Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 1, part 2
appears in this issue.
Chapter 1: X Eats Y
part 1 of 2
In the days before I was propelled into my peculiar adventures, I was an Assistant Professor of Botany at one of the less distinguished institutions where the sons and daughters of the midwest came to learn the science of agriculture. Such schools are called cow colleges by the snobbish and I was not above referring to my place of employment the same way. I thought that its real name, Rutabaga University, was even more indicative of its lowly status.
I felt in particular that my fellow academicians and especially the school administrators displayed no more feeling, imagination or soul than a rutabaga. Had I known then what I’ve since come to learn about the vegetable kingdom, I would not have held the rutabaga in such low esteem.
The place was named, incidentally, for J. P. Rutabaga, the rancher and philanthropist, who founded the institution. I never met the old man but the universally accepted opinion on campus held that he was as big a clod of dung as ever came down the pike, as uncompromisingly dull and dimwitted as the name he bore. The institution upon which he foisted his name had never learned to live it down.
Consequently, the school administration constantly tried to foster a prestigious image, so that people would say Rutabaga with a straight face, but it was no use. The place was jinxed, the football team was a disgrace, and I was forced to acknowledge that I could not get a better job.
I dwelt in a state of limbo called promising. I was relegated to this purgatory by the Faculty Wives Association, who bestowed on me their Promising Young Instructor of the Year Award. In the three years since then, I was turned down twice for tenure. Such was the sorry state of affairs when the events of this narrative began.
I became interested in the work of Cleve Backster, possibly because I heard Backster’s researches being ridiculed by some of my colleagues in the Botany Department. Cleve Backster was, and for all I know, still is, the director of a detective school in New York specializing in lie detector technique.
One day Backster connected a lie detector to a potted plant on his office windowsill. As Backster contemplated tearing a leaf off the plant, the needle on the lie detector made a violent leap, and this response Backster interpreted as the plant’s fear or alarm. He repeated this experiment many times with many variations, eventually demonstrating that plants of every species tested could detect human intentions at a distance.
I sent for reprints of Backster’s published papers, read them carefully, wrote several letters to Backster and received long, courteous, informative replies which went a long way toward assuring me that Backster was not a crackpot. I decided to perform Backster’s experiments myself and see if his results could be duplicated.
This is a time-honored procedure in the scientific method, which within limits was practiced even at Rutabaga University by my colleagues. These limits exist because some hypotheses seem so ridiculous that no one bothers to test them. The study of botany till then revealed no structures in the plant body capable of transmitting electrical impulses, no nervous system, no consciousness, no intelligence, not the slightest flicker of sentience. It was not worthwhile trying to repeat Backster’s experiments because on the face of it they were absurd. But I did not share this opinion with my esteemed colleagues.
It may come as a surprise to my uninitiated readers, but the whole body of knowledge known as Plant Anatomy is based on a study of little more than 600 species of plants, while the world holds over 350,000 species of flowering plants alone. Including the non-flowering types the count is somewhere above half a million.
The underlying assumption of Plant Anatomy is that the 600 are representative of the half million. This is far from the case. The annals of botany are liberally sprinkled with references to anomalous anatomical features. There is nothing anomalous about them. They merely fail to conform to the generalizations that arise from the classical study of the 600.
For anomalous read unexplained. Witness the Fungi Imperfecti. To this taxonomic limbo are assigned all the oddball creatures whose structure, life cycle, reproductive habits, etc. have so far proved too elusive to yield up their secrets to our scrutiny. The imperfection is not in the fungi, but in ourselves.
We are living, as it happens, in a golden age of biological discovery. The press has played this up and represents our science as being on the verge of creating life in a laboratory. This may even be true, but creating life and understanding it are not the same. Theory is forever spinning off technological achievements, but theory is itself never perfected.
The great advances made in genetics, most notably the cracking of the DNA code and the elucidation of protein formation, have shown us that nature is even more marvelous than we suspected. The more we learn, the more the mystery deepens.
If you are contemplating sending your son or daughter to Rutabaga University you will not be told any of the above in the brochures. You will be told that the Botany Department houses an expert staff who will train junior to master plant science in all its vital aspects, i.e., fertilizer, pesticides, crop yield, etc. Botany 103, An Introductory Survey of the Plant Kingdom, covers the Fungi Imperfecti in about 15 minutes. Watch out though, because there’s usually one question on the final exam about them. The little known, but much exploited, genus Penicillium lurks among their number.
I am no longer a professor of botany, but inexcusably I still fall into the habit of lecturing, as though I were still standing in the classroom before a room full of students. To spare my readers the tedium of this practice, I have removed the most outrageous of these digressions to an appendix, where they may be safely ignored by all but the most technically minded of my readers.
My attempts to verify Backster’s results met with cold disdain. Nevertheless, with funds, time and equipment borrowed from more legitimate research, I set up several of his critical experiments and achieved the same results that he did.
The first time I saw the needle of the polygraph jump I felt a thrill. Had another polygraph been attached to me you’d have seen its needle jumping too. I was so glad that it was true. Not a small part of that thrill was feeling superior to the learned scholars and deans of Rutabaga University who were wrong, wrong, wrong. Their place in history was in the chorus of naysayers who scoffed at Copernicus, who tormented Galileo, and who told Orville and Wilbur it would never fly. Oh how glorious to know that what they spurned was the truth. And what a truth it is.
To what extent plants are aware and what is the mechanism of this awareness, all this was still unknown, an exciting new domain of inquiry. But in the meantime, just to be aware of their awareness thrilled me to the bone. Walking home that memorable day I smiled at the trees. I felt a strong wave of admiration for the world I lived in and for Cleve Backster. The vegetation of the world had kept silent through the ages, till one day Cleve Backster did a simple thing that no one had ever thought of doing, and lo he saw the electronic echo of a plant screaming.
I thought of Henri Fabre’s remark that the way to make nature speak is through the language of experiment. I felt at one with Henri Fabre, with Louis Pasteur, with Cleve Backster, with the whole lineage of true empirical scientists. That’s a high that’s hard to beat.
It lasted until the moment a few hours later when I cut through a fresh head of lettuce. “Scrunch!” said the lettuce and fell into quivering fragments on the cutting board. I dropped the knife and stared at my handiwork. In that scrunch I heard the tearing of flesh and a thousand voices screaming in agony. All was silent now but I knew what the polygraph would say. I knew that as I raised my knife the lettuce was already screaming, and so were all the spectators, the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the basil and the dill, all waiting so quietly as usual where they had been put.
I saw that something could be salvaged. I gathered up the scallions from the table, went out to the garden and planted them in a flower bed among the dahlias. I watered them with great care. They were quite limp. I felt as though I were atoning for a lifetime of callous behavior toward the plant kingdom. I returned to the house and sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the salad fixings. I began to feel hungry and I sensed in this that a great crisis was about to overwhelm me.
I saw that my situation was impossible. I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of eleven. Now I could no longer eat vegetables. What was left? I sat thinking about this for a while as the room grew dark and I could no longer see the dying vegetables on the table. At last I resolved to go to the library and learn how long a man could be expected to last on nothing but water.
The Rutabaga University library is not very well supplied on this subject, but I did find a paper by Professor Langfeld published in 1914. He reports that in 1912 a Maltese lawyer named Agostino Levanzin came to Boston to be the subject of a scientific study of fasting. The only thing to pass his lips for 31 days was 750 cc. of distilled water daily.
When the study was ended, Levanzin asked that it be continued. He was physically weaker than at the beginning, but his alertness had increased and he enjoyed heightened sensitivity to smell and improved vision. He experienced no hallucinations. Perhaps he had been bolstered by his faith that periodic fasting is good for the health.
Indeed, he volunteered for this experiment to prove this point. He reluctantly accepted food on the 31st day, which made him quite sick. Professor Langfeld reported that prior to this study Levanzin had fasted without medical surveillance for 40 days and he cites several unofficial records, set by other fasters, one of them for 60 days. I figured I had at least a month, maybe more.
This had been the most exhilarating day of my life. It had also been the most calamitous. So crowded was it with intense feelings that I could no longer remember breakfast and I had to strain to recall that lunch, my last meal, was a bowl of barley soup and a vegeburger. I certainly had no inkling when the day began that it would end by my going to bed without supper.
I dreamed that my mother was preparing Sunday dinner. I was the first at table and I could hardly wait till she was done and all the family had seated themselves. My father gave the signal to begin. My mother loaded the plates with heaps of grisly raw intestines and passed them around.
I ate with relish, stuffing one after another in my mouth, sucking them in like strands of spaghetti. My father reprimanded me for my manners. I ignored him and licked my plate clean. My father slapped my face. I woke up with a jolt. It was still dark. I was sweating and hunger had tied my stomach in knots.
My mother was no vegetarian, but she loved all living creatures. She was very fond of flowers and had a splendid garden, both flowers and vegetables and fruit trees. She put out food for birds in winter and kept a bag of peanuts in her purse for any squirrels or pigeons she encountered in the streets of the city.
No stray dog or cat left our back steps hungry and they finally became a plague as they came around in ever greater numbers for handouts. My father finally forbade my mother to keep up this practice, but I know she circumvented his ruling by feeding the strays in the woods behind our property where the strays learned to wait for her.
How she reconciled herself to my father’s profession I’ve never understood, but my mother was extremely well balanced. Despite her love for living creatures, she was quick to accept such necessities as death, eating, and the word of my father.
Proceed to Chapter 1, part 2...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill