Czym jest etnobotanika i dlaczego może być nowym kluczem do kultury?

rośliny dźwiękoweMarek Styczyński

Plants in the world of music

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Plants in the world of music

Marek Styczyński Download PDF
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What is ethnobotany and why can it be a new key to culture?

The term “ethnobotany” was first used in 1895 by John W. Harshberger (1869–1929), a botanist from the University of Pennsylvania, so it is over a hundred years old.br />
Ethno is derived from Greek - as ethnikos means alien, pagan, folk and ethnos means people, race, tribe, class and nation – and is the abbreviation for ethnic, corresponding to a given social group, related to the individuality of its culture, language, tradition, etc.
The second part of the term “ethnobotany”, the word “botany” also comes from Greek (botanikos – herbal, botane – pastureland, herb, but also derived from boskein – to graze, to feed) and nowadays means the science of cultivation and use of plants.

Since J.W. Harshberger’s time, ethnobotany has gone through various changes and is now a vast scientific discipline of great cognitive importance and practical potential. Ethnobotany has evolved from practice as old as mankind’s history and, at the same time, is a new science that is just being created. The foundations for ethnobotany as a science were field surveys made by inventors, scientists, anthropologists, missionaries and botanists studying plants used by people. The fact that no great discoveries had been made was not rare, but the knowledge from the local inhabitants was used, whom we usually do not even mention as co-authors of discoveries. In this sense, the origins of ethnobotany are linked to colonialism and its 20th century version – neocolonialism. Only recently has there appeared the tendency to use ethnobotany as a tool for discovering and making relations between plants and the culture of the natives. Local tribes are more active with their conscious participation.
Modern ethnobotany is interested in the role of plants in culture and explores “relations between plants and people taking part in the dynamic ecosystem consisting of environmental and social elements.” However, ethnobotany is neither a set of information on plant cultivation and their possible application nor a set of historical descriptions of human habits related to plants; it is rather a tool to get accustomed with reason and dynamics of the changing context of mutual relations between people and plants.

The cultural approach to plants broadens our knowledge on the history of mankind and inspirational origins of art, religion and philosophy. Plants have the potential – still not enough is known – to help fight diseases, develop physical and mental capabilities, provide food in the degraded natural environment, and finally to heal it. An appropriate approach to ethnobotany brings new scientific tools and becomes a research method for cultural studies.
Despite the omnipresence of plants in our lives, we still do not respect the links and sophisticated relations between our culture and plants. Only by means of certain examples can we trace the important role plants have had and still have as a source of medicine and food, or as a decorative, and also necessary element of art and craftsmanship – as a substance, but also as a basic form of inspiration and a necessary part of life. The ethnobotanic key can be a clue to various new possibilities and is perfect for ordering and arranging museum exhibits.

The introduction contains fragments from the author’s book entitled Zielnik podróżny. Rośliny w tradycji Karpat i Bałkanów (A traveller’s herbarium. Plants in the tradition of the Carpathian Mountains and Balkans), Krosno 2012.


Plants in the world of music as an example of an ethnobotanical key to the traditional culture

Bagpipes Dr Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane (Muzeum Tatrzańskie im dra Tytusa Chałubińskiego)

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The musical instrument described in the museum collection as Bagpipes from Zakopane is one of several types of bagpipes from the Podhale region. In Poland there are also other types: sierszeńki, bagpipes from Żywiec; Silesian gajdas, bagpipes from the Wielkopolska region; and bagpipes called kozioł.
Bagpipes are a good example of the ethobiological aspects of the construction of traditional elements and preservation of old musical rites. Such instruments are based on several structural elements, the most characteristic of which are an air bag made of animal skin (in sierszeńki it is made of animal bladder) using its natural construction and holes obtained by cutting off an animal’s head and legs (sheep, ram or goat), oxen and cow horns fixed as sound magnifying elements in the form of widening cone ends of the wooden chanters, chanter and drone pipe wooden elements made of many specially selected types of wood (from yew and sycamore maple for this particular bagpipe) and a reed – invisible while playing – that gives the characteristic sound and its appropriate power.
Appropriately selected wood has to meet acoustic, as well as constructional, requirements (resistance against constant moisture, strong stresses, easy to roll and drill); be available, linked with the very region of bagpipes and of good quality. There were many methods regarding the time, place and part of tree that the wood was taken from. Wood is often acquired only in the winter months (January and February) and then stored for many years (naturally dried). The selected trees should grow on stony fields and in high mountains (narrow-ringed wood of high acoustic and resistance quality) and often have an untypical look and quality (struck by thunder, or have a special shape, etc.).

The direct cause of the extraordinarily characteristic sound of bagpipes is the reed, usually made of appropriately cut cane. The cane plate, moved by pumping air from the leather bag of the instrument, is tuned by loading it with drops of beeswax.

Traditionally, linseed oil has been used for maintenance of the wooden parts. It perfectly impregnates the wood. The reed and joints of wooden elements are usually sealed with flax or hemp threads.

Thus, traditional bagpipes are a part of the culture created by people appropriately using plants and animals. They are linked by obvious, but also not so clearly seen correlations that exceed far beyond simple usage of elements from the natural environment.
“Piper playing near a chapel” sculpture Dr Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane (Muzeum Tatrzańskie im dra Tytusa Chałubińskiego)

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An artefact from 1916 made of wood. It is a gift from the vocational school in Zakopane to Ignacy Dembowski from the National Education Council and shows a piper playing his instrument near a chapel. This exhibit is important because of the carved date and because it shows the importance of pipers to the local culture.
“Highland robbers – welcoming of surowiec” glass painting Dr Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane (Muzeum Tatrzańskie im dra Tytusa Chałubińskiego)

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The glass painting – Zbójnicy przyjęcie „surowca” (Highland robbers – welcoming of Surowiec) – was painted at Spiš in the 19th century. In the exhibit description, we can read that one of the robbers “is playing the kobza” – kobza is a common mistake in bagpipe terminology. This mistake is proof of adopting foreign nomenclature (e.g., the name kobza is often used for instruments played by Scottish pipers), but was probably made by the person describing the exhibits. In this example, the context of bagpipes being a symbolic, traditional and archaic instrument is also important (links to truly native mountain inhabitants that were nomadic shepherds and came from the south, and not settlers from northerly areas that came to this land later).

Bagpipes from Zakopane, wooden artefact: Piper playing near a chapel and the glass painting: Highland robbers – welcoming of Surowiec – when put together – appropriately show the important element of mountain culture, which is the traditional musical instrument – bagpipes – and its cultural contexts related to the natural environment of southern Malopolska. By highlighting the less known aspects of the cultural context of the region’s natural environment in the description and putting exhibits together, they gain new and inspiring advantages. Such an approach is also a perfect key to recognise age, kind, place of origin and links to the culture of other museum exhibits, and to find completely different exhibition contexts for them.
Hurdy gurdy Ethnographic Museum in Krakow (Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie)

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Hurdy gurdy Ethnographic Museum in Krakow (Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie)

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Hurdy gurdies are interesting instruments that produce a loud sound by rubbing strings against a crank-turned rosined wheel. The instrument’s body, a little bit similar to a guitar soundboard, is equipped with a so-called tangent box and pegbox. In the tangent box there is a simple set of wooden keys that are used to shorten the vibrating string (as a result of being rubbed by a turning wheel) that gives the various tones to a sound, depending on how long the part of loosely vibrating string is.
In the pegbox there are tension pegs used for straining the strings, giving them their basic tones. Apart from shortening the strings by the above-mentioned technique, at the instrument’s sides are two separate bourdon strings producing one constant sound, depending on their tuning.
All the elements of the instrument must meet the requirements of durability, resistance against large tensions (strings and curved elements, wheel, handle) and good acoustics. The upper plate and sides of the hurdy gurdy play an especially important role in producing sounds of good quality and achieving the instrument’s durability. A hardly seen element of the construction, technique and production of the desired sound is the proper covering of the wheel that rubs the string with good-quality rosin.

Rosin is a by-product obtained after distilling turpentine from resin, usually of a pine (Pinus silvestris). It is one of the soft resins.
Since ancient times, rosin has been used for rubbing bows. It is an important structural element: wood, horsehair and rosin – arrangement based on the construction of an arch.

It is interesting that the rosin invisible in the hurdy gurdy is a crucial element that is necessary to achieve a good quality of sound.

Hurdy gurdies can be exhibited as the application of wood not only as the element of construction for these instruments, but also the usage of products from living trees, like resin and its derivatives obtained by means of distillation.
Blocks of rosin obtained by traditional methods are similar to amber and offer a spectacular supplement to the set of exhibits as they show links between instruments and the flora world. It is also worth indicating that the industrial production of turpentine is performed in a slightly different way nowadays and turpentine and rosin can be obtained by means of distillation of pine wood. The homemade method for obtaining these products is simple. Turpentine is used as a thinner and for the maintenance and repair of instruments.
Horn sceptre from the Maszycka cave Archaeological Museum of Krakow (Muzeum Archeologiczne w Krakowie)

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It is a very interesting exhibit of the probable application in animistic rituals by reindeer shepherds who were ancestors of the Sami people, one of the oldest native European peoples living in Scandinavia nowadays. The alleged “sceptre” might have been a horn hammer used for prophecies and rituals with drums, including the special drum of goabdes (in Sami language) made from the growths on birches and other trees of tundra.

The culture of reindeer shepherds spread throughout Europe after the glaciation period (also in the area of Poland) and is known as the Magdalenian culture. Its most renown artefacts are famous paintings in French caves and examples of craftsmanship in the valley of Danube.

Prophetic drums (shamanic, ritual) are objects of meaning far beyond music and rhythm. The traditional goabdes drum was in fact not used for musical purposes, as it was rather a prototype of packed digital and GPS records. It sounds improbable and even a bit provocative, but new research and analyses of the application of such types of drums confirm such an interpretation. Their codified drawings on membranes were used for navigation, weather and season forecasting on the basis of watching the movements of a bony marker hit by the horn hammer, placed on the drums’ membrane and covered with a drawing code. The hammer that is an integral part of the ritual drum was made from the forked part of reindeer’s antlers and has a very characteristic shape. Such hammers can be seen as parts of exhibit sets of Sami art, but they are also produced nowadays and from time to time exhibited in the galleries with handicraft.

In the culture of reindeer shepherds there are ritual shepherd canes of great artistic value which – because of their application – could be called sceptres. However, they are not made of forked parts of antlers and their bottom sometimes has the shape of a knob.

The construction of goabdes drums and their accessories (augury markers, hammers, stains for drawing or dying figural cuttings on membranes, etc.) is a perfect example of the ethnobiological scheme: people – plants - animals.
The body of the drum is made by deepening and shaping the natural growth usually appearing on birches. A special tree of a suitable size and exceptional shape needs to be found. The selected tree is cut down in the winter (because of suitable conditions and easy transportation) and processed manually. Membranes are made of selected reindeer skins. The drawings on the membrane are made by means of shallow cuttings on the skin, filled with a wet pigment obtained from the red bark of alder. Both birch and alder have a special importance for the Sami people. They used them for fuel, food, constructive elements, medicines and drinks as well as elements of a of a protective and spiritual meaning. Without birch and alder, it is impossible to construct traditional prophetic drums, both in constructional and spiritual contexts.
Bell “Urban” Museum of the Biecz Land (Muzeum Ziemi Bieckiej)

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The large, metal bell cast in the bell-founding workshop in Spišská Nová Ves in Slovakia is related to tiny spores of Northern firmoss! Its spores, so small that they look like grey dust, have been used in the traditional production of bells as the flammable layer separating the form’s surface from the cast metal alloy.
Spores of Northern firmoss contain large quantities of flammable essential oils and they ignite and burn rapidly, leaving no trace. The inside part of the casting mould covered in such a way provided a smooth surface for cast bells. You can imagine how many plants must have been picked up in order to obtain the sufficient amount of tiny spores!
Nowadays, Northern firmoss in Poland is seriously endangered, so it has been put on the list of endangered species of plants and fungi.

Northern fimoss (Huperzia selago) grows in mountainous areas and is strictly protected by law. It has various peculiar characteristics and, apart from its flammable spores, it also contains huperzine A, the alkaloid having a pronounced effect on the human brain.
In our country people have been closely watching Northern firmoss for a very long time. In his Herbarz Polski (Polish Herbarium) published in Krakow in 1595, Marcin of Urzędów described Northern firmoss as spica sarmatica, as its applications as a strong emetic and flammable material were already known in his time.
Bow harp from Gabon Ethnographic Museum in Krakow (Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie)

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Archaic harps can be divided into three basic types: bow harps, angle harps and frame harps. Lyres are similar to harps, yet their construction allows one to easily distinguish the two. In Africa and Asia there is a great tradition of constructing angle and bow harps. In such instruments, the type and quality of the structural elements made of plant and animal skins are of main importance and give the individual sound to each instrument. Such instruments are usually considered to be primitive constructions. It is a great misunderstanding because the construction of angle harps which can be found in Gabon and Congo (and in the past, also in the Caucasus!) is sophisticated and clever. Considering its type, price of material, and time spent on its construction, the musicality of these instruments is very high.

In the structural context, the harp from Gabon is rather an angle harp than a bow one (as has been described) and is quite similar to other instruments of this type from Africa.

The wooden body is covered with skin, which results in quite an efficient soundboard. The strings are led from the wooden arm to the instrument’s body. The strings themselves and the methods of their straining are also interesting. Traditional strings were made of animal bowels and even reed fibres, which gave them the specific subdued tone, delicacy and elegance. The application of metal strings magnifies the instrument’s sound, but also completely changes it.
Special leather rings were also sometimes used in the construction of bow and angle harps. The rings were made of leather thongs and supported the strings, which produced a characteristic buzzing sound. The purposes of such changes were of a musical kind, among them were imitated sounds of nature.

The plant materials used in the construction of the harp have a strong impact on the sound, tone and character of music played.

Materials, inspiration, a way of life and spirituality are based on an animistic belief that all elements of nature are alive and have their own spirituality and hence are linked together in music.

A lack of a description of the types of wood and other materials used in the construction of traditional instruments coming from non-European cultures suggests characteristic underestimation of their participation in the sound and kind of music performed on folk instruments.

Zither Museum of the Biecz Land (Muzeum Ziemi Bieckiej)

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This beautiful instrument called a qanun may have come from Turkey, but its most probable origins are Arabic and could have been brought from Egypt through Spain, where in the Middle Ages it was popular and known by the name kanon. Qanun means a rule in Greek. The instrument is a very interesting zither box, which is played by fingers of both hands holding plectrums. In the construction of this zither, the elements that determine the tone are wood, thin parchment skin, string nodes made of horn or bone, and metal strings. Great importance is placed on the thin upper plate of the instrument probably made of narrow ringed spruce wood and elements for tensioning the pegs of 26 strings. The tensioned parchment creates a loud and clean sound. Such instruments are currently used and also made in Turkey, but in order to make their construction simpler, some elements are not used anymore (e.g. parchment skin). The instruments are also generally larger than those found at the Biecz museum having a trapezoid shape and a size of 89 cm (longer side) and 45 cm (width).
Clavichord Museum of the Biecz Land (Muzeum Ziemi Bieckiej)

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The clavichord is the predecessor of the piano, whereas it was probably preceded itself by the dulcimer.
This instrument, which in its basic structural form is a kind of zither box, and its tuning is similar to that developed by Pythagoras, is characterised by the mechanism of hitting strings by keys (instead of hitting dulcimer strings by sticks).

The clavichord was one of the most popular household musical instruments of the Baroque era. In the 18th century it was replaced with the piano, a much louder instrument more suitable for concert halls.

The clavichord is a good example of an instrument derived from simpler forms that was first equipped with characteristics of a mechanical instrument of high repeatability and predictability. The instruments of former generations served for playing music traditionally based on music canons freely interpreted and changed by more or less charismatic musicians. The clavichord begins the era of music performed on the basis of strictly defined composition and notation. At the same time, some importance is still assigned to the materials the instruments are made of; however, according to their designers, they should not have had an impact on the character of the performed (and not created in real time) music.
The former attitude to the material, mainly wood, can be seen in the clavichords' rich ornaments and advanced techniques of wood treatment, aligned with the furniture design and interior decoration. A frequent material is the high quality wood, from trees like ash, yew, bowed wood of beech, and others.

Harp from Gabon – qanun – clavichord. Three string instruments from Africa, Asia and Europe perfectly show the completely different roles of plant materials and inspirations used during instrument construction. The evolutionary approach to the so-called development of instruments is quite confusing as it does not consider the natural background, spirituality, or goals of the instrument designers and musicians. If we apply the criterion of goals and spirituality (and music does belong to it), we could categorise the piano as a much more primitive instrument than a bow harp or a qanun zither.
In the era of the rediscovery of source inspirations and deconstruction of colonial strategies, it is important that museum exhibits would not preserve spent and artificial evolutionary hierarchies created and operating only in the context of Western culture.
Avicennae, Liber Canonis de Medicinis Museum of the Biecz Land (Muzeum Ziemi Bieckiej)

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This old print is probably a version of the book entitled Liber Cannonis. De medicinis cordialibus... by Avicenna, published by Andreas Alpagus and Benedictus Venetus in Venice in 1562. Avicenna is the Latin name of the great Persian polymath Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina, (980–1037). He focused on medicine, mathematics, philosophy, religion, botany and many other areas and was an unusual figure. Avicenna can be named the patron of the interdisciplinary approach to the world’s cognition. Such an approach would be a perfect solution to the arrangement of museum exhibitions linking various items.
Previously described exhibits can be arranged in many ways that solely depend on which specialists would be invited to arrange them.
In the case of this old print, finding suitable context to show and describe this precious artefact can give it a suitable level of importance, other than the rank suitable for an ordinary old book.

Avicenna was a great expert on plants and their various application. A great part of the knowledge possessed by European monks in the Middle Ages and later times came from the works of this Persian polymath. It is worth remembering as Avicenna’s works belong to the European knowledge principles.

Marek Styczyński – MSc. Eng in forestry, expert in ecology of mountainous areas, employee of the governmental natural environment protection agency, expert in ethnobotany. Author and co-author of Carpathian Mountains guides (Slovakia, Spiš, Stary Sącz) and books, e.g., Zielnik podróżny. Rośliny w tradycji Karpat i Bałkanów (A traveller’s herbarium. Plants in the tradition of the Carpathian Mountains and Balkans), Vággi Várri. W tundrze Samów (Vággi Várri. In the tundra of the Sami people), and various professional papers. He lives in Krakow.


Projekt graficzny i wykonanie:
Dagmara Berska, Parastudio, Łukasz Wiśniewski, CC-BY 3.0 PL

Author: Marek Styczyński, ⓒ all rights reserved
MIK (2013)