This is a relatively technical book, one whose title, with its definite mechanistic spin, nearly stopped me from reading it. In this Hoffmann begins with a history of science and how we have looked at life as a remarkable process from the days of Aristotle to today and how that has shaped our inquiry and our capacity to understand it. Is life possible only because of some inexplicable, and yet unknown, ‘vital’ force? Are organisms endowed with this gift of life by a creator? or are there physical laws which shape and determine life? There has been a long ‘battle’ waged between the various ‘vitalists’ and mechanists, the later who once viewed an organism as a special machine, popularly comparable to a watch or clock, animated by a ‘vital’ force, who over time evolved their search into that of more recent times of seemingly fantastical molecular mechanisms, ‘engines’, within an organism which, because of their nano-scale can perform and behave in ways that appear incredible to the layperson. Continue reading
Musings on This Life After My Brother’s Death
My siblings and I were all born in Salinas, California. Our dad drove back and forth to the PG&E power plant at Moss Landing on the coast where he worked. He wanted out of California and anywhere north seemed better, so in 1961 we moved to Redmond, OR. My oldest brother was 12, my youngest sister 2 when our family arrived in Central Oregon. We all graduated from Redmond High School before moving on with our lives. My youngest sister, stayed, brother number two, also. The rest of us dispersed.
My brother Kirk had an artist’s sensibilities and talents. For reasons at the time confusing to most of us, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, the Viet Nam war ongoing though winding down. I always thought that this was an attempt to mold himself into something else. He never saw action. I think most of us at the time thought this was fortunate. When he got out he moved to Portland and got involved in his church. This relationship became central to much of his life. It wasn’t something we could discuss. We had been raised in the more ‘flexible’ world of the Presbyterian Church. This was very different. I would characterize his beliefs as ‘fundamentalist’ and evangelical, those who didn’t believe as they did, were doomed, including myself and the rest of the family. It mattered not that others might claim a belief in the same christian god and had taken Jesus into their hearts, as he explained it to me…others were not on the righteous path…apparently it was singular. Not only would those of other faiths, but those christians of other denominations had been ‘mislead’ as well and would ‘pay’ for their error in the after-life. Continue reading
Climate, Trends and Current Weather: A Nice Record Setting Fall Day
I puttered and pruned in the garden today until I produced enough waste to fill my yard debris wheelie bin, it didn’t take long. After lounging around and reading for awhile I walked the 2 and 3/4 miles to the pool at OHSU where I swam for 40 minutes, then spent another 1/2 hour doing yoga and some core exercises in my efforts to slow down my inevitable decline…then, I walked back home across the river. It was a bizarrely warm afternoon, and early evening, and I covered the distance in a tee shirt…and pants and shoes of course. Lots of walkers out crossing the Tilikum Bridge and walking along the river. People were taking advantage and enjoying the day. I wonder how many understand just how ‘weird’ this weather is? Continue reading
Hyper-Individualism, the Dismissal of Civil Society and its Pending End
Please excuse the following political rant…I can’t help myself. Read it or don’t. There will be more horticulture and science to come. Again, my sociology side spilth over!
