Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 1, part 1
appears in this issue.
Chapter 1: X Eats Y
part 2 of 2
My father was a professor of zoology, a brilliant lecturer, a masterful dissector. His students were spellbound as they saw him spill open the secret throbbing innards of beasts, all the while interpreting these revelations in long perfect sentences, most of which contained one or more dependent clauses. I hated him.
He introduced me to the anatomy of the frog when I was eight. I begged him not to. He told me it was time for me to look nature in the face. He locked me in his study and made me sit at his work table. He took a frog from its cage and standing across the table from me he ordered me to watch as he killed it with a swift plunge of his knife. I screamed.
He lectured me on the concept of sacrifice. Scientists like my father attempt to justify their torture and slaughter of animals by using the word sacrifice instead of murder. The sacrifice, of course, is to Science, our holy quest for Knowledge, and the ritual is performed with solemnity and awareness. For my father’s part I will say that he never joked about life and death. He never mocked the poor corpse as I know others have done.
He told me then that he sacrificed the frog that I might learn a few elementary truths about life and that I must watch closely so that the sacrifice should not be wasted. I felt a surge of hormones flooding me with guilt and anger and shame. I looked him in the eyes and said that I was ready.
He nodded slowly at me and made a long incision which laid open the frog from top to bottom. My soul swam in horror as I watched my father give his introductory lecture in anatomy. For an eternity he tortured the dead flesh of the poor unprotesting creature. Then he showed me the long pale ribbon of the sciatic nerve and repeated the famous experiment of Galvani. When he applied the current and the frog’s leg twitched, I went berserk. I rolled on the floor, screaming and moaning.
In the midst of this I had a diabolical inspiration to punish my father. I began twitching my legs in imitation of the frog. I flipped and twitched my whole body at once, croaking in short staccato grunts. I turned up my eyes to show only the whites, a trick I had learned from a friend. My father ordered me to stop. He pleaded, he shouted, he issued commands, promises and threats.
Finally, he astonished me by weeping and begging my forgiveness. Still I would not stop. Then he swore at me, accused me of faking, called me a coward and slammed the door and left me. Still I did not stop. He returned and carried me still performing to my room and locked me in. I continued by pounding on the door, screaming to be let out and I did not stop till I had exhausted myself. My father never again gave me lessons in science.
I got up and broke out a tray of ice. I walked around my living room sucking and chewing on an ice cube. I had heard that Cherry Hill Fats took water in the form of ice cubes during his fast. He weighed 642 pounds when he was arrested for numbers racketeering in Philadelphia. The prison doctors were afraid for his heart and put him on a fast. Ice cubes and vitamin pills. He claimed the ice cubes helped to satisfy his urge to chew. When he left prison he weighed about 500 pounds and went straight.1
During my fast I thought and read a lot about the nitty gritty requirements of existence. Green plants occupy a favored place in the scheme of life. They take their nourishment right from the air, the ground, and the water that falls from the sky. They get their energy from sunlight. That’s all they need.
All the rest of the creatures have to get their nourishment from other creatures, which means they have to eat. The formula X eats Y expresses to me the generality of the relation eats. Let X stand for any predator and Y for one of its prey. You could replace X and Y with a lot of taxonomic names and still make true sentences.
In every ecology textbook you’ll find a diagram of a food chain. Names or pictures of organisms are connected pairwise by arrows. The arrow means eats. Eagle eats snake, snake eats grasshopper, grasshopper eats grass, and so on ad nauseam. The ineluctable necessity to eat is what makes history, in all nature as in human nature. Damn. I’m doing it again, spouting one of my lectures.2
On the third day my doorbell rang. I had phoned the Botany office on the first day and reported in sick. Someone was teaching my classes and I was left alone with my existential crisis till this moment. I opened the door a crack and peered out to see my student, Belinda Peartree.
“I brought you a salad,” she said, holding up same in a large transparent mixing bowl.
My mouth started watering. My stomach said, “Gimme!” Aloud I said, “Oh god no, what are you trying to do to me?”
“I heard you were sick.”
I stood blocking the doorway in the hope that she would take the hint and go away. She had the nerve to say, “May I come in?”
“Well, just for a minute,” I said with no enthusiasm.
I was forced into this woman’s presence three times a week. She sat front row center in my Plant Ecology course, where I could not get her out of my face. In the microcosm which is Rutabaga University I had two loyal supporters who took my courses because it was I who taught them, who discussed my ideas and took them seriously, and what’s more, agreed with them, who wanted to grow up to be like me.
I couldn’t stand either one of them.
