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December 2007
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Parallel Botany, by Leo Lionni (1977)

FIRST published in Italy as La botanica parallela, this illustrated "non-fact" work is presented as popular science. It earnestly expounds the oddities of an elusive, frequently invisible, and wholly imaginary plant kingdom that coexists with botany as we know it.

Parallel plants exhibit "masslessness," seem frozen in time, lack internal structure, and generally collapse to dust at a human touch. Some defy the laws of perspective. When visible, their coloration tends to be "a gamut of blacks." The latest, still unclassified discovery is black but casts luminous shadows.

Tirils, resembling dense-packed fields of grissini, include species that emit strange whistles, strangle one another, or implant themselves disturbingly in the memory like Jorge Luis Borges' Zahir. Woodland Tweezers' distribution patterns echo positions in the game of Go. Giraluna the moonflower, once perhaps "an aerial plant," is naturally visible only by moonlight.

The list goes on. Protorbis, the "parallel mushroom," varies in size from infinitely small to infinitely large; specimens have been mistaken for mesas. The Labirintiana lure ants into elaborate mazes embossed on their leaves. The Artisia echo the styles of human artforms—"Nature imitating Art"—and one species of Camponara looks uncannily like a menorah. The various convoluted forms of Solea are most plausibly decoded as music.

Parallel Botany is full of teasing paradox and baffled scientists. Neat invented folktales from Africa, Russia, and other countries suggest that our ancestors knew of these non-plants. Overall, though, Lionni's tongue-in-cheek descriptions of weirdness become a trifle repetitive. Borges would have deftly condensed all this imaginary science into a review of an imaginary book.

—David Langford

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