We Americans, well, we white dudes, like to picture ourselves as rugged individuals, self-made made men, brave and lonely cowboys, rebels standing up against tyranny….Our fortunes rise and fall due to our own efforts, efforts that others work to thwart. We pride ourselves in our ability to work our own ‘bootstraps’. We are above all else individuals standing against a rising tide, of mediocrity, of those who stand against us. Our success is attributable to our own strength, genius and persistence. We are ‘heroes’ in search of a cause who succeed in spite of others. This is deeply ingrained in many of us. We are products of our culture and as Americans it is part of our identity. For many of us it is a totally foreign concept to credit anyone else with our success, though we readily blame any and all others for our failures. This makes it all the more remarkable that while we live in a complex society, enjoying all of its benefits, supports and technologies, that we can so readily deny the assistance that each and everyone of us receives, though society’s ‘largesse’ is distributed far from evenly or even ‘fairly’. The poor get less. The rich get more. It is written into our laws. It is evident in our interactions and the trajectory of each of our lives. While this characteristic of our culture and ourselves may have served many over the formation and growth of America across a ‘new’ land, over time its ‘faults’ became more obvious and the costs it has exacted less and less excusable. Continue reading
Musella lasiocarpa: An Adaptable, Smaller Banana for Warm to Mild Temperate Gardens
Musella lasiocarpa may be the most easily recognized of the 48 species within the small but economically important Banana family, Musaceae. It is distinguished from all others by its small size, its congested, quickly tapering pseudo-stem, which is nearly bulbous at its base, its leaf blades extending upward from its relatively long petioles, shaped much like the traditional blades of Aleut kayak paddles and its unique flowering structure. Like all bananas the pseudo-stem is made up of tightly clasping, channeled, petioles, and its inflorescence which resembles a golden lotus flower in bud, with tightly held yellow to orange bracts having very little separation from one to the next, shielding its later emerging flowers tightly held beneath. The shape of this plant and its texture lies somewhere between the more commonly grown ,and proven, hardy members of its Order Zingiberales, the Hedychium spp. and both Musa Basjoo and Musa sikkimensis, which often fill a role in providing many mild to cool temperate gardens with their ‘tropicalesque’ characteristics. If your garden resides in climatically colder areas than those experienced by topical plants in the wild, then any of these may succeed as permanent contributors to a tropical ‘feel’ in your garden. Of course you can also choose to grow true tropical and subtropical species if you are committed to the necessary protections they will require over your cold season. Continue reading
“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”: A Review
Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.
I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading
“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners and Other Ecological Anachronisms” – A Review and Thoughts on this Life
“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners and Other Ecological Anachronisms”, Connie Barlow, Basic Books, 2000.
The titular ghosts here are the long extinct mega-fauna species that once roamed the continents for millions of years shaping the plant species in question here and, in their interactions, shaped the landscapes themselves. Now absent their animal partners, these plants still retain the characteristic structures that evolved in their long dance together, the genetic inertia contained within their DNA. These plants remain today as anachronisms, seemingly misplaced curiosities with no existing, obvious, reason for ever being, mysteries of form and function, that only begin to make sense when we look far enough back.
I only recently came across this book while doing research into my continuing interest and focus on what exactly is ‘life’ and what is it that distinguishes living organisms from other matter. This book is a little outside of this topic, but not by much. Barlow here is concerned with the process of natural selection and how species have come to acquire and retain their physical and functional characteristics, how they’ve retained them long after the shaping forces have disappeared. While there is a somewhat random element in the process of evolution, organic forms follow patterns and particular patterns are ‘selected’ over time through the ‘working’ of shaping forces. Forms are supported or not, Once acquired they remain disappearing with a particular species when it is no longer supported enough and goes extinct. This ‘opens’ a niche for possible other species to fill. Each species is time limited. Each is a process or event that continues so long as it is adequately supported. It in turn fills roles in the lives of other organisms, other species. Natural selection is not some process relegated to the past, but an active, ongoing, one, though we tend to fail to see it around us. We have a tendency to expand the ‘now’ and attribute to it a precedence and persistence that it doesn’t have and so we also fail to see our own role in the continuing ‘work’ of evolution. We all know something of the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’, a process that suggests that today’s species are the ‘best’ fit given the conditions in the world today. Barlow, and the scientists who support this idea, argue instead that today’s species are the best fit for the past as a result of thousands, even millions of years of evolution. Today is just a moment in time. Our imagining of it as something broader and more stable is a problem. Continue reading
