Say it like it is

Diamond, Jared.  1999.  Guns, Germs and Steel.  Pg 116-130.  Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing, United States of America.

 

It’s only Wednesday, but I didn’t really get a weekend.  Instead, I stayed at the university microbiology lab for the greater portion of my Saturday and Sunday, only to realize that our project didn’t work out and we had to restart.  On top of that, I have other classes to remain studious to, and I’m currently stressing over an important presentation tomorrow.  When I have to do readings for classes when I am this swamped, the last thing I want to read is authors that beat around the bush and waste text (and my time) with vague descriptions, acting as if their reasoning for their central thesis is some sort of secret, locked away in chains of metaphors, comparisons and other literary devices I’m forgetting the name of or simply completely dismiss while reading.

Thank goodness that Diamond isn’t like that.

Diamond’s articulate and nicely formatted writing pleases me and does not try my patience as some other authors have.  Though many people in our class have criticized his writing for it’s inherent “dryness,” I really couldn’t be more happy with it.  When I’m on a schedule, Diamond’s very up front writing is very refreshing, he introduces a problem, then breaks down his potential solutions or explanations in a discrete manner, then discusses each point and relates them.  Concisely.

I appreciate this immensely.  I get so much more out of a reading when the author doesn’t drone on needlessly about something that could be said in <150 words.  Forget “literary depth” or any sort of a “greater meaning,” I’ve always just thought that authors should just say what they want to, let the readers do the “greater thinking.”

But perhaps that’s just a cynical view of a science student that doesn’t find meaning in that.

The relationship people share with domesticated plants and agriculture is apparently more complex than I gave it credit for, and of course thanks to Diamond’s writing style, this is pretty apparent to me now.  Diamond talks about the discrepancy of domestication rates and how this has changed how we get our food today.  He analyses the ins and outs of “hunter gatherer” lifestyles and the trade-offs associated with them, articulating why this lifestyle was facilitated or weaned out of different human populations at differing times.  Diamond states: “Instead, as we shall see, food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences” (P. 105-106).  Diamond believes that our foraging patterns and necessity for food facilitated the domestication of plants, despite no intention of the process really happening.  It just did.

However, the most interesting part of the reading in my opinion was his discussion on the fertile crescent and how the ecology of the environment had influenced the evolutionary development of their native plants.  Diamond argues that the Fertile Crescent of the Mediterranean properly enabled plant domestication due to the plant’s lifestyle and environments that exist there.  The long, dry, and hot season is promptly followed by a mild, wet winter, which gives the flora an opportunity to carry out a short lived growing season.  He states that this seasonality of the Fertile Crescent favoured annual plants, which utilize the moisture while it is there but expire in the dry season, leaving their heavily invested seeds in place for when they will germinate once more in the wet season.  Annual plants must then be extra reassured that their progeny are strong enough to germinate, as they are literally investing all of their potential genetic fitness in the following generation.  Their seeds are invested, these aren’t orchid seeds (which are microscopic and possess basically no nutritive value), but grains with substantial nutrient content to ensure their success in this tremendously bipolar environment.

Diamond also states that this lifestyle has other benefits: “Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes” (p. 136).  Due to annual plants only being around for a portion of the year, their growth must be very efficient, and it must ensure the success of the next generation.  While the conifers around us in British Columbia spend substantial energy depositing wood to survive our winters and developing cones (which often take several years to develop), these annuals cut corners and make just enough vegetative structures to supply the energy to craft their seeds.  While much of the energy of perennials is devoted to longevity and survival of the individual, the annuals of the Fertile Crescent do quite the opposite, making their seeds an ideal choice for human consumption.

It really is remarkable what a writer can explain so effectively when they write so concisely and practically.

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A Green Perspective

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. xiii-xxv.  Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.

My mother was well known on the street I grew up on as the lady with plants that grew to abnormally large sizes.  Our front yard, shaded by our house, was ordained with beautifully gigantic Hostas, deeply purple Lugaria with radiant yellow flowers, colossal ostrich ferns and a an unknown small herbaceous forb that eventually took over our yard quite effortlessly.  The front of our yard was blessed with more sunlight than the shaded perimeter around our house.  In the sunlight, bleeding hearts bloomed in early spring but quickly retired back to the earth.  They were succeeded by a robust peony shrub bearing alluring fuschia flowers and a variety of Papaver that I have never seen again since we left that home for our farm life.  Even at a very young age, my mother let me help in the garden.  I spent countless hours helping her weed and plant the annuals in spring.  Today, I attribute much of my love of plants to my mother, who inspired my interest in the foreign world of Earth’s flora.

