Travels March 2007

The Constant Gardener

A visit to the home of the famed Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus
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The Linnaeus Garden and house museum
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Slideshow: "The Swedish Way"

A narrated photo essay by Emily Hiestand.

Last spring I traveled with my husband, Peter, to Uppsala, an ancient city northwest of Stockholm on the gulf of Ekoln, one of the vast, inland-reaching bays of Sweden’s Lake Mälaren. Known for its venerable university, for exuberant bonfires on Walpurgis Eve, and for small-town charm, Uppsala is also the city of Carolus Linnaeus, Sweden’s most famous scientist, whose tercentennial birthday is celebrated this year.

We had discovered Uppsala on an earlier visit to Sweden, one stormy summer afternoon when the Baltic archipelago did not beckon. Traveling inland that day instead, we had only a glimpse of the city, enough to know we should return to explore it and its trove of scientific and botanical gems, including—a real surprise at the cool latitude of 60 degrees N—one of the world’s most significant gardens.

Also see:

Sweden: The Travel Advisory
Where to stay, what to eat, and things to do.

Settled so early it is mentioned in Norse mythology, the Uppsala region is a silvery Nordic landscape of dark-green firs, white birches, and pale-gold fields dotted with manor houses and barns. It was long the seat of the pagan Svea kings, whose deities were Thor, Freyr, and Odin, and whose burial mounds still rise in Gamla (“Old”) Uppsala. The city today stretches out along the flatlands by the Fyris River, then ripples up a glacial ridge, culminating in a massive sixteenth- century castle painted the color of a poached salmon—a bit of legerdemain by pigment that leavens the bulky fortress considerably. Uppsala moves at a slower pace than Stockholm and is perfectly scaled for walking; we easily strolled from the train station to our hotel, and then across the river into the cobbled old quarter. Uppsala’s buildings tend toward a palette of subtle clay reds and Tuscan yellows, and in the oblique late-afternoon sun, the city glows as if illuminated from within. There is not much Swedes can do about their long, dark winters, but they are masters at coaxing light with color and candles, crystal and mirrors. In the evenings, nearly every window holds a candle, a sight that can make you positively glad for darkness.

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The Linnaeus Garden
and former greenhouse

Close by the riverbank are the historic garden and house of Carl Linnaeus. His fame has dimmed over the centuries, and if you recall his name but can’t precisely place him, you have plenty of company. Although I knew he was a legendary taxonomist, I was vague on his coordinates. His name sounded Latin; was he ancient? Even scientists and horticulturists now rarely recall the full Linnaean résumé: eighteenth-century botanist, physician, traveler, early ecologist, lover of order, and giver of names. Drawing on towering predecessors, including John Ray of England and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort of France, Linneaus established the classification system at the heart of modern biology, as well as the practice of identifying all living things with a two-word Latin name—Homo sapiens, for example.

The sections of Uppsala we walked that evening look much as they did in 1728, the year Linnaeus arrived in the city, rustic and penniless but already a passionate student of nature, especially plants. The son of a rural vicar, Linnaeus gained entrance to Uppsala University to study with the eminent medical professor Olof Rudbeck the Younger—all botanical knowledge then being under the aegis of medicine. By 1741, “Linné,” as the Swedes call him, was renowned throughout Europe, his endeavors beyond thrilling in an era when voyagers to faraway lands were revealing a previously unimagined plenitude of species. For several heady decades, his sunny house and garden were the equivalent of a modern research institute; by the end of his life, Linnaeus had given new scientific names to no fewer than 12,000 plants and animals.

Linnaeus's Kitchen

The next morning, after a smorgasbord breakfast (herring for believers like Peter, native blueberries for me), we set forth toward the Linnaean grounds. Passing through the entrance gates, we were also entering an eighteenth-century idea of order. Before us stretched a two-acre walled garden laid out in the geometric style of a baroque pleasance—with cone-shaped topiary, boxwood hedges, beds in tidy rows, and a shimmering lily pond. It was as if we had tumbled into the interior of a panoramic sugar egg.

The garden’s neoclassical Orangery, once Linnaeus’s greenhouse, now holds a cheerful exhibit on botanical history, where we boned up on binomial nomenclature, learning how Linnaeus had supplanted the long, unwieldy phrases once used for identification with a simple convention: genus followed by species descriptor. He named many plants and animals for their telling physical traits (the enormous red deer Cervus elaphus), others after figures in mythology (the beautiful blue-green Papilio ulysses), and yet others for his mentors and foes (the scraggly weed Siegesbeckia orientalis immortalizes one of his critics).

