The last time I actually studied biology I was 13 years old and determined to drop the subject as soon as I could. I don’t know quite why, it was probably to do with the teachers we had. The biology teacher was very young and we were a pretty unruly class, given to asking silly questions that were certain to make him blush – he blushed easily. His nemesis was – let’s call her Jolene – who was reputed to be a great comfort to the sixth form boys and therefore an object of awe to the rest of us. Jolene collected detentions like most of us collect loyalty stamps, and one day she discovered how easy it was to escape confinement by lifting up her dress and showing our biology teacher her knickers. Word got around and the class descended into anarchy. Being a bit of a geek, I thought I’d be better off doing physics so I defected to the subject that had an inspirational teacher known by us all as Jinks, whose lessons were never less than exciting and often featured electric shocks and explosions, and that’s one of those odd bifurcations in the road that sent me off in another direction than the subject of the little diagram above while I still knew next to nothing about biology. Until this week.
So sixty years later I’ve developed an interest in herbal medicine, largely through growing things on the allotment. Like an annoying child, my mind always functions by asking an endless regression of ‘whys?’ and so I thought I should investigate some biochemistry – which is down there with brain surgery on my list of least understood subjects. So I bought a copy of ‘Medical Herbalism’ by David Hoffmann in the hope of some enlightenment. There is one sentence near the beginning of the book that gave me the energy to carry on because it said – in relation to the incomprehensible formulae and diagrams – don’t worry too much about them, they’re just a schematic way of expressing molecules that don’t look anything like them.
‘That’ll do for me’, I thought, I’m good at using myths and metaphors as ways of understanding real-life events that elude description any other way. So to cut to the really exciting insight it’s nothing more than a biological commonplace if you’ve been immersed in the field but to me, whose last experience of scientific biology was cutting up a potato while thinking about Jolene, it came as a revelation.
It’s all very simple really. We are – as smart arsed scientists in the media like to say – a carbon lifeform. I’d never really thought what an awe inspiring fact that is until I started to look at some of those beautiful metaphors like the one at the top of the page. They really are so simple it’s ridiculous. Every living thing, every plant cell, every green patch behind the sink, the birds, the bees and Jolene too while we’re on the subject, is made from a ridiculous lego kit comprising a very limited palette of atoms whose properties allow them to engage with one another in such complex forms it leaves you breathless. My head is flooding with ‘hows?’ and ‘whys?’ but the fact is that everything that has ever lived, or might come to life in the future is built from the same simple components.
Plants, it turns out, having the leisure of evolutionary time at their disposal, are perfectly adept at creating massively complex molecules, some of which are essential to our human lives but which we are unable to create ourselves. We are, to an extent, made out of plants. “You are what you eat” turns out to be true in a less grandstanding sense than it’s usually employed. Our familiar compound Serotonin whose diagram is at the top of the page, can be largely synthesised by plants with the sort of ingredients available in every plant’s larder.
A question arises from this. What happens to all those molecular spare parts when we, or any other life form, return to the ground? Do they maintain their integrity as useful spare parts? And so is normal soil – I’m talking about healthy soil that’s not been drenched in pesticides and herbicides – full of these spare parts, and is that something to do with soil health? Is my compost heap a breakers yard for complex molecules? I have no idea what the answer to that might be but I’d like to think it was true.
I’ve come out of the brainblast with very little more understanding of the detail but a much bigger idea of the unity of all life. I mean, our sympathy, our love, our study of nature is not predicated on some lofty and detached platform from which we can study the earth as a neutral observer. We are the earth, we’re made of exactly the same stuff which is just organised in a different, more complex way. When we abuse and mistreat the earth we are self-harming. Isn’t that awful? Self harming!
Anyway, enough for the time being. We’re going to be away for a week in a place that’s 25 miles from the nearest shop, with no radio, TV or internet and no phone signal, while our son minds the Potwell Inn bar and waters the plants.. Are we looking forward to it? Hell yes!
More pictures on today’s crops below. The pumpkin is for the grandchildren at Hallowe’en – if I can still carry it. The boring picture with the black plastic is a reminder that if you’re leaving ground empty, even for a while, it’s best to cover it. The black plastic is waterproof membrane bought from a builder’s supplier about eight years ago and it’s been in continuus use ever since.