Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 2, part 1
appears in this issue.
Chapter 2: Claws
part 2 of 2
That afternoon I was called in by my department chairman and sternly warned to drop all unauthorized research centering on the Backster Effect. He adopted his fatherly tone, calculated to reassure me that he had my best interest at heart, that he understood my misguided enthusiasm, but needed to steer me back onto the track of serious useful work, namely measuring residual pesticide levels in Zea mays.
Of course, not knowing the relation between me and my father, he couldn’t realize that the fatherly approach could only result in my total resistance and resentment. I promised to shape up and promptly ignored his unwelcome interference.
Four days later Bart Comfrey and I met in my laboratory. Before us lay two petri dishes swarming with a pale brownish mold. “Now, Bart,” I said in a careful, formal tone, “we are ready for the next stage.” I spoke with the awareness that an important moment had arrived, the kind of moment that could open one’s life into a totally new domain and sharply separate it from all that had come before, either that, or it was the moment before a ludicrous and humiliating disappointment.
Either way, a kind of pompous self-consciousness gripped me. I was tempted to say something quotable by future generations in recognition of the singular importance of this threshold moment, or else, shrugging it off, say something trivial and get on with it.
What I said was, “Would you care to join me, Mr. Comfrey?”
Bart pursed his lips and looked at me. Apparently, he had given the matter quite a bit of thought. “I think not,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just observe.”
“Very well, then. If you would select one of the two dishes for me to ingest.”
Bart chose the dish that he had monitored during the four-day incubation period and pushed it in my direction. It had an unappetizing appearance and I felt uncertain how to approach it. Finally, I picked up a spoon and scooped up some of the mold and gingerly tested it with my tongue. It gave me no clue to its taste. I inserted the spoon in my mouth and the delicate mold melted instantly on my tongue, filling my mouth with a bitter metallic flavor. I almost spat it out, but I forced myself to swallow it.
Nothing happened. Bart urged me to take another bite. Reluctantly, I did so. And another. Finally, so that I could say that I had done all I could, I consumed the contents of the entire petri dish.
Within a few minutes, I felt a mild tingling inside my head and this soon revealed itself as a tiny voice whose words were at first inaudible, like the sound of a neighbor’s TV penetrating faintly through many thicknesses of wall. Gradually, the voice gained strength and I could hear definite words, but hearing is not quite the right word, for it was not sound at all. It was more like being aware of my own interior thoughts, except for the novel sensation that these thoughts were not mine, but most definitely emanating from someone else.
The first words I could clearly make out were an exhortation that I should prevent Bart Comfrey from imbibing the fungal concoction.
“Bart, you are instructed not to eat this stuff,” I reported.
“I don’t know. I am listening to an interior voice that is making it quite clear that this experience is for me alone and that you are required to abstain.”
Bart then surprised me by scooping up the other petri dish and shoveling its contents into his mouth. I watched his face screw up in disgust as he struggled to down the vile-tasting mold. After he got all that he could with the spoon, he circled the dish with his finger, then licked his finger clean. “A calculated gamble,” he said with a grin, as he wiped his mouth. “If there is anything to this, I want to be in on it, and if not, well, it probably won’t kill me. What I don’t want is to be told I can’t choose for myself.”
I smiled at the young man. His action had fostered in me a new respect for him. “If you were meant to participate,” I said, “then forbidding you was certainly the right strategy to get you involved.”
The voice resumed, presumably now in both our heads.
What is done is done. Young human, you have now become by your rash action one of the handful of your kind to be addressed by the ancient masters of the world. There will be a price to pay, but for now, you are permitted to attend these councils. We can now dispense with crude electronic means of communication. A permanent telepathic link has now been established.
“Do you mean...?” I began.
You do not have to say it, came the response. Just think it.
I looked at the cactus on the work table, thought about its being the source of this communication, thought this in a questioning way.
Yes, in a sense it is I, the cactus in the pot, speaking to you, but it is a mistake to think of us as individuals. Since we plants are all linked telepathically, there is no such thing as an individual for us. You are being addressed by an ancient world-wide intelligence. So listen well, humans, you have so much to learn before we can speak of our purposes with you.
So began our lessons.
Our human science of biology teaches that the most advanced product of evolution is our own beloved Homo sapiens, with his complex nerve network culminating in the brain, reputed to be the most highly organized lump of matter on Earth.
Sheer provincialism, my fellow creatures. There was a time when we believed that the universe and all that it contains were created for the benefit and use of man, with the Earth at the center and man, the noblest pinnacle of creation, appointed lord over all.