Sex, Evolution and Form: Clarifying the Relationship Between Dandelion and the European Honey Bee
The European Honeybee, EHB, and the Common Dandelion, are both ubiquitous in our modern urban lives though the one is portrayed as being both essential to our lives while its future is threatened and dependent upon our constant support. The Dandelion in contrast is a product of our disruption of the natural world and our very way of life and continues on as a pest species despite our efforts to ‘control’ it. They viability of the EHB is often linked to the continuation of a large population of Dandelion individuals. The EHB certainly benefits from the Common Dandelion finding ready individuals across our lawns and gardens, but the dandelion isn’t particularly dependent upon the EHB. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis, is apomictic and doesn’t require pollinators at all. Apomixis isn’t a fancy word for ‘selfing’ or wind pollination either…what it means is that it, in lieu of an available pollinator, possess the capacity to skip over meiosis, the entire part of sexual reproduction in which an organism’s typical double, pair of chromosomes, which exist normally in all cells, and are known as diploid, ‘di’ for two sets of chromosomes, are reduced by half, to one set in ‘sexual’ cells, known as gametes, the sperm and egg cells, their chromosomes now ‘haploid’. Then, after pollination, the two haploid chromosomes are reunited uniquely through the process of fertilization. This is is the process skipped over in an apomictic plant. While it possess all of the ‘accoutrements’ of all flowering plants, stamen with their filaments and anthers, pistils with their stigma, style and fused carpels or ovaries, Dandelions are able to ‘short-circuit’ the process and produce viable seed on their own from their undivided, diploid, cells. Ever noticed how Dandelion seed heads always tend to be filled out? Perfectly spherical? Continue reading
Physics, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of the of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms), part 2
On Pattern, Chemistry and Life
Pattern builds upon pattern. Whatever you start with effects and limits everything that follows whether we are talking about masonry bricks and stone or Eukaryotic cells and organic molecules. A different starting point or ‘decision’ at any point in the process, effects every ‘decision’, or even possibility, there after, effects the likelihood of what is to follow, shapes the possibilities, the future, through the evolutionary process…but does not determine it. To speculate whether other amino acid groups are theoretically possible does nothing to change the course we are on. The capacities and characteristics of your most basic components set the stage for all that follows, the brick analogy only takes you so far. Bricks, no matter what you do with them, are very limited in what they can create…how they will ‘behave’ when structured as a wall. They do not, when combined into a structure, acquire properties that no single brick had before their assembly…their futures were ‘decided’ the moment they were made into bricks. They remain bricks. Continue reading
On the Chaotic Unreality of the Real and How We Redefine It: Reimagining Reality in a Probable Universe
Because the pace of change in our scientific understanding of our world, and the technology which follows it, is increasing at greater rates in recent decades than at any other time in our history, it has become ever so more important that we have at least some basic understanding of that science and technology, that we as a society wield in this world…without this, we are literally blundering in the dark, blindly upsetting systems and cycles, upon which our lives depend, with little understanding of our responsibility for the decline or grasp of our own agency in setting the world back to rights. The advancement of science is an outgrowth of our curiosity as a society. It is a look behind the ‘curtain’ that too many of us take for granted. The technologies that spring from these scientific advances carry with them consequences which amplify our individual impacts while providing us with promised advantages through a marketplace that too often only wants to sell and profit from its latest innovation, with little concern for its overall impacts. As long as our basic world view, our grasp of science, remains stuck in the past, in the more ‘simple’ classical world of its roots, we are more easily swayed by advertisers and pitchmen who’s business demands that we not look too deeply. We are not, and can never be, ‘experts’ in every field. The demands and rigors of scientific advancement have a very high bar, but it is essential, especially in these days, that we understand basic concepts, that we have some grasp of how science has redefined the world making possible those technologies which we either wield clumsily, like a weapon of destruction, or more tactfully and respectfully like a surgeon and healer. As long as science remains esoteric and remote, ourselves ignorant of its ‘message’ and, by extension, ignorant of our own impact on the world, we place all things at risk. Continue reading