Weighing them as objectively as I can, Belinda Peartree was perhaps a shade more intolerable than Betty Solanum. The latter was shy and would never have presumed upon my time or space. This made me feel entirely safe in her company. But the other one was always pushing her breasts at me, crossing and uncrossing her legs in the front row, raising her hand on every pretext. She had the self-confidence born of years of wolf whistles and hot grabbing adolescent hands. So there she was, advanced now on my reluctant invitation as far as the living room.
“I’m not feeling well, Ms. Peartree.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes, please take that salad away. It’s making me sick.”
“Oh dear.” This oh dear seemed to be saying a whole lot. I could see that she had visions of nursing me back to health with salads and sympathy. Possibly she had a confidante, probably Betty Solanum, with whom all this was thrashed out in advance. And now it had all gone wrong. The salad had seemed an inspiration (“He’s a vegetarian, you know, so ethereal, so intellectual.”), but instead of the grateful convalescent she was confronted with gruff old me in a three-day beard, pajamas and bathrobe, grumpy and unreceptive.
“Oh dear,” again, “perhaps I shouldn’t have disturbed you. You don’t look well at all.”
“I’m afraid you’ll catch my virus.” I hated myself for such mealy mouthed bullshit. I wanted to say, “Get your fat ass out of here or you flunk!”
“I’ve been very worried about you.”
“Actually, Ms. Peartree, I don’t need any help. I get over these things much better if I’m left to myself. And please, that salad.”
“I’m sure you’re going to want this when you feel a little stronger. I’ll leave it in your fridge.” She looked around, spied the kitchen and now she was another room deeper into my territory, shoving salad in my fridge.
But a crafty idea came to my aid. “I have something to show you,” I said as I ushered her to the back door and out into the garden. “These roses have just come into bloom. First of the season.”
“Oh, how beautiful they are.”
“And look, Johnny Jumpups.”
“Aren’t they cute?”
“For you.” I gathered a bouquet of pansies and pressed them on her. “So nice of you to look in on me.” I walked her to the garden gate. “Goodbye now. I’m feeling a little weak. Excuse me, I’m going to go back in and lie down now.” I scooted for the back door, a final wave, a smile (of victory) and home safe, door locked.
I returned to my book on carnivorous plants and read awhile before I realized what I’d done. I’d gone and ripped the heads off a dozen Johnny Jumpups without a thought, just to get rid of that woman. Just as though I didn’t know what the plants were feeling.
I jumped up and ran to the back door. Too late of course to do anything about the pain of the flowers, but in plenty of time to see Belinda Peartree strolling around my garden, clutching those agonizing pansies to her pink-sweatered bosom.
Perhaps some of my readers are wondering whether this is going to be a love story. It is almost impossible to read a story or see a movie without having to watch somebody fall in or out of love or do something noble, daring or stupid for the sake of love. Even stories that are principally concerned with other topics, such as spies, murder, witchcraft, yacht racing, drugged musicians, nuclear war, rebellious computers, prison riots, amateur athletes, and so forth, rarely omit the obligatory embroidery of a love interest. At this moment of crisis in my life I was not interested in the subject of love.
What interested me, or rather obsessed me, is more fundamental even than love. Humans and other creatures too have survived a lifetime without love, but only a few weeks without food. The specter of hunger is never far off. This is at the root of all politics, all history, of life itself. “Feed me,” is the first cry of the newborn. However, having said that, I must confess that this is, in fact, a love story.
As my fast wore on, my mind became more concentrated, more purified, clarified and focused, wrapping itself like a fist around the essential nugget of existence, the excruciating, inescapable fact of hunger. In this rarified state I suddenly recognized what I must always have understood, that I have followed in the footsteps of my father. I had thought my rebellion complete, my repudiation of him total, but in fact, he has shaped me entirely, even to my vegetarianism, which grew not out of myself, but only in response to him.
Now I too was a lecturer in the natural sciences, I too expound on the wonders of nature as I cut open the belly of a flower and expose the undeveloped ovules, sacrificed to the gods of learning. I lacked his brilliance, his arrogance, his cruelty, his success. If only I had become a violinist or an accountant or a salesman, I could have escaped this dilemma, could have blithely gone on living a normal life, oblivious of the beauties and horrors of the natural world. But I was my father’s son with a twist and the plant kingdom was no longer a refuge for me from the stern realities he so courageously represented.
On the fifth day I woke up, my throat glued shut. I tried to move. Vertigo in waves. Sweating, I lay still, looked up. The ceiling was pulsing. It seemed to be made up of scintillating points of light which were somehow trying to tell me something about existence, its intensity, its moment to moment comprehensiveness, its adequacy to be itself, no equations needed, no concepts, no theories, just this, the walls waiting, pulsing with light, sufficient, the sunlight entering, filling and shaping the room, the basket of fuchsias calmly receiving the light, casting shadow as it must. All this was speaking to me. This is the way it is and it’s all right.
The fuchsia doesn’t mind. If the suns falls on it, it makes sugar. All night long it hangs in the dark and makes no sugar. That’s just the way it is. If something is changed, then it becomes different. And if it is not changed, then it stays the same. It does what it must and it’s all right. A long life, a short life, the long body of Buddha, the short body of Buddha. The plants don’t care. They live till they die and not a moment longer or a moment sooner. It is what it is and it’s all right.
I struggled to my feet. A black wave. I sat down, put my head between my legs. I got up and crossed the room. I stood looking at the fuchsia. The fuchsia was in Nirvana, always had been. There is no time inside the gates of Eden. I was there too.
With my thumbnail and forefinger I pressed against the succulent green flesh and pinched off a flower. I ate it. Tears sprang into my eyes and streamed down my face as I wept for the joy of existence. After a few minutes I walked into the kitchen and took Belinda’s salad from the fridge.
1. Robert H. Adleman, Alias Big Cherry: The Confessions of a Master Criminal, The Dial Press, 1973.
2. The strategies for grabbing a meal are endless, their ingenuity is fascinating, diabolical, mind-blowing. Here are some examples I culled from the literature during my fast. The praying mantis is a rapacious cousin of the grasshopper, catching insects with its strong spiked forelegs. When a pair of mantises are finished mating, the female attacks the male with its irresistible pincers and eats her erstwhile sex partner. Horrible? Yes, but what could be more logical? The male is no longer needed by the species, but now the female needs an extra energy supply to power the manufacture of the embryos in her eggs. This scheme exists in nature because it works.
The great war for survival is waged constantly on the land, under the sea and in the air. Beautiful birds are forever gobbling up gorgeous butterflies. Some of these butterflies have developed a defense. They have evolved bad-tasting or even poisonous chemicals in their bodies that make them highly unpalatable to their potential avian predators, and just to make sure they don’t get eaten by mistake, they have developed brightly colored, conspicuous markings on their wings that scream out to birds, “You better leave me alone. I don’t taste good.” It should come as no surprise that other butterflies, which are in fact very tasty, have developed similar warning patterns. These mimics advertise the same you’ll-be-sorry-if-you-eat-me message, but they are flying under false colors.
Then there are some mimics who don’t try to look unappetizing. O no, just the opposite. They try to look like the predator’s favorite dish. Sound crazy? Listen to this tale. A certain fluke, and by fluke I mean a certain parasitic worm, Latin name of Zygia, makes its living off a certain kind of fish, Latin name of fish I seem to have misplaced. Never mind. The fish doesn’t mind not knowing its name and neither should you. The fluke wants to get its dinner from certain tasties that float around inside the fish. In order to get inside the fish the fluke has to be eaten by the fish. The fluke dances for the fish, twisting and bending its body continually in imitation of the midge larvae the fish likes to eat. In order to eat, this fluky creature must first be eaten. I imagine a good many flukes get ground to bits while running past the fish’s teeth, that is, they really get eaten, but that’s part of life’s hazards for a fluke. If it can reach the fish’s belly alive, it can feast.
Here’s a story even more bizarre. Another parasitic fluke, Leucochloridium macrostomum, spends part of its life in the body of a snail and part in the body of a bird. Imagine yourself in the place of the fluke down inside that snail. Your next meal is in a bird flying high overhead, a bird which can’t see you, can’t see the snail browsing on some leaves in the shade of still more leaves. Would you despair? Not you, you clever fluke. You would grow and branch through all the tissues of the snail, finally producing two sacs which extend out into the tentacles of your snail. These sacs expand and contract so that the tentacles pulsate at a rate between 40 and 70 times a minute. At the same time you make your unwilling host seek out more light. Flukologists don’t know how you do this, whether you use a chemical or a cattle prod or blackmail or hypnosis or whispered endearments, that’s still your secret, but you make your snail move out of the shade of the leaves, placing itself in full view of passing birds and just to be sure you catch some bird’s attention you’re pulsating in the snail’s tentacles like mad.
This bird doesn’t eat snails. It eats insects and you’re hoping that those enlarged tentacles you’re manipulating are going to look like tasty insect larvae to a passing bird who might swoop down and bite them off. “Hey look down, you dummy! Eat me! Eat me!” A curious lifestyle, my fluke, but sometimes it works. When it doesn’t, you go hungry. But if you can pass unharmed the thrashing grindstones of the bird’s crop, then you’re in Fat City, riding the dinner flight with every other creature that’s been lucky enough to get a good meal in this life.
These tales are just a few tiny nodes on the great food chain diagram in the ecology textbook that is the world. It’s going on all the time. The hunters and the hunted, forever resounding through the wood, from the dark mysterious intestines of flying beasts to grungy diners with neon signs that say EATS, be ye man or fluke, all the days of your life you are doomed to hunger and satiation.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill