Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Trees Behaving Badly

To James White, botanist and teacher.

Though you might forgivably mistake a man for a tree at the level of gross morphology, nevertheless, a tree