The Bonds of our Diet

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

Living on an animal farm is a pretty mixed bag; on one hand, it’s loud, busy, and cluttered with very little time for me to actually visit with my parents.  Conversely, I live in a much less urbanized environment where I can take my morning jogs through nearby grasslands.  I do get to see many more native species out here, and the scenery is a whole lot nicer than it is in town.  Another such advantage became pretty obvious to me once we were assigned the task of making a meal from as locally-sourced ingredients as you could manage.

When I signed up for the meal I ended up just taking a desert because the rest of the slots were taken.  I recalled that we had strawberries frozen from a Salmon Arm farm at home so I essentially arbitrarily chose strawberry shortcake.  Knowing the desert needs a sweetener, I knew I could just walk down to the apiary in Pritchard, Hill-Top Honey, to grab what I would need.  Eggs?  No problem, I live on a chicken farm after all, and that’s about as local as you can get it.  I did hear from several people, however, that sourcing things locally was proving to be challenging.

When I first started the project, I wasn’t terribly pleased with the time it was going to take up, accompanied with my classes and teaching.  However, once I explained it to my parents, they were all in to help me out.  It was refreshing; even though I initially viewed the project as nothing but a liability on my academics, the involvement my parents had with it made the endeavour fairly enjoyable (even if I should’ve been writing a lab report instead).

My brief experience was much different than that outlined in the 100-Mile Diet.  In this story, Alisa and James explain the different individuals they had met, and their experiences in attempting to source their diet from the immediately surrounding areas.  In their struggles, they outline some of the tension between each other, but more importantly, they both take the time to write about their experiences with each farmer or other food supplier.  Each experience is a fairly unique one; and James and Alisa constantly highlight how challenging but rewarding it has been.  In contrast to them, however, most of my ingredients were sourced directly from my community with very little thought.  “I know that farmer down the road, he probably has some left” was the thought process behind my entire preparation.  Of course, this wouldn’t fly if I had to source my entire diet locally, but I really felt I had it easy.

One unique aspect of this experience that I seem to have shared with James and Alisa was established relationships.  Between my academics and the commute from the city back to the farm; I’m not available at home much, but when I am I try to spend time with my parents.  Similarly, my father works full time and my mother has a healthy amount of animals to tend to.  In short, we live different lives and sometimes it’s quite challenging to get the time to sit down and just catch up.  When I mentioned this project to my parents, my mother in particular was very excited to help me out.  After all, she wasn’t helping me understand the electron movement in the Photosystem II or explaining to me why my lab project didn’t work; she was helping me with eating locally, relying on local farmers.  This was her environment, and it definitely wasn’t mine.

I’ve always understood why locally sourcing meals is important.  It’s a common occurrence for my family to attend the farmer’s markets over spring/summer, and I understand that supporting the surrounding communities as opposed to large corporations (who, quite frankly, don’t need our support).  It’s because I’ve been exposed to these ethics for so long that I didn’t view the project as beneficial.  After making the meal and reflecting on it, however, I can comfortably say I am delighted that I got some extra time to spend with my parents, and even get a better understanding why they are farmers.

 

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Foresight makes the Profit

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 186-173.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

I live on a farm, but I’m not a farm person by any stretch.  In fact, many people are shocked to hear that a scraggly academic like myself commutes back and forth from a farming community just outside town.  I guess when people think about what farming is and the people that do it they expect a stocky, slightly eccentric individual.  I may be eccentric, but I definitely don’t look the part otherwise.

Despite living on a farm, I often struggle to accept the ethics of farming.  I live on a small plot of land (5 acres) with horses, dogs, and chickens.  My family raises chickens and dogs, while also running a boarding kennel.  Needless to say, our little farm is pretty packed. Due to this, much of our land is disturbed.  As a plant science enthusiast, I struggle with never seeing succession occur; the constant disruption of our animals facilitates the rampant growth of invasive species, never allowing the communities to mature.  Horses stamp the ground down to uninhabitable anoxic levels, and the chickens release toxic nitrogen (urea, uric acid) into the soils faster than the nitrogen-procession soil microbes can keep up.  In many cases, this results in much of our farm being quite devoid of wild flora.

Pollan discusses his experience with a cattle farmer, named Joel, and how he has recognized that the cornerstone of his profit does not rely on the cows necessarily, but his understanding and maintenance of grass.  His field grass is of course the crux of his operation,providing ample food for his animals.  However, the process is not so simple, as Joel has articulated, where the height and maturity of the grass profoundly impacts the palatability of it.  In particular, grass too short risks permanent damage from grazing, where the apical meristem of the grass could be in jeopardy.  If the grass is too long, it will begin to develop a maturing inflorescence, which lignifies the grass; making it less palatable for the cattle.  In order to properly maintain that “ideal” height where the apical meristem remains unscathed and where the inflorescence has not begun to develop, careful attention must be given to rotating the cattle around fields.  Joel was apparently nearing mastery of this technique, and it benefits the environment too by increasing the carbon fixation of the field before the grass undergoes senescence (after floral maturity).  It’s a technique that exemplifies the importance of foresight in a profession that involves such a close link to nature, but that link is oftentimes severed in favour of convenience.  Pollan talks about this experience with inquiry and detail, explaining the general photosynthetic output of the fields and how this impacts the proper farming techiques.  Pollan writes openly and descriptively, making a clear attempt to persuade those unaware of such details that these factors are indeed important.

I will admit; I have grown to be a little judgemental of farmers that I meet because many of them are fairly oblivious to the environmental impacts they inadvertently apply.  Making such assumptions is not something I want to do, but I suppose I have become fairly bitter when I meet farmers from my community that just want to spray everything in sight, ones that see no problem with not rotating crops and instead pile on the valuable and declining fertilizers, and ones that don’t understand why Sisymbrium loeselii is dominating their hay fields every year, but refuse to seek out the ecological reason.

I have been fortunate enough to meet farmers like Joel, ones that have the foresight and planning to realize that nature will do a lot of work for you.  I have met farmers who will use legumes to restore nitogen to the soil, and ones that rotate root crops to refill available phosphorus.  Farming doesn’t have to be as damaging as it has been, but we often forget how tied we are to nature.

A Marvel of Metabolism

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 113-179.  Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.

Many people that do appreciate plants feel that way for their beauty, their produce yield, or just their presence as “green space.”  My enthusiasm for the botanical world often breeds questions as to where my passion comes from.  Frequently my response is that their metabolism is nothing short of magical.  In fact, the entire reason why I study the physiology and biochemistry of plants is because of how diverse and incredibly adaptive it is to their sedentary lifestyle.  From photosynthesis to pigment production, plants do it all, but they do it mostly in secret.

Pollan discusses this feat of the plant kingdom in his chapter discussing Cannabis sativa.  In particular, he addresses that this plant is able to alter our consciousness due to its active components, that is, molecules that have activity within living organisms that are fairly exclusive to certain plant groups.  I’ve never been an advocate of using a plant’s biochemistry recreationally to alter one’s sense of consciousness, but I cannot deny it is a major factor that has formed the basis of many cultures around the world.  Indigenous people used a variety of plants with bioactivity on our central nervous system to become “closer with the gods” or visit the “spirit world.”  While many people view this as an important cultural attribute that has participated in the formation of many civilizations, my own cynical, overly-practical mindset just perceives it as an incredible feat of plant biochemistry.  The compounds produced by these plants are so effective at causing mischief in mammalian biochemistry, affecting tissues that plants don’t even have!  It’s easy to glance over when everyone moons over what happens to us, but the plant is the one in control here; it’s the only one that knows the secret recipe.

Cannabis is definitely not the only plant with unique biochemistry.  As I discussed in my last post, peppers produce a compound called capsaicin which has strong activity in mammalian metabolism, and it also works to inhibit the growth of fungi looking to degrade the plant.  Many other plants produce powerful toxins that poison the soil, such as Sisymbrium loeselii (Loesel Mustard) which is allelotoxic, which is a fancy way of saying it prevents the germination of surrounding plants allowing it to colonize disturbed areas quickly and more effectively than other plants.  The activity of these compounds, obviously having a distinct impact on our physiology, are also obviously used in medicine.  Plants that have psychoactive activity are also used for medicines, even if people often use them for recreation.  One such example is Papver somniferum, the Opium poppy, containing a special class of chemicals called opiates.  Though historically it was used at length for recreational/spiritual psychoactive effects, we owe opium poppy for sparing so many human lives of insurmountable pain due to morphine.

