What I personally find rather funny is when everyone bangs on about Jan Smuts’ politics, when even Jan Smuts admitted that in his heart he was simply a botanist. It’s not an area people often associate with Smuts, but it’s central to understanding his philosophy of Holism, and therefore central to his political philosophy. Smuts himself often lamented that all he really wanted was to left alone and record the wonderment of our environment and our spiritual place in it.
Smuts loved, simply loved Botany, and at many points in his life would be off on this or that botanical excursion in Southern Africa. Central to Smuts’ view in Botany is grasses, not the pretty stuff, the simple grasses of the veldt. To Jan Smuts the grasses are the ‘origin’, the epicentre of the circle of life, the key that unlocks evolution and even creation. Simply explained the grasses nourish animals, other animals nourish on them, and when an animal dies it simply returns to the soil in some form or other and in turn nourishes the grasses.
Now, I’m sure there are Botanists all over going what about ‘water’, what about ‘gasses’, what about ‘insects’ and I’m sure Smuts would have loved the arguments, but I’m no botanist. I would however say Smuts’ love for grasses even brought him a little Botanical fame as he ‘discovered’ a grass.
Smuts Finger Grass
This is it, in 1924 Smuts, an amateur botanist, identified a group of Digitaria plants on his farm Doornkloof at Irene near Pretoria and brought this under the attention of Sydney Margaret Stent, a famous South African botanist. Stent’s main interest was grasses, and according to Smuts, this group of plants differed from other finger grasses in the area because of its acceptability by animals. Material collected from these plants brought upon a new species named after Jan Smuts called Digitaria smutsii. Or, as it simply is now known ‘Smuts Finger Grass’.
The grazing value of Digitaria smutsii became very popular in the early 1930’s under the influence of research done by Dr Pentz and Dr Pole-Evans. Although considered a new discovery in its time, much later on the grass was discovered to have the same properties to a previously discovered grass called Digitaria eriantha and in 1981 the botanical name of Smuts’ grass was changed to Digitaria eriantha cultivar Irene. It is still available for animal feed today.
Smuts summed up this love he had for Botany and grasses perfectly when he said “Myself, when young, loved nature rather than sport, and took to Botany as a hobby. Gradually I began to realise that the Family of Grasses was the most important of all, and did my best to become acquainted with that perhaps most difficult of all plant families. … it is one of the largest of all families in botany, and the flowers are mostly very small and insignificant, and often call for the use of lenses to distinguish them properly. No wonder that other easier, more gaudy and attractive families are preferred by botanical beginners. But once you take a little trouble … their attraction and their glory grow on you, until at last you surrender completely to their charm.”
This cycle of life bit is best explained in Smuts’ holism philosophy – all things are in a ‘whole’ (Holism) and inter-dependent on one another. Like animals and grasses are a cyclical ‘whole’, so to are human individuals dependent on another forming groupings or ‘wholes’ and these groupings work with other groupings to make up nation states – which become inter-dependent on other Nation States and ta dah! We have the United Nations – Jan Smuts’ ultimate political goal, and organisation he wrote the mission statement for, and it calls for political emancipation of all human beings and a bigger purpose, a more peaceful union of Nation States dependent on one another to progress the shared ideals of liberty and freedom. The fact that the United Nations today focusses a lot of its energy on climate change and the importance we as individuals and nations have in the protection of our fragile environment, this alone would have pleased Smuts no end.
No point trying to expose Smuts as a bad politician or give other politicians credit for one-upmanship over Smuts. Even Smuts admitted he was not great at politics, he left the ‘people skills’ needed for it to Louis Botha and willingly took a back seat, circumstances and fate would push him to the front again.
So, getting Smuts all bogged down in party political racism issues, or more bogged down in the Boer War, Martitz Revolt, Jopie Fourie, Rand Revolt and even Afrikaner Nationalism issues, is merely a rabbit hole, a diversion away from the big picture of what Jan Christiaan Smuts was really all about … the cycle of life and that cycle’s relationship with the human condition and mankind as a whole.
Don’t take my word for it on the oscillating relationship between botany, cycle of life and spiritualism, here’s Jan Smuts in his own words “… evolution is the gradual development and stratification of progressive series of wholes, stretching from the inorganic beginnings to the highest level of spiritual creation.”
The fact is, then and now, no Politician in South Africa, present and past, not one (Nelson Mandela included) – can hold a flame next to Smuts, and it is little wonder when Smuts died King George VI wrote to his wife Isie and said “the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race“.
What a beautifully articulate piece, Peter – I’ll be giving an on-line lecture on this topic to the Holos group on Tuesday 26th: https://holos-earth.org/
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Very nice article thanks. I seem to recall that he also introduced Kikuyu grass from East Africa into the RSA?
Peter Dickens, re your essay on Jan Smuts: Jan Smuts should be revered as a South African just for his seminal book “Holism and Evolution”, which was published in 1926.
The late 1800’s and beginning 1900’s saw scientists finding that the old models doesn’t fit all the new discoveries and that “things” / “nature” are more complex. This led to quantum physics, Rorschach’s work in psychology, and Smuts’ Holism, all groundbreaking ideas at a time when it was still generally believed that a timepiece (clock) is the model that describes nature and that you can replace a “broken piece” with a new piece, like a gear in a clock.
Smuts and his Holism postulated that “the whole is more than the sum of its components” – as you describe in Smuts’ thoughts on grasses. Take away the animals, and the soil will get more and more unfertile, leading to the demise of the grass – so all components are important.
The example I often use is that of a wetland. The water provide an environment for certain insects and insect larvae, which is a food source to frogs. Frogs again are a food source for some birds, snakes and other animals. So you have a self-regulating, sustainable system. Remove the insects from the system and you remove a food source which will have a domino effect on the whole system.
At the same time this wetland is part of a bigger system which buffers run-off water during floods, and also deliver clean water fit for human use by filtering out a lot of sediment (e.g. palmiet is a great filter).
And the clean drinking water allows humans to live.