As a child, I was captivated by how simply magical and unfathomable the life of a plant is.  As animals, it’s very simple to comprehend that we consume tangible products (food) to create a different tangible result (growth).  However, plants gain mass not by consuming something we can touch.  They do not consume something with a shape, smell, or taste.  They consume starlight.  Plants use sunlight as they energy source, and unlike the photosynthetic microbes of the world, plants make up more than 90% of the world’s biomass.  They simultaneously bestow this world with some of the largest organisms in the world, and some of the most beautiful, ornate structures across all the domains of life.  During my time in the garden, this concept was fascinating.  Plants seemed like wizards; they literally seemed to make something from nothing, and did so with such efficiency that it left me equally befuddled and awestruck.

In Pollan’s writing about the relationships plants have established with other creatures in The Botany of Desire, he emphasizes how drastically plants and animals have influenced each other’s evolution.  His writing describes a viewpoint very similar to my own that roots itself back to the first time I had ever become familiar with the word “photosynthesis.”  Pollan argues that plants have been artificially selected by humans to curb many desires that we possess.  After some time of observing plants, I would say I share this viewpoint now.  Flowering plants exhibit this relationship the most strongly, advertising themselves with gorgeous inflorescences and tempting fruits.  The formation of these intricate, complex structures is a colossal energy investment, and as such the plant must be benefiting from it in some way.  I think as humans, we often forget that Earth was not created for us or “with us in mind.”  Coffee doesn’t produce caffeine so we can wake up in the morning no more than Papaver somniferum produces the precursors to morphine so we can advance our medical abilities.  These occurrences are simply a consequence of the plant’s defenses or biochemistry it has developed.  Pollan addresses this misconception concisely and elegantly: “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose” (pg. xxi).  As a species that feels disconnected from the natural world, so much so that we hardly consider ourselves a part of it, we can often lose sight of the fact that creatures evolve for themselves, not to benefit others.  However, as Pollan states, these developments can appear to be nothing short of miracles; the modified leaves of Nepenthes or the bladders of Utricularia are truly spectacular products of this process.

Pollan emphasizes the importance of understanding that we share this world with plants.  Plants are alien to us, they function completely differently and have been subject to selective pressures which have changed their body forms in ways incomparable to animals.  It is challenging, nigh impossible, to place yourself in the metaphorical “shoes” of the plant, but I would say trying to put those shoes on is what was truly enticing to me in exploring the botanical world.

 

 

Diamond, Jared.  1999.  Guns, Germs and Steel.  Pg 116-130.  Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing, United States of America.

 

Human perspective standpoint is a peculiar one.  We often assume an authoritative role above the other life we share this earth with, while in reality this authority is simply a perspective we believe in.  We often believe that we are the ones that manipulate other life, and that our Earth was “made” for us, even if we don’t actually believe it consciously.  Many individuals will walk through their life not thinking twice about how nature has changed us as a species, and how, while our environment is a very different one, we have not been disconnected from nature.  Diamond discusses this topic, making a point of how domestication is simply a hypothetical standpoint that we believe is our control over the subject.  But if we are thereby increasing the success of that “domesticated” organism by breeding them and continuing their species, then who is truly the manipulative one?

Corn forms the crux of many human societies, with wheat and rice followed shortly behind.  Though many of understand we use these plants extensively, Diamond argues that we have been changed during this domestication process, and that we have inadvertently changed to accommodate this food source.  This standpoint is not at all outlandish, we have been using corn and other plant products for years, and plants have been enslaving animals to do their sex and dispersal of their progeny for much longer.

We aren’t the first animals to succumb to the seductive prizes the plant kingdom has deceptively offered us.

In many ways, the evolution of plants (flowering plants in particular) is built on the foundation of many coevolutionary relationships, but we always view the plants as changing to suit others, but from the plant’s perspective the story is very different.  Plants have changed over the years to facilitate their survival like any other living thing.  The success of common crop plants today is not an accident; we have been seduced by their influence and benefits they give to us.  Diamond discusses this matter in how we have subconsciously selected for the plants that yielded us the greatest benefit which has changed the species of interest considerably from their wild counterparts.  Though this is by a means we call “artificial selection” or domestication, many of us fail to understand that this is a blanket or authority we cover the process with.  Plants are selecting us to breed them as much as we are selecting them for their delicious fruits, beautiful flowers, or indispensible materials.  Diamond spends considerable time discussing the almonds for this purpose; while almonds (and many other seeds) are inherently too bitter and poisonous to eat; a single gene mutation removes that.  In the wild, it’s beneficial to possess seeds that no one wants to consume, but for us, the mutation of sweet almonds is beneficial to the almond trees as it gives us incentive to breed them en masse.