I can’t say I approve of the recreational use of psychoactive drugs, but I do tolerate it as is necessary in our society.  What I do find remarkable, however, is the hugely distinct effect on our physiology that plants have evolved to possess.  Be it by accident or by co-evolution for defence mechanisms, plants concoct a myriad of incredibly diverse potions, and only their metabolism knows the secret.

 

A Race of Chance

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. 128-143.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

In many early evolution courses, the development of traits over time is often described as a linear progression.  For instance, I was taught a few years ago that the development of insect wings was initially due to an extension of the body (flaps, if you will) on their backs.  This increased surface area of the insect, allowing them to heat up faster in the sun.  Beneficial, to be sure, but it is believed that the “flaps” eventually thinned out (again, to maximize surface area) and became functional wings.  We believe this process generally followed this route, but in many cases the species evolves traits that are most beneficial, and we tend to organize this process linearly.

Linear evolution is not even an acceptable model for seed plants.

Seeds are a remarkable structure, and given their incredible ability to increase reproductive fitness, there is also substantial selective pressure that acts on them as a consequence.  Plants have remarkable biochemistry, able to produce and release a tremendous variety of compounds, only being outdone in sheer diversity by bacteria.  Their biochemistry yields useful compounds such as zingerone (gravol) and salicylic acid (aspirin), and these compounds are often involved in a process or defense mechanism which increases the plant’s fitness.  Due to the potency of these compounds, they influence the plant’s relationships with other organisms quite noticeably.  While a prospective herbivore might not enjoy eating a plant laced with toxic or otherwise distasteful compounds, birds or rodents which would spread their seeds by consuming their fruit will also be deterred.  This leads to a distinct trade-off: does the plant increase toxic compound content to confer protection, or does it reduce the concentration to facilitate better dispersal?  The answer is never a clear one, and it’s why linear models of evolutionary change, while easy to understand, often oversimplify a much more complex problem.

Hanson discusses his experience with a chile pepper specialist in chapter 10 of “The Triumph of Seeds.”  In particular, Hanson describes the incredible “race” that these peppers have undergone with a fungus.  There is apparently a fungus that will rot pepper seeds, but the capsaicin content in the peppers helps to protect them from fungal attack.  However, it makes the fruit less palatable for prospective herbivores in many cases, and the selective pressure of dispersal vs. protection has a discerning impact on the capsaicin content in the seeds.  For instance, if there is a period where the fungus thrives, then the successful plants will have higher capsaicin content to facilitate their survival.  It’s an interesting interaction, and definitely not the only one like it in plants.  Due to the diverse symbiotic relationships in the plant kindgom, co-evolution is incredibly common.  Hanson also discusses that there is a bird species that seems largely invulnerable to capsaicin’s intense heat, and as such it is the ideal disperser of the seeds, allowing it to maximize protection of its seeds while not having to trade dispersal range.

Hanson’s writing on this subject is nicely laid out and organized, he articulated the process by first mentioning how valuable spices have been to us historically, and then discusses his interaction with the specialist on the capsaicin content in peppers.  While my science background would appreciate some additional depth in the chemistry/metabolism of capsaicin, I appreciate his ease of transitions and simple language.  Hanson does a great job illustrating how the active components of plants have influenced us through the ages (in the form of spice), but are also integral to their survival as well.  In fact, the network of evolutionary relationships regarding plants and their active constituents only gets more confusing when considering human influence.

It’s a strong selective force; but it has no distinct direction.

The Unassuming Necessity

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 4-59.  Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.

Botanically, a fruit is no more than a maturing, fleshy ovary that encapsulates the seeds of a flowering plant.  Just as the flower is defined as a bisexual organ of the anthophyta, this definition does little to truly capture both the beauty and innate captivating ability these structures have on the animal kingdom.  The botanical definitions provide insight on what these structures are from the reproductive point of view, but the reality of how these structures truly influence us as animals is very different.  Pollan discusses this at length, and his first chapter uses the apple as his example.  It’s attractive colour, enticing fragrance and a crisp sweetness that is truly of unmatched desire.

Pollan has broken down “The Botany of Desire” into key points, indicating how each plant’s features has acted on our psyche at a conscious and subconscious level.  When discussing the apple, Pollan states the apple has historically acted on our senses of desire profoundly.  However, he does note earlier in the book that the apple is not alone, many botanical specimens have actively seduced us into a relentless pull of desire.  His example, the apple, is one such example of a particularly attractive fruit.  Pollan states that when the apple was a new, revolutionary crop that was coveted heavily, sweetness had a much different connotation.  “Like a shimmering equal sign, the word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfilment” (p. 17).  Pollan describes that the advent of such a remarkable fruit was so influential because its sweetness was so infatuating.  He discusses that “sweetness” had a “noble” quality to it, and as such, we extrapolated that quality onto the apple.  Whether we knew it or not, we likely looked up to the apple; its crisp sweetness was unparalleled.  Though it may seem absurd, in some way we had an incredible appreciation for this gift that is so delicately wrapped in a radiant, shimmering skin.

Though we have been seduced and now actively cultivate countless plants for numerous reasons, it would be ignorant to suggest that the apple (and other fruits) had been dragged into this.  In many ways, flowering plants gift wrap their offspring for animals to take.  It’s a hard life for a seed, and most seeds aren’t terribly attractive, so instead, plants have actively preyed on our senses: our desire to consume and control what we need or love.  I have personally fallen victim to this countless times.  I used to cook with my mother frequently when I was younger, and I would often comment on how pretty the vegetables and fruits we used were.  I think the first time I saw an eggplant was the moment the plant kingdom seduced me so successfully.  It’s a fruit with such a unique colour, a mesmerizing deep purple.  It’s a firm fruit, but soft enough to the touch to really make you wonder what it tastes like.  Eggplants from the grocery store are often curved slightly, something unique to eggplant as far as the fruits we consume go, and the sepals gently hug the proximal end of the fruit.  It really is a magnificent structure.  Its shape, colour, and form are tremendously unique.  The eggplant quickly sucked me in; it was a marvel of nature to my younger self and something truly unique.

Though I’ve had this in mind for awhile, it’s hard to look at a fruit or flower now without thinking about how much this plant has fooled and seduced us animals into breeding them.  Plants are likely natures greatest artists, but they are an organism without the eyes to appreciate their creations.

Almighty Corn Overlords

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 15-119.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

Image credit: http://grow.ars-informatica.ca/plant.php?L=674&nm=Zea%20mays

We as humans like to believe the world bends to us, and that we have formed the society of present on the wills and desires on human beings alone.

This belief is misguided and short-sighted.

Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses the impact and tremendous authority the unassuming Zea mays has over our civilization.  We use corn in a tremendous amount of ways, from eating corn on the cob itself, high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch.  An overwhelming amount of our food source is completely dependent on corn itself.  Pollan discusses this with an enticing set of examples, extrapolating the necessity of corn to not only our plant-based products but to our animal products as well.  As we are now, most livestock are fed on corn exclusively (which has nutritional issues, which must be supplemented) and as such, Pollan calls us “corn people,” due to our heavy reliance on the authoritative corn plant.  It’s not an exaggeration to state that almost everything you eat in a day is made possible by this plant.

When we consider what we have done to corn, we often assume that we have changed corn forever, but we often ignore what corn has done to us.  In selecting for corn, we have increased its fitness by allowing it to reproduce so successfully.  Corn’s wild ancestor, Teosinte, was a grass with markedly different morphological and developmental attributes compared to other grasses (Poaceae).  We have selected it to become a plant that is entirely dependent on us as its nitrogen demands are unrealistic, and it’s flower form offers questionable benefits, being wrapped in a stubborn husk with unnecessary seed density.  Pollan discusses that modern Zea mays cobs offer very little benefit in the wild, where their seeds sprout in dense clusters which cause needless competition where all the seeds end up dying.  It’s an interesting relationship we have developed with corn; though we believe we have made it a plant completely dependent on use, we often fail to realize that that dependence is not one-sided.  Pollan addresses this by stating: “Corn is the hero of its own story; and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest we have been calling the shots or acting always in our best interests.  Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us” (Pg. 23).  Pollan isn’t afraid to boldly state how influential corn has been on our society, referring to its success as “world domination,” and it isn’t far from the truth.

Pollan’s writing style here seems noticeably different than the tone of “Botany of Desire.”  He writes here with a fairly commanding voice, strongly advocating this coevolutionary dependence that humans and corn have developed with each other.  He particularly emphasizes the necessity of both humans facilitating the production of corn, while corn has cleverly changed itself to become the ideal cereal for human utilization.  Though we commonly state that we have harnessed and controlled plants like corn for decades, perhaps we should be acknowledging our supreme overlords; Zea mays.

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.

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.