree has many branches on it, from which the birds grow... They hang onto the tree with their beaks and hang onto the bark and the trunk of the tree.' In medieval pictures, the bird hangs near the top of the tree, from a leaf or branch, not from the lower part of the trunk." -- from Beare

Peter of Cornwall. (c. 1200)

From Beare: "Passage quoted by R. W. Hunt. 'The Disputation of Peter of Cornwall Against Symon the Jew', Studies in Medieval History presented to F. M. Powicke (1948), 150."

Gervase of Tilbury. (c. 1211)

Quoted in Beare (see "Scholarship" below): "In the country of Kent, on the borders of the abbey of Faversham, bushes the size of willows spring up on the shore of the sea. From these grow lumps..., and when according to the time of creation they have grown, they are shaped into little birds, which after the days given to nature hang down by the beak, and when they have been brought to life, after making a gentle clapping of wings as i f childbirth had been completed, they fall into the sea, and .. . being exposed to the waves of the sea they are withdrawn from contact with human beings."

Pierre de Beauvais. French bestiary. (c. 1218)

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 36r (1230-1240) [5]

Albertus Magnus, De arte venandi cum avibus (c. 1245-50)

"On them we saw a kind of shellfish clinging to the wood. In none of their parts did these shellfish exhibit any form of a bird and, becaus of this, we do not believe this opinion unless we have a more convincing demonstration of it. It seems to us that this opinion arose because barnacle geese are born in such remote places that men are ignorant of where they nest." (qtd in Daston and Park 1998, 64)

John Mandeville. The Travels of John Mandeville. [6]

"For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man's meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be."
possible illustrations: [7]
also illustration in Boucicaut workshop, Livre des merceilles du monde (John Mandeville), MS fr. 2810, fol.210v., Bibliotheque Nationale Paris (c.1412-13); showing the exchange of the lamb cabbage for the goose tree

Ordoric of Pordenone (1314)

traveled to Asia in 1314; wrote: "Another very marvelous thing can be said, that I did not see but heard from persons worthy of credit. For it is said that in the great kingdom of Candelis there are Mountains called the Capei mountains. It is said that very lrge gourds grow there, which open when they are ripe, and inside is found a litle animal, like a small lamb ... and although this may perhaps seem incredible, nonetheless, it can be true, just as it is true that in Ireland are trees that produce birds." (qtd Daston and Park 1998, 35)

Ulisse Aldrovandi. [8]

Conrad Lycosthenes. Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, quæ præter naturæ ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus, ab exordio mundi usque ad hæc nostra tempora, acciderunt... (1557) [9]

book of monsters; see Daston and Park 1998, 182-3

Sebastian Munster. Cosmographia. (1552) [10]

William Turner. The first and seconde partes of the herbal. (1568) [11]

Barnacle goose tree doesn't appear to be in this book, but in his Avium praecipuarum, quarum Plinium et Aristotelum mentio est (1544): "No one has seen the Bernicle's nest or egg nor is this wonderful since Bernicles without a parent's aid are said to have spontaneous generation in this way When after a certain time the firwood masts or planks or yard arms of a ship have rotted on the sea then fungi as it were break out upon them first in which in course of time one may discern evident forms of birds which afterwards are clothed with feathers and at last become alive and fly Now lest this should seem fabulous to anyone besides the common evidence of all the long shore men of England Ireland and Scotland that renowned historian Gyraldus1 who composed a history of Ireland in much more happy style than could have been expected in his time bears witness that the generation of the Bernicles is none other than this But inasmuch as it seemed hardly safe to trust the vulgar and by reason of the rarity of the thing I did not quite credit Gyraldus while I thought on this of which I now am writing I took counsel of a certain man whose upright conduct often proved by me had justified my trust a theologian by profession and an Irishman by birth Octavian by name whether he thought Gyraldus worthy of belief in this affair Who taking oath upon the very Gospel which he taught answered that what Gyraldus had reported of the generation of this bird was absolutely true and that with his own eyes he had beholden young as yet but rudely formed and also handled them and if I were to stay in London for a month or two that he would take care that some growing chicks should be brought in to me." goes on to quote Aristotle on the Ephemerus as evidence that strange births happen [12]

John Gerard. The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1597) [13] [14]


Henry Lee. Sea Fables Explained. (1883) [15] [16]

Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming. In the Hebrides. (1883) [17]

Phil Robinson. Fishes of Fancy. (1883) [18]

John Ashton. Curious Creatures in Zoology. (1890) [19]

American Poultry Journal, Vol. 39. (1908) [20]

Eleanour Sinclair Rohde. The Old English Herbals. (1922) [21]

"There are here many birds which are called Bernacae which nature produces in a manner contrary to nature and very wonderful. They are like marsh geese but smaller. They are produced from fir-timber tossed about at sea and are at first like geese upon it. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if from a sea-weed attached to the wood and are enclosed in shells that they may grow the more freely. Having thus in course of time been clothed with a strong covering of feathers they either fall into the water or seek their liberty in the air by flight. The embryo geese derive their growth and nutriment from the moisture of the wood or of the sea, in a secret and most marvellous manner. I have seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute bodies of these birds hanging from one piece of timber on the shore enclosed in shells and already formed ... in no corner of the world have they been known to build a nest. Hence the bishops and clergy in some parts of Ireland are in the habit of partaking of these birds on fast days without scruple. But in doing so they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat the leg of our first parent, although he (Adam) was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating flesh." (110) -- quote of Cambrensis

James Joyce. Ulysses. (1922) [22]

"Bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine. A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy tidbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly. God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain."

Robert Graves. The White Goddess. (1948)

General: [23]; "also described by Olaus Magnus, Gerat de Veer, Aldrovandus, and Gesner"; "A tree with similar attributes was thought to grow in guadeloupe but called the 'oyster tree' according to Bishop Fleetwood.;" [24]


Beare, Rhona. "Gerald of Wales on the barnacle goose." Notes and Queries 44.4 (1997): 459+.

"In Lent and on Fridays when Christians ate fish instead of flesh, shellfish counted as fish. If the barnacle goose started life as a goose-barnacle, it ought perhaps to count as fish."
"In a fifteenth-century bestiary Edward the Confessor was himself compared to the barnacle goose because it 'is both fish and bird' and he 'was of the nature of waters, of fish, and of birds'.(11)" -- see 'A Fifteenth-century French heraldic bestiary', ed. L. A. J. R. Houwen, Zeitschrift fur Rornanische Philologie, cviii (1992), 499.

Beare, Rhona. "Earl Godwin's Son as Barnacle Goose." Notes and Queries (1997) 44.1: 4-6.

Poem, The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster (1065-6), compares Earl Godwin's three good children to birds that soar and build high nests; his bad child to a "gulping monster" who "seeks the depths. / Attacks its root and mouths the parent trunk, / And holds, until, as doomed, the breath of life / Creates a creature from a lifeless dam; / And losing grip, pursues again its prey."

Daston and Park 1998, pg 35-6

Lamb cabbage

John Mandeville. Travels of John Mandeville. [25]

"And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works."

Athanasius Kircher. Magnes Sive De Arte Magnetica. (1643) [26]

General: [27], [28]; "In 1725, a German doctor named Breyn communicated with the Royal Society on the subject of the "Vegetable Lamb," emphatically stating the story to be nothing more or less than a myth or fable."


"surface effect" -- see Wilson [29] Wilson 1995 on microscope removing privilege of surface -- we only see surface, scenery, not hidden machinery behind it; also Deleuze, "Paradox of Surface Effects" [30] Deleuze 1990

affective history

metaphor of "COMPENDIUM", folding up of plants

Leibniz, Monadologie -- example of blowing up something, the way one would with a microscope, to see its operation -- these mechanisms never explain the being's consciousness/perception; also see 64, on divine technologies as being composed of machines ad infinitum

"Each portion of matter can be conceived as like a garden full of plants, or like a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each organ of an animal, each drop of its bodily fluids is also a similar garden or a similar pond." (67)
"And although the earth and the air separating the plants in the garden, or the water separating the fish in the pond, are neither plant nor fish, yet they still contain them — though they are usually far too small for us to be able to perceive them." (68)

see Bennett 2010 on vitalism, around 78; Dreisch's entelechy is an "intensive manifold"; Bergson's elan vital is "in the form of a sheaf" (see pg 78)

"The Gathered Text" conference: [31]

Thomas Sprat -- bishop of Church of England, historian of the Royal Society; but had a Reformation: "both have taken a like course to bring this about; each of them passing by the corrupt ccopies and referring themselves to the perfect originals for instruction; the one to Scripture, the other to the huge Volume of Creatures." (Sprat 1667 III.23, qtd in Eisenstein 668, Olson 1994 58)

Halliday traces grammatical style that condenses multiple ideas into a complex technical discourse to c17 science; turning verbs, actions, into objects through written language (Olson 1994 118)

see Eisenstein 1983, 187-8; medieval florilegia, gathering of spiritual flowers in a spiritual garden transformed by Thomas Browne's notion of "suck[ing] Divinity from the flower of Nature"; "the seventeenth-century writer appears to be rejecting rather than echoing the literary allegorical conventions which had been cultivated by generations of monks." (188)

Harpold 2009 -- Bush envisions Memex as gathering together a new book; question of interiority of book's gatherings vs. exteriority of trails leading outward, back into the world (36/1.41)

also Harpold 2009 61/2.37: plant structure -- slicing into stems -- slicing into language (Saussure, Lacan) -- Nelson's TextFace

see Johns 1998, 487, on Grew's catalogue for the Royal Society

see Johns 2009, 81; Grew, A Discourse made before the Royal Society ... concerning the nature, causes, and power of mixture (1675); also 88, Grew and piracy of his salts -- see footnotes for readings

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.547-551: "The earth spontaneously generated / the varied forms of other animals / after the standing water had been warmed / by the sun's rays; for then the sodden marshes swelled up with heat, and fecund seeds of life / grew in that soil as in a mother's womb, / and from its richness took distinctive forms"

History of Botanical Illustration exhibit [32]

"Trees have been around a lot longer than humans, indeed a lot longer than mammals -- there are far more plant species on Earth than species of mammal; in fact, there are almost as many orchid species alone as there are mammalian species -- and have also evolved their own complex systems for regulating growth, maintenance, repair, and defense. Theophrastus was not far wrong when he speculated that a tree had a "vital principle" flowing through its veins; nor was British botanist Nehemiah Grew, who wrote in The Anatomy of Plants in 1682 that pollen "falls down upon the seed case or womb and touches it with a prolific virtue and vivic effluvia." Both writers were trying to express their sense of the mysterious inner life force that generates a tree but it is only recently that we have actually gained a window into this force. The first "vivific effluvia" to be scientifically verified in a tree's secret system were auxins, plant growth hormones that stimulate cells to divide, enlarge, and differentiate."

see Cavendish 1666 -- on plants/animals/minerals; also interior/exterior quote on 100

look up "anatomy" in OED

see Shakespeare, Henry IV II, I.2, Falstaff at beginning

"11. Perception puts the difference between animals and vegetables. This faculty of perception seems to me to be, that which puts the distinction betwixt the animal kingdom and the inferior parts of nature. For, however vegetables have, many of them, some degrees of motion, and upon the different application of other bodies to them, do very briskly alter their figures and motions, and so have obtained the name of sensitive plants, from a motion which has some resemblance to that which in animals follows upon sensation: yet I suppose it is all bare mechanism; and no otherwise produced than the turning of a wild oat-beard, by the insinuation of the particles of moisture, or the shortening of a rope, by the affusion of water. All which is done without any sensation in the subject, or the having or receiving any ideas." Locke ECHU 2.9.11
"The search for differences or fundamental contrasts between the phenomena or organic and inorganic, of animate and inanimate things, has occupied many men's minds, while the search for community fo principles or essential similitudes has been pursued by few; and the contrasts are apt to loom too large, great though they may be." Thompson 1961
"To me, there is no difference between minerals, vegetables and animals." -- Jean Painleve [33]

Grew also published some work in the Miscelanea curiosa journals: [34]