For all its charm, the garden was, and is, a teaching garden, a living museum of some 1,400 historic plants—most remarkably the Siberian corydalis, a hardy yellow wildflower that arrived in 1765 as a gift from the Finnish naturalist Erik Laxman and has survived continuously for three centuries, even through many decades when the garden was abandoned (it looked like a potato patch, one nineteenth-century pilgrim remarked in dismay). Many other plants were germinated from the hundreds of seeds sent to Linnaeus by Empress Catherine II of Russia. Supreme horticultural care is now needed to prevent, as much as is possible, the various species from cross-fertilizing—a great irony, given that for much of his life Linnaeus operated under the medieval theory that saw Nature as unchanging. Still, he felt the theoretical fault line trembling. Seeing the actual, changeful behavior of plants in his garden, he began to suspect—a hundred years before Darwin—that new species were somehow emerging. Pondering how to reconcile this evidence with orthodox theory, the devout Linnaeus proposed that the new species had always existed—as potential in the fixed plan of Creation!

The epic advances that occurred in this garden suggest large and interesting questions, including, What do we really mean by order? Anyone who has ever tried to organize an ordinary clothes closet has glimpsed the abyss that lurks in taxonomy. Massive uncertainties arise because, as Stephen Jay Gould once memorably put it, classifying is not a “glorified form of filing,” but a proposal about the nature of reality itself.

The handsome house where Linnaeus lived and tackled these questions is tucked into the southwestern corner of the garden, its rooms chock-full of aura. Standing for some minutes in the worn hollow in the floor where Linnaeus stood to lecture, I felt the kind of pleasantly eerie transport that I did upon seeing Faulkner’s handwritten pencil notes looping along the walls of his study in Mississippi. Every room of the Linnaeus house contains gems: an amber-toned globe (with but a few dots on the American continent), a silver bowl for wild strawberries, a shaman’s magic drum from Lapland.

Not far from the garden are several splendid museums: the Gustavianum, which houses scientific exhibits and spectacular artifacts, including a thermometer made by Uppsala-born Anders Celsius himself; the Carolina Library, which contains a book in which the seventeenth-century polymath Olof Rudbeck the Elder argues, apparently seriously, that Sweden was the origin of Everything; and the new Fredsmuseum (Peace Museum), in the depths of Uppsala Castle, where we were reminded that Sweden—now justly renowned for diplomacy and humane social policies—was once enmeshed in conflict, ruling an expanding Baltic empire with a brand of militarism its neighbors have still not entirely forgotten. By Linnaeus’s era the empire was collapsing, and Swedes were generating new economic ideas. Linnaeus, for one, proposed to substitute native resources for imports: he urged his countrymen to use swan-feather pens and to ride elk instead of horses, and he tried to “teach” tropical plants to grow in Sweden. Although tea and melons spectacularly failed to thrive at 60 degrees N, Linnaeus did succeed in helping to cultivate the enduring Swedish love of nature and science. He was also a showman, fond of wearing his Lapland costume to parties, and one can equally imagine him serving today as an EU minister working to stem global warming, or as the host of a popular TV science show (he could ride in on an elk).

Emerging from the eighteenth century, Peter and I were reluctant to reenter modern times abruptly. So we stopped off first at Ofvandahls, the city’s beloved nineteenth-century konditori—a café-cum-shrine to philosophy, conviviality, and butterfat, where faded blue wallpaper, worn velvet couches, and clouded gilt mirrors create a rumpled, inviting atmosphere. Here generations have met to gossip, romance, and philosophize, fueled by sandwiches, tea, kaffé, and a glistening assortment of baked goods, including the Vienna, the finest pastry I have ever eaten. I once chanced to mention Ofvandahls to a cosmopolitan executive of a Swedish technology company, and the name had the effect on him of a Proustian cookie, transporting him instantly back to his youthful university days and long afternoons of idealistic talk.

Like much of Sweden, Uppsala is in the midst of a very Linnaean-spirited culinary trend that champions local foods such as cloudberries, chanterelle mushrooms, tangy Västerbotten cheese, and turbot with truffles. On our last night in town we dined at our favorite Uppsala restaurant, the Kung Krål, which serves a fresh take on Nordic cuisine in a beautiful, understated room overlooking Gamla Torg, the city’s oldest square. With our waiter’s encouragement, we overcame our hesitation and ordered

Emily Hiestand is the author of The Very Rich Hours (1992), a collection of travel essays, and a contributor to Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2006).
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