Paris Journal 2013 – Barbara Joy Cooley                        Home:

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The campus of the Ohio State University is a wonderful arboretum.  Specimen trees of so many kinds grow there and special care has been taken for decades to make sure they thrive.  During the years we were there in Ohio, we loved that arboretum.


This part of Paris, while not having the blessings of the kind of “campus” that we have known, does still have the great arboretum.  Although in the case of the Jardin des Plantes, the arboretum has been thriving for centuries.


Like so many things, it started out simply.  The garden initially was planted with herbs to be used as medicine for the king.  This was 1635, and the gardener was Louis XIII’s doctor.


The public was allowed into the garden starting in 1640, and thereafter the gardens declined for a while.  But serious botanists took over in the 1690s after Dr. Guy-Crescent Fagon was put in charge, and the Jardin des Plantes has been successful since then.


I think it is amusing that one of the best curators of this institution was a man called the Count of Buffon.  No buffoon was he; he expanded and improved the Jardin, adding some of its most treasured features, such as the maze or labyrinth.


One of our favorite additions to the Jardin happened in the 1790s, when the Royal Zoo was moved there.  The real Paris Zoo is now out in the Bois de Vincennes, but a smaller menagerie remains in the Jardin des Plantes.  An entry fee of about 11 euros is charged to those who want to see it all, but some of the animals, like the wallaby, can be seen from outside of the menagerie’s fence.


Names of Fagon’s team of botanists fill places all around this neighborhood, like Tournefort and Jussieu.  Louis XIII’s doctor, Guy de La Brosse, has a street named after him, too.


I wonder what they all would think of Paris the way it is today?  I’m sure they’d be pleased with the Jardin des Plantes.  How could they not?


The Jardin des Plantes is considered to be a part of the French Museum of Natural History.  Four of the museum’s galleries are included in the Jardin’s acreage.  These include the Gallery of Evolution (no, there is NO Gallery of Creationism), and the mineralogy, paleontology, and entomology museums.


The Gallery of Evolution sits imposingly at one end of the Jardin’s formal, central garden.  It seems to be saying to the Creationists and everyone else, “Don’t forget: the theory of evolution is supported by science!”


A botanical school is part of this institution as well.  So one could say that the botanists do have a real campus, but I think it is the other way around: the Jardin has the botanists.


The botanists have their demonstration gardens there, including over 4,500 different plants arranged in an orderly fashion on a hectare.  How big is a hectare you ask?  It is 2.47 acres.


As some of you know, we’re into acreage these days.  Acres of trees.  Yes.


Roses.  Hundreds of species of roses can be found in the Jardin des Plantes’ rose garden. 


The greenhouses, oh the greenhouses.  Don’t miss them when you visit the Jardin des Plantes.  We haven’t seen them in a few years, so I’m sure we’ll be going there soon.


Let’s get back to that Count Buffon, the one who really made the Jardin what it is today.


His real name was Georges-Louis Leclerc.  He was a “Renaissance man” who was known for this work as a naturalist, mathematician, encyclopedia author, and cosmologist – the kind of guy you like to have around because you can ask him about almost anything.


He was the son of a salt tax collector (salt was once precious) and a woman who also came from a family riddled with civil servants.


Georges-Louis was named for his godfather, Georges Blaisot, who died childless and left his fortune to little Georges.  Blaisot collected taxes for the Duke of Savoy from Sicily, and somehow that had made him rich.


So the Leclerc family bought an estate that included an entire village, that of Buffon, so hence the origin of the title’s name.


Young Georges went to college and studied law in Dijon, but then he branched out beyond the civil servant horizons by leaving Dijon to study mathematics and medicine in Angers.  There he met one of those intrepid Englishmen, the Duke of Kingston.  The two young men set off travelling about southern France and Italy, supposedly having a wild time while doing so.


While he was goofing off, his mother died and his father sold off the village of Buffon.  Georges had to come home to Dijon to “secure his inheritance.”


He had to buy the village of Buffon again.  After all, while he had been travelling with the English Duke, Georges had added “de Buffon” to his name, so he couldn’t not own the town anymore.  


Having taken care of business in Dijon, Georges then went to Paris to further establish his career in science and math – and, of course, to make more money.


Georges was fully conscious of the fact that his skill as a writer helped him advance his career.  He said, “Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste .... The style is the man himself.”


Some scientists, distrustful of someone skilled in writing, used this talent of Georges’ against him.  One mathematician named Jean le Rond D’Alembert called Georges “the great phrase-monger.”


The King did not promote the status of Buffon’s estate to “county” until the 1770s when Georges was aging and ill. 


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, died in 1788 at the ripe old age of 80, with his title of Count to pass along to his son.


His writing survived him mightily.  His Histoire Naturelle was a book that just about every educated person in Europe would read.  The book was available in several different languages, helping to make Buffon one of the most widely read authors of the time.


When he first published the initial volumes of Histoire Naturelle, the faculty of the Sorbonne (which was church-affiliated) was aghast.  Buffon questioned many standard ideas of the day.  His version of the earth’s history bore little resemblance to that of the Bible, so he was condemned and had to publish a retraction.


Nevertheless, he kept on selling his books, unchanged.


Buffon also enraged Thomas Jefferson because Buffon claimed that creatures living in American were inferior due to “marsh odors and dense forests.”  Now that sounds like a city dweller talking.


To prove that animals in America were not weak and inferior, Jefferson sent some solders off to New Hampshire to fetch a bull moose for Buffon.  Buffon did end up admitting that he’d made a mistake that time.


But Buffon was right about a great many things, including his assertion that the Earth was created far, far earlier than 4004 B.C.  To debunk this false birthday that was declared by some Archbishop of the church, Buffon used science.  He based his calculations on the cooling rate of iron.  Again, Buffon was condemned by the Sorbonne.  Again he had to issue a retraction that he did not truly believe.


But Buffon really did mess up when it came to his racial studies.  He started out right, with the idea that all races have a single origin.  But from there, his “degeneration theory” is just racist nonsense.


But I forgive him for that nonsense because I think you have to see it in the context of the overwhelming ignorance of those times.  Look at the horror perpetuated by the Europeans in their colonies in that era and the centuries that led up to it – the horror of slavery.  Much of the grand architecture in cities like Paris was built with profits made on the backs of slaves.  Shame.  Only extreme ignorance – and outrageous greed – could have allowed justification of slavery in the colonies.


Buffon was working his way out of this prevailing ignorance.  Charles Darwin, who claimed initially that he was not familiar with Buffon’s work, later wrote that “the first author who in modern times has treated it [evolution] in a scientific spirit was Buffon.”


Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said, “Except for Aristotle and Darwin, no other student of organisms [whole animals and plants] has had as far-reaching an influence.”


[Wikipedia was the source for much of this basic information about Buffon.]


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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Scenes from the Jardin des Plantes


Aesculus indica, the Indian or Himalayan horsechestnut tree, native to Kashmir, is blooming in the Jardin des Plantes.


The magnificent old Plane tree towering over us has its roots wrapped around and deeply into the lower part of the hill that supports the maze, or labyrinth.


Beautiful conifer.


Science meets art in the Jardin des Plantes.




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