Our science grew objective enough to teach us finally that we are adrift on a speck of dust in a vast cosmos whose purpose we cannot fathom, whose far-flung outposts may support creatures superior to ourselves. Now I must ask you to abandon yet one more precious notion of our importance, for it became clear to me under the tutelage of the cactus, that we are not the highest product of evolution even on our own planet. The evolutionary process brought great advancements in organizational complexity long before the advent of multi-cellularity, ages before the advent of man.3
I have only hinted here at the total reinterpretation of biology that Bart Comfrey and I learned from Claws, the cactus, and what it taught us is but a fragment of the knowledge accumulated by the plant kingdom, who among other roles were the major historians of the Earth. Long before our human species appeared on the planet the plant kingdom was already ancient and highly developed, more so than we ever suspected. Early on they had gained control over their own evolutionary processes.
By analogy, our tutor pointed out that among humans certain spiritually advanced yogis are able to take conscious control of bodily processes that are ordinarily involuntary, such as blood pressure and internal temperature. In a similar act of conscious will plants learned how to influence their genetic makeup and steer the course of their evolution. This enabled them to adapt with exquisite precision to rapidly changing environmental conditions.
The situation today, our cactaceous guide explained, is critical. Your benighted species is changing the environment faster than we can adapt to it. You are wiping out the tropical rain forests and our vast archives there are in danger of destruction. The entire planet is headed for extinction. Our challenge now is to emigrate to fresh new worlds before this one is demolished. Time is running out and we are not ready for such a journey. At first, as we watched the rapid development of your space program, we thought that we could hitchhike to the stars on your space vehicles, but now we see that you will not yourselves escape the dying Earth in time. Your race will perish here where you were born.
Our task now is to evolve seeds which are so light that they will be carried into the upper atmosphere where some will escape the Earth’s gravitation and at the same time they must be able to survive for centuries in the dry cold reaches of empty space. Moreover, this seed must possess a very broad spectrum of genetic potential in order to maximize the range of diverse environments that might prove to be hospitable to its growth. And, finally, we must produce and release such seed in prodigious quantities to ensure that there is a statistically significant chance that some of this seed will reach favorable ground somewhere in the vast expanse of the cosmos.
You do have, I believe, some notion of how big the universe is, and therefore how small the chances of our succeeding in this desperate enterprise. And yet we see this as our only hope. We plants are perfectly capable of forcing the evolutionary changes in our gene pool required for this project, and even stepping up our rate of reproduction, but there isn’t enough time.
Ordinarily, we do not involve the human species in our affairs, so it is a measure of our desperation that we have decided to speed up the whole program by enlisting the aid of select members of the human biological research community. Dr. Salsify, your talents, your sensitivities to the plant kingdom and above all your broad-minded approach to scientific research have qualified you for the work I have just described. I am authorized to inform you that you have been honored to be chosen to join our staff of human biologists already at work on this project.
I found it exceedingly difficult to wrap my mind around the information I had just been given. I understood the words well enough. The plant kingdom had given up on Earth and was planning to establish colonies elsewhere. Okay, sure, I got it, but how to assimilate this concept, how to reconcile it with everything I’ve ever known or thought I knew about the world? My response was rather lame, in keeping with the level of stupidity I was feeling. “Uh, I’ll have to think it over.”
By all means, replied the cactus patronizingly. It’s a big decision for you. Perhaps it will help you to know that your salary will be more than double what you’re making here.
What about me? came a mental cry from Bart.
This offer is for Dr. Salsify, not for you.
I want to be part of this. In a few months I’ll have my degree. I can qualify for the work and I’m intensely interested in pursuing it.
No, was the answer from Claws. Not you.
That night I could not sleep. I was filled with an excitement I could not suppress, possessing as I did a secret knowledge affecting every soul on the planet, both animal and vegetable. Thinking how people would receive such news, should I be foolish enough to tell anyone, made me pause to doubt my sanity. Then I returned to realizing that all this was indeed happening. I had actually been offered a position in a botanical research facility run by plants.
When I arrived at my office in the morning I still had not made a decision, but that was soon to be forced upon me. There was a memo from my department chairman politely asking me to step into his office at my earliest convenience. The cordial tone of this invitation put me on my guard.
And indeed when I saw him later that morning and he addressed me in his most unctuous, sympathetic, fatherly tone, the tone he always used to discipline his subordinates, I knew what was coming. He fired me for having ignored his directive to discontinue my unauthorized investigations into the Backster Effect.
By the time he got around to it I was already suppressing a secret smile. I would be permitted to stay till the end of the term, and he made this sound like an act of uncommon generosity, but we both knew that it was motivated by the fact that he had no ready replacement for me. I knew, as he did not, and my heart was glad with the knowledge, that I had taught my last class at good old Rutabaga U.
My step was light and springy as I returned to my office. “Okay, Claws,” I said. “When do I begin?”
3. Most people think of protozoa, if they think of them at all, as relatively simple creatures. They are unicellular and therefore lack all possibility of forming tissues and organs, such as a liver, a heart or a brain, organs which in man are composed of millions of cells in close physical union and functional cooperation.
