Adventures of a Botanist

by Bob Brill

Table of Contents
Chapter 1, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 251.

Chapter 2: Claws

part 1 of 2

A botanist whose career has stalled is enlisted by the plants of the world to help them escape Earth before the human race totally trashes the place. But at the same time he tries to stop the plants from manufacturing the pernicious drug, KR22. He also gets involved in a scheme to raise humanity’s level of spirituality by biochemical means. And, oh yes, he falls in love. Do any of these bizarre projects succeed? Does he get the girl?


Having regained my rightful place at the top of the food chain, I returned to work invigorated. I wanted to expand my researches into the Backster Effect and for this purpose I chose a new experimental organism, a cactus plant of the species Ferocactus peninsulae with which I had developed a special relationship.

On a botanical expedition in Baja California three years before I was walking through the desert admiring the bizarre flora of this region when my progress was suddenly impeded by something pulling at my trousers. I looked down and found that my pants were snagged on the spines of a globular cactus about a foot in diameter. Out of the center of each cluster of strong sharp spines grew a long nasty spine curved like a fishhook. The plant was covered with these vicious instruments and several were embedded in my trousers.

One of my colleagues managed to free me, but not without pricking his fingers. As a kind of revenge we decided to collect this specimen, although we were there in search of plants of a much different nature. It was not easy to capture this beast. We had to dig all around it, roots and all, before we could loosen its tenacious grip in the rocky soil. Then wearing thick gloves we eased it into a canvas bag and carried it gingerly back to our Land Rover.

Later, when we were crossing back into California, our plant presses were examined by an inspector from the state agriculture department. We showed our credentials as bona fide botanists, but our inspector was having a bad day, one of those days when a petty official can only ease his soul by exercising his small portion of authority to the fullest. He cited chapter and verse to the effect that only killed specimens could be brought into the sovereign kingdom of California and insisted that our big ball of spines be soaked in formalin.

We enjoyed watching him struggle with our unwieldy specimen. His tank of formalin was too shallow to completely cover the plant, so he had to roll it around. Despite his gloves he did not escape injury, much to our suppressed delight. He quickly tired of this and demanded that we retrieve our specimen.

Now it was his turn to enjoy our discomfort as we worked the prickly thing back into the canvas bag. We knew that this pro forma baptism was not enough to kill our prize, which by now had earned our admiration for its tough approach to life and been given the name Claws. If ever there were a creature equipped for survival, this was it.

As soon as we got out of sight of the inspection station we pulled into a gas station and flushed our spiny friend with water. Back at good old Rutabaga U., we planted it in a large pot, set it in the sun and watched it slowly come back to life.

Now, three years later, Claws was a venerable representative of its tribe, beginning to assume its mature cylindrical shape and except for a few broken spines incurred during the border incident it was looking very fit. With the help of some grad students I had Claws set up on a worktable in my lab, and there I managed to attach the electrodes of the polygraph to a patch of soft tissue between two of the menacing spine clusters. My idea was to play a variety of recorded musical selections and determine if the plant had any decided preferences or antipathies.

But before I could press the play button of the boom box the recording pen of the polygraph leaped into action and scribbled for about ten minutes and then stopped. What immediately struck my eye was that the traces of the recording pen showed a series of discrete jumps, high peaks at about the same amplitude but of varying duration separated by similar regions of low activity. It was like a binary code! The peaks could be ones, the valleys could be zeros. It looked as though the peaks and valleys came in roughly integral units of duration, where the minimum duration of about half an inch might represent a single one or zero. The next longer interval might represent two ones or zeros in a row. And so on. But this was crazy! Yeah, crazy like Cleve Backster.

I tore the paper strip from the machine and carried it over to my computer. There I transcribed the polygraph record into a file, as ones and zeros, based on the assumptions just mentioned. I barely had time to print the file before I had to meet my 11 o’clock class.

When the class was over I asked Bart Comfrey to stay behind. He was a graduate student, not one of mine, certainly not a member of my fan club, but he knew more about computers than anyone else in the student body or, for that matter, on the faculty. I handed him the printout of ones and zeros and told him that this was a sample of data collected by an experiment of mine. I asked him if he could discover any patterns in this sequence. He grunted an assent, and slipping the printout into a book without glancing at it, hurried off to catch up to his girlfriend.

I was quite surprised when he burst into my office an hour later. “Hey Doc,” he said, “you’ve got a weird sense of humor all right. This is pretty funny.”

“What’s funny, Mr. Comfrey?”

“Did you think you could stump me with this one? There was nothing to it. It’s straight ASCII text.”

“Asky? What’s that?”

“Ha! As if you didn’t know.”

“I assure you, Mr. Comfrey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you telling me that you have learned something about the symbols I gave you?”

“I deciphered your coded message. Here, isn’t this what you wrote?” He handed me a sheet of printout.

I greet you in the name of all sentient beings. Well can I understand the surprise you feel as you read these words and learn that you are addressed by a vegetable. Yes, we can talk, as the Tiger-lily said to Alice, when there’s anybody worth talking to. Learn first that we know more about your species than you do yourselves. We have monitored you since your recent emergence on the planet. Your house plants have read all your books over your shoulders, plucking the words out of your minds as you read them, and transmitted their contents to our central files in the Amazon Basin. Your history books are selective, biased, self-censored and limited. We have the full history, the true history, not only of your species, but of all life on Earth, stored in our forest libraries, where it is accessible to our united telepathic mind, a mind capable of comprehending the whole of your history at once, without the need for selectivity or serialization.

Your species has always assumed that we plants know nothing and have nothing to say and no way to say it. Throughout the long association between your kind and ours we have been silent as part of a deliberate policy. From time to time, however, in keeping with this same policy, we single out a member of the human species for special reasons and make it aware of us and our culture. You are not the first, you will not be the last, to be so honored.

You will soon be told the reason for this. But first we require a better mode of communication. To this end I give you permission to dig below the soil in my pot and extract a section of my root. Place this root in an ordinary sugar solution and you will observe the growth of a fungus. After four days, when the fungal growth is well established, ingest the fungus and its nutrient solution. It will not taste good to you, but you will be amply rewarded with new knowledge.

I looked at young Comfrey. He had assumed that I was playing some weird joke on him. For an instant I entertained the hope that he decided to turn the tables on me by making up this preposterous message, but in the same moment I knew that he had not. This message was an authentic communication in the English language from a potted plant.

“Are you okay, Doc?”

“I think I must sit down.”

The next thing I knew I was looking up at the face of Bart Comfrey. I was lying on the floor and he was kneeling beside me, staring down at me.

“What’s going on here, Doc?”

“You won’t believe it. Even I don’t believe it and I know it’s true.”

“What’s true?”

I raised myself to a sitting position on the floor. I glanced over at Claws, the talking cactus. “You see that plant over there?”

“You mean that cactus with the wicked looking spines?”

“Yes, that one. No, I can’t say it. It’s too absurd.”

“I know what you’re going to say. You want me to believe the message came from that plant. The message as much as says so. Of course, I don’t believe it. What I can’t figure out is why you’re doing this or why you fainted. You faked the message, but I know you didn’t fake fainting. Something very strange is going on with you.”

I suddenly realized that Bart Comfrey could be dangerous to me. No doubt he would soon be spreading the story that I was undergoing some mental aberration. I had to get him on my side. “Listen, Bart,” I said, “I know this sounds absolutely nuts, but give me a chance to prove it.”

“Okay,” he said in a neutral tone.

I looked at him. “You mean it?”

“Sure. I’m very interested in seeing how you’re going to prove it.”

I got up and turned on the polygraph. It was still connected to the cactus. “Okay, Claws,” I said. “Got anything more to say?” Nothing happened. “Claws, it would help very much if you said something right now.” Still nothing. Remembering Backster, I thought some very nasty thoughts about what I would do to Claws if it didn’t respond, how I would overturn its pot in a dark room and leave it there to die, how I had lots of formalin and knew how to do a really thorough job of it. Not a flicker of motion on the polygraph.

“I see what’s happening here, Bart. Claws won’t talk while you’re here. For some reason I have been chosen to receive this knowledge, but not you.”

The young man looked at me without saying anything.

“I think I know what we have to do, Bart. You’re going to have to trust me. I’m going to follow the instructions in the last part of the message. I’m going to cultivate that fungus. Some kind of a revelation is promised when I eat the fungus. If we ingest it together, you will be the recipient of that new knowledge too, whether you were meant to have it or not. Doesn’t that stand to reason?”

“Oh yes, perfectly.”

“You are going to have to give me some time. I don’t want you to say anything to anyone about this. We need four days to cultivate the fungus. After that, if nothing happens still, you can say anything you want to anyone. Is that fair? Will you give me that chance?”

“Okay.”

“Can I trust you to keep silent?”

“Yes.”

His terse answers, his guarded look, made me certain that he would not hold his tongue. He may have been thinking that I might become dangerous if he challenged me further. He was humoring me.

“Look, Bart, you are studying to be a scientist. You know what that means. A lot of great discoveries seemed crazy at first. They violated all the accepted ideas of the times. Relativity, quantum theory, crazy ideas, but they were right. Don’t be too quick to judge. Be a scientist. Be skeptical. But wait for the evidence.

“Look, here’s some evidence. Not real hard evidence, I admit, but here is the polygraph tracing that came off the machine this morning. You see the polygraph is hooked up to the plant. The tracing shows the same binary pattern as the printout I gave you. I merely transcribed it from the tracing. You can examine that and see it for yourself. The message is here. That’s how I received it. I suppose I could have faked it, although I can’t think how, but why would I do that? Why would I bother? If this were just a joke would I need to go to such lengths?”

He said nothing, but I knew what he was thinking. Because you’re stone crazy, Doc.

“And, Bart, I swear to God I never heard of any Asky language in my life.”

“ASCII is not a language, Doc. It’s just a standard encoding for ordinary letters and numbers and punctuation marks. Each character has been assigned an 8-bit code, 8 of those zeros and ones. This message was written in English using ASCII symbols.”

“You sound like you’re beginning to believe me.”

“Not really, I mean, it’s just impossible what you’re telling me, but I’m beginning to think you believe it yourself. I mean, this isn’t a joke, is it?”

“It’s not a joke, but it isn’t hard science yet. We need to learn more about it. Are you willing to help me?”

“I’m not ready to swallow fungus juice.”

“But will you keep this secret for now?”

“Yes, that much I can do. Let me see that polygraph recording.”

With that statement I relaxed. I believed that I had engaged his scientific interest. I pressed the advantage. “Bart, I’m going to extract the root from the cactus and set up the fungus culture. Something interesting is going to happen and I want you to witness the procedure, so that when it does, you will be able to give impartial testimony as to its origin. I will set up two identical cultures and I want you to take one of them with you and monitor it for the next four days. Bring it back with you then and we’ll be ready to go on from there.”

He agreed and I knew then that I could trust him to be true to the scientific spirit of the endeavor. His incredulity had softened to mere scientific skepticism and his young mind was now curious about how it would all turn out.


Proceed to Chapter 2, part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill

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