Perspective is important.  Life lives in a stuttering harmony, but the individuals in that harmony affect each other substantially.  No relationship between two or more individuals has only one story.

A little package with a big gift

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. xix-18 & 55-80.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

 

In many ways, seeds govern how we live.  They provide us with an insurmountable abundance and diversity of food products.  Their metabolites and oils provide important medicinal and nutritional benefits that we use heavily, and rely on even moreso.  Thor discusses both his experiences and questions regarding the life and success of seed plants.  He introduces this in a captivating an amusing scene of him trying to smash a seed open, in which he resorts to a whaling on the stubborn seed with a leg on his desk.  To no avail, the seed coat’s resilience ignored Thor’s determination and waited.  Thor stresses that one of the primary attributes of a seed’s success is their independence; equipped with a sturdy shell in the seed coat, and a nutritive source in the endosperm (in flowering plants).  When making this case, Thor writes creatively and analytically, relating his personal stories to just how remarkable of a structure the seed really is.  Thor states: “….in the history of plants, no single event has ensured the protection, dispersal and establishment of their progeny more than the invention of seeds”  (pg xxi).  Thor makes a compelling case for this, discussing exactly how influential these changes had been on the evolutionary history of plants.

To first understand when seeds became prevalent in the world’s flora, Thor describes his experiences with a paleobotanist, who believes that the widespread perception of the greenery that dominated the Carboniferous era is likely incorrect.  He proposes the idea that while the swamps in the Carboniferous era did provide an ideal habitat for the tree ferns and giant club mosses, their environment has truly caused a terribly biased fossil record.  In swamps, the silty and moist environments are ideal for fossil formation, but the environments which favoured the developing seed plants (alpine, colder, dryer habitats) is where they shined.  Bill, the paleobotanist, believes that the fossil record is biased because of the respective environments the seed plants and the spore plants existed in, causing an over representation of the spore plants.  Given the advantages that seeds have over short-lived spores in less forgiving environments, I believe Bill’s proposition is not outlandish at all.  Though my only concern  with his explanation is the lack of discussion on what evidence there is on seed plants, aside from a, albeit very reasonable, largely untestable hypothesis.  Particularly, what seed plants have been found in this era that we know of?  Where were they found, and over what total region?  What plants have been found to exist around them?  Such questions may not have answers in modern literature, as a curator points out to Thor at a conference: “Man, I wish someone would work on paleo seeds” (pg. 61).  Though I’m sure this is frustrating to timeline plant evolution when the data on seed plant identity, abundance, and distribution is very lacking, that is likely due in part to how challenging it is to identify seeds from a fossil, let alone any plant they belong to.

As Thor continues his emphasis on the integral nature of seeds to our society, he discusses Mendel, the father of genetics, and how his work went unnoticed for so long.  Ironically, though I feel Thor chose to talk about Mendel for many reasons, I definitely felt that Mendel had entered a similar fate of seeds themselves: though they both have contributed a very substantial amount to modern human society, they both continue to go unnoticed.  In Mendel’s case,  he emphasizes his importance by saying “His experiments show how profoundly seeds, and our intimate relationship with them, have influenced the way we understand the natural world” (pg. 73).  Though Darwin’s work was rapidly praised, generously cited, and is still well known today as a theory that forms the crux of all biological sciences, Mendel’s contributions remain fairly quiet.  Mendel’s demonstration of inheritance through generations (vertical gene transmission) much earlier than the discovery and elucidation of DNA by Watson and Crick was a feat that went largely unnoticed for its innate obscurity and challenging ideas.  Though Mendel now builds much of the foundation that evolution stands on, many tend to forget that without his genius, our understanding of inheritance would have likely been both drastically delayed and scattered.

Thor’s very astute but realistic style of approaching the subject of seed plant importance is both well written and organized.  He shows us how remarkable a seed is at the developmental and anatomical level, while also showing us how much we truly underestimate their remarkable innovation and necessity to our lives.

 

 

Ethics of a Haphazard Diet

Smith, Alisa and MacKinnon James B.  2007.  The 100 Mile Diet.  pg. 1-147.  Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

 

There are many ways to contribute in some fashion to a cleaner, more environmentally concious lifestyle.  Though many of these choices are made on a whim, they often gradually deplete shortly after making the decision.  In the 100 Mile Diet, Alisa and John set out to eat only locally sourced foods for a year.  Their definition of local is anything that was grown or produced within 100 miles of their home.  The book discusses their struggles and moving realizations they make on this journey together.

When they first propose this idea and begin to pursue it, it begins like most New Years Resolutions: inspired motivation that is shortly followed by doubtful realization.  Initially, James expresses noticeable enthusiasm, but the writers have made it very clear the enthusiasm is quickly dampened by the moment on page 12, where they both find nothing at their supermarket that fits the criteria of their diet.  “All of it, gone.  There was nothing there for us.  Nothing.  All of that plenty, vanished in an instant of cockeyed imagination.  It would be a year without ice cream.”  Alisa and James at this point have clearly realized the limitations they have put on themselves, which is further exacerbated by their realization that wheat will be hard to come by when living in the Pacific Northwest.  Most of Canada’s wheat is supplied by the prairie provinces, after all.

The story that the two of them tell is captivating at times.  Though the untimely death of Alisa’s grandmother was tragic, it was told in such a way that was emotionally important to the story. Alisa shares a variety of memories of her grandmother, mostly her devotion to keeping her family happy.  Throughout the book, the authors discuss the stories that is attached to food and cuisine.  In Alisa’s case, her grandmother never liked cooking but she did it frequently to support her family.  On page 34, Alisa states “Since the revelation that she never liked to cook, I had learned that, during her decades as a housewife, she had produced an unvarying weekly schedule of meals.”  Alisa then continues to describe the unfortunate shape her grandmother was in.  She discusses her chronic pain, and how she eventually loses the most important faculty of our existence: her mind.  Alisa likely included this as a major event in their 100 mile diet to demonstrate that while the story of food is important to some, it is also simply a responsibility for others.  Alisa had to watch her grandmother slowly wither away, which is very distressful in itself, but Alisa had to burden this hardship during this limitation she had put on herself and she had planned to finish it.

The authors also discuss a topic that speaks to me fairly deeply; how far can ethics go, rationally?  I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons.  I believe that because more water and land is needed to produce meat (by a substantial margin) than crops, and the incredibly unfair conditions livestock are exposed to in the meat industry, vegetarianism is just one simple step I can take to at least attempt to have an impact on how we treat this world, but I am often conflicted with how far do I extend these ethics?  When is a reasonable stopping point?  Does one exist?  I am completely lost on the answer to any of these.  The authors address this potentially obsessive outlook on pg. 74: “Would we eat vegetables grown in manure from local cows that ate nonlocal feed?  Would we have to ask even the vegetable farmers where their fertilizer came from?”.  These questions are very realistic and understandable when you undergo an ethical decision that leads to a commitment.  Alisa and James are now obligated to maintain a basis of continuous ethics.  That is, they need to make their best effort that is possible to avoid supporting/encouraging the exact thing they are protesting against.  In this scenario, is eating food that is grown or produced using any form of external, imported material or tool permitted?  The initial response is of course not, as it requires something external, something distant, which is exactly what they are avoiding.  However, when strict ethical boundaries are established, these dilemmas will often come to mind, and make you reconsider if what you are doing is genuine in the first place.  As a vegetarian, gardener, and aspiring botany researcher, using bone meal as fertilizer has always been an issue for me.

More than anything else though, Alisa and James discuss how their journey for local food lets them learn about their local culture, and the lives of those that are responsible for producing this food.  They discuss their first Farmer’s Market in May and how wonderful it is.  They describe an encounter with a beekeeper, and then eventually move to Northern BC to live in the bush for awhile.  Of interest here is the writer’s change in tone towards the project as their horizons broaden.  On page 126, they describe leaving their little ramshackle hut in the North; “We were going home far richer than we’d come.  We had a box of Shenandoah Strawberry apples for cold storage, boxes of crabapples and plums for preserves…”.  Alisa and John have clearly had a change of heart as the month of August ends.  In the beginning, many of their experiences discuss what they didn’t have, but as they progress, they take special note of the rich food available to them.  Whether that change is purely a result of seasonal harvests, or a change of heart is, of course, indeterminable.