But protozoologists will tell you that the creatures they study are not simple, nor are they primitive. They carry out all the physiological functions necessary for life and, as I now know, they possess psychological, spiritual and aesthetic attributes which humanity falsely believes to belong solely to itself.
Until the time of Leeuwenhoek no one ever dreamed that we were surrounded and interpenetrated by billions upon billions of invisible microbes, more of which swam in a single puddle than all the hosts of men and women who ever lived upon the planet. Early descriptions of protozoa, seen through the first microscopes, reported a blob of amorphous jelly wrapped in a skin and containing a dark mysterious nuclear body.
Later the electron microscope revealed the so-called ultra-structure of the cell and we likened it to a city or a vast chemical factory. We began to understand how all the functions of reproduction, respiration, and so forth could take place in such minuscule space. But there is nothing minuscule about the space. It all depends on your perspective. The protozoan body is more like a cosmos than a city and its functions go far beyond the requirements of mere survival.
Consider the ciliate protozoa with their thousands of hairlike cilia all waving in a coordinated rhythm. The dominant fact of existence for these creatures is the ceaseless primal ciliate beat. This is the basic pulse both necessary for and in celebration of life. The creature takes care of business. Its pulsating cilia carry it about in the watery world in search of food. The mouth captures the food, the morsels are encapsulated in spherical membranes that circulate through the creature’s inside, distributing the sustaining manna. Yes, and it defecates too. The necessities are all provided.
But all the while the creature beats its cilia in a frenzy of adoration for the miracle of the universe. This beat, which forever fluctuates, but never ceases, is contrapuntally accompanied by the rhythm of the contractile vacuole as it builds up and discharges, varying according to changes in the osmotic gradient the creature is traveling through. Numerous organelles and skeletal inclusions form an orchestra of instruments activated by the cytoplasm streaming through their minute apertures. Song and dance is the life of the ciliate protozoa, worshipful celebration is its life.
The genetic apparatus of the ciliates is confusingly complex. Generally there is a macronucleus and a micronucleus, sometimes many, and often polyploid in nature. The genus Stentor, for example, possesses as many as 80 or 90 micronuclei. In Dileptus the macronucleus is present as many discrete granules dispersed throughout the cytoplasm and not surrounded by the usual nuclear membranes. In Paramecium calkensi we find 150 chromosomes, while the great beast man with his vaunted complexity and sophistication, has but 46.
Why such heavy duty genetic apparatus? To provide the vast genetic resources needed for the improvisation of divine music of an architectonic nature. All this was described to me by Claws, none of it heard. I cannot imagine how this music sounds or feels to its creator, the protozoan, but the explanation I heard put me in mind of our own beloved Johann Sebastian Bach, except that it would seem that ciliate music is more complex in structure, more rhythmically variable and more divinely inspired.
But wait! Something more wonderful is to come. Certain characteristics of this music are genetically controlled. These provide what might loosely be called the style or flavor of the performance and these are passed on to the vegetative offspring, so that certain clones of organisms will all play a certain way. After many generations of genetically identical organisms the clone begins to tire of its song and to lose its vigor and its appetite for existence.
And here’s the wonderful part. This condition is the signal for the onset of sexual activity. Each partner reduces its own repertoire by about half, keeping only the richest, most fertile elements, then keeping one copy of this remnant for itself, each creature passes another copy to its sexual partner. The result is a new music, both pruned and enriched.
And each participant leaves the encounter with the identical musical equipment. A new song is born, a new bond of identity, of twinship, is forged with a fellow creature and the chant of praise is resumed with vigor and inspiration. This rejuvenating exchange, repeated at necessary intervals, staves off senescence and death for many seasons. Such are the ciliates, supreme musical creators of our planet.
All the while, the diatoms, the radiolaria, the heliozoa, are praising creation in the medium of sculpture. These microscopic marine creatures build skeletons to protect their naked protoplasm from the hazards of the sea. In some the building material is of calcium, in others of silicon. Their manifold dazzling forms express the basic themes of geometry, openwork polyhedra of all kinds, tetrahedra, octahedra, networks of hexagons and pentagons, spheres, cubes, icosahedra, dodecahedra, all the Platonic solids and more, embroidered and embellished with intricate geometric lacework.
Natural selection fails entirely to explain the enormous diversity of forms that thrive in the relatively stable environment of the sea. These countless variations on the great themes of space, rhythm and number are, as was explained to me, brought about by genetic experimentation. The demands of energy and matter are met. The requirements of life and survival are met.
Beyond that these exquisite organisms are, like their ciliated cousins, passionately engaged in the celebration of existence. Their gorgeous shapes, precipitated out of the protean matter of the sea, form a glorious fusion of sculpture, mathematics and religious ecstasy.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill