Adventures of a Botanist

by Bob Brill

Table of Contents
Chapter 3, Chapter 4
appear in this issue.

Chapter 5: Escapodium


One morning I came into my office to find an email from Bart Comfrey, begging for help. It was barely intelligible, but I gathered that ever since Bart swallowed the fungus juice that put us in telepathic contact with the plant world, he had been following the progress of Project Exodus and determined to join our team in Kyvia. He asked our cactus friend Claws for permission to join the project and permission was denied.

Bart persisted in his requests, and from what I could understand of his garbled communication, the plants fended off his efforts by deluging him with a stream of plant thought traffic so confusing and overwhelming that he felt he was losing his mind. He begged me to intercede with the plant powers to turn off this incomprehensible babble and to reconsider his qualifications for joining Project Exodus.

I immediately contacted the plant bosses and gave Bart Comfrey a glowing recommendation. They told me that they judged Bart to be unstable and that ultimately this would lead to trouble. They would not change their decision and they also refused to let up on the mind bombardment. They claimed that this treatment was needed to neutralize him.

I then appealed to the heavyseeds, whom Sidney Purslane and I had come to call the Papaya Contingent. They promised me that one of their representatives in Bart’s part of the world would contact him and teach him the tabasco sauce and meditation technique to shut out the annoying chatter and bring him back to sanity. I emailed Bart and told him to expect this contact but to abandon his attempts to come aboard Project Exodus.

A few days later I got another email from Bart, thanking me for rescuing him from his agony and hinting that the Papaya Contingent had given him some work to do.

Over the next few months we made tremendous progress on Project Exodus. The plant leaders pushed us relentlessly, giving us new work to do every day. They were doing all the breakthrough intellectual work. We and our large staff of Kyvian botanists and biochemists were merely technicians doing the grunt work of actually building the DNA the plant leadership specified and incorporating it into the Lycopodium genome. And, of course, we spent long hours testing at every step of the way.

Sidney Purslane was stressed to the max, choreographing all this frenetic activity, and I, who had been made his second in command, was constantly called on to supervise the overflow load. The papaya, which had grown to four feet in height and had to be repotted, was importuning us to try some new approaches its colleagues had worked out to solve the KR22 problem, but we had no time for any side projects, as keenly motivated as we were to eliminate the KR22 threat to the world.

On nights when I was too wired to sleep I sat before my computer screen researching the literature on Lycopodium. I learned that Lycopodium and its near relatives were the dominant plants of the Carboniferous period, long before the evolution of flowering plants, and that they grew to be giant trees. The corpses of these ancient trees comprise the greater part of the coal deposits of our present era. There was more information about Lycopodium on the Internet than my weary brain could absorb. The Google search engine reported an amazing 97,900 hits.4

One fact that I discovered turned out to be extremely relevant to our project. The gametophyte generation can only germinate in the presence of a fungus. Our germination trials were working quite well, because the fungus is ubiquitous in our soil, but would our new spiffed-up Lycopodium complete its life cycle on another planet in the absence of this fungal partner?

When we placed the gametophyte prothallia in sterilized soil, they did not germinate. This set Project Exodus back about a month while the plant masterminds worked out a way of including the fungal genome in the Super-Lycopodium package. This new organism could no longer be thought of as Lycopodium and fairly early in the game Sidney Purslane dubbed it the escape pod or Escapodium.

There came a day when Escapodium actually did escape. Its tiny spores exited the lab through the ventilating system and were carried by the wind across the countryside. We began noticing that moss-like plants were springing up in waste places on the lab grounds, wherever the soil had been disturbed by the gardeners.

It soon became apparent that Escapodium was flourishing in the nearby desert. We began getting reports that it was turning up in far distant locales. The spores had been lofted into the stratosphere and were riding the world-circling air currents, coming down in rainfall over huge territories. It was a powerful vindication of its built-in design strategy that it could flourish in many diverse habitats.

We theorized that spores were being produced in the wild in vast numbers and some of these in their trips into the stratosphere must have left the Earth behind. Project Exodus was launched. Our plant leadership was encouraged by this unintentional development but knew that the launch was premature. This was not the final version of Escapodium which had gone out into the cosmos. So the work went on.

Moreover, they had early on made the decision to develop additional genetic lines to back up the initial choice of Lycopodium. The strategy was to launch first a highly evolved multi-cellular organism capable of photosynthesis, which would take eons off their evolution on other worlds. But such a strategy was also risky. Any highly evolved organism, like Lycopodium, would have been exquisitely sculpted by evolution to fit the rather specialized niches on Earth where they could flourish. Conditions on other worlds might be so different that such specialization would be a handicap, in spite of Escapodium’s great versatility.

One or more primitive organisms were needed as backups. A one-celled organism that could metabolize inorganic molecules in the absence of oxygen or light, like the sulphur-reducing bacteria, for example, might have a better chance of taking hold. Of course, such an organism would have to go through ages of evolution to develop into multi-cellular plants or other higher forms, whatever those might turn out to be in the novel environments of the cosmos.

It occurred to me that the choice of Lycopodium exhibited a bias on the part of the plant masters to spread their own kind, but the backup plan showed that in a pinch they were willing to seed the universe with any kind of life at all, even if its subsequent evolution bypassed plant forms altogether.

An urgent meeting with the plant bosses revealed that some doubts had arisen over whether Escapodium spores, upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere, could survive the high energy solar radiation that prevails above the ozone layer. Some argued that additional genetic programming be included so that the developing spores would exude and surround themselves with a cyst that would shield them from hard radiation. It was thought that this would also increase their chances of surviving for long periods in the cold dry reaches of interstellar space.

This argument was countered by the concern that such shielding would make the spores too heavy to leave the atmosphere. No one in the plant community, and certainly no one among the human staff, knew if the cyst programming could actually be made to work, nor whether the increased weight would prevent dispersion of the spores, nor whether such shielding was even necessary.

The general consensus was that the best way to launch the spores was by means of a rocket flight. The shielding would be on the rocket, instead of on the spores, and once the rocket left the sun behind, an automatic release mechanism could launch the spores into space. This left only the rather serious question of how to organize and, in particular, how to finance such a project.

The plant kingdom was endowed with an amazing genius for genetic manipulation and evolutionary tinkering, but I began to think that they were not so good at planning long range projects. This objection over the radiation hazard should have been raised and planned for much sooner. But then, the humans working on the project had not foreseen this problem either.

I had mixed feelings about this latest news. The extra work involved in addressing the issue of radiation hazard would seem to assure my continued employment. I had been banking most of my considerable salary, as there was not much in our remote Kyvian desert community to spend it on. By the time this project was over, I would have quite a handsome nestegg.

However, I was sick of the perpetual state of urgency that fueled the pace of the work. We were being pushed by the plants to the limit, and since I had no hope of emigrating from the planet myself, I felt no need to rush. Besides, I couldn’t see why the plants were in such a big hurry. It may be true that the Earth was doomed, but probably not this week.

I was tired also of life in the Kyvian desert. I longed for the civilized society I had left behind, and ever since my KR22 experience with Belinda Peartree, I had grown to miss her.

I talked this over with Sidney Purslane. He had his Marguerite and he was still excited by the advanced nature of the work we were doing. True, what we had learned from the plants put us far in front of the state of the art as it existed elsewhere on Earth. This would hold us in good stead later in our careers, if indeed, the global ecosystem didn’t collapse before career advancement became an option.

Still, right now I needed a break. I wouldn’t have minded a nice simple plant-collecting expedition, where I could take it easy and camp out and have fun and hike around looking at nifty plants. I was still contemplating my options when the issue was decided for me, for all of us.


Note

4. Lycopodium powder has been used for coating pills, as a dusting powder for infants’ sores, and to treat cases of irritation and spasm of the bladder. Lycopodium has also found use as a dye, an emetic and a cathartic. I discovered a long list of homeopathic uses for Lycopodium, so long a list as to make me suspicious of the plant’s effectiveness in all these cases.

A brief sample of the complaints for which it is supposed to provide relief are vertigo, impatience, apathy, hilarity, greed, despair, crying, laughing, screaming during sleep, rudeness, confusion, insanity, insecurity, fear, sleep-walking, delirium, presentiment of death, desire to kill, desire to die, aversion to children, kleptomania, nymphomania, irritability, anger, grief, anxiety, boredom, loathing of life, sadness, suspicion, headaches, hair falling out, and growling like a dog.

Curiously, if you cover your hands with Lycopodium powder and dunk your hands in water, they emerge dry. Surely there must be some practical use for that property, but I can’t think what it might be. It is also known that Lycopodium powder is highly inflammable.


To be continued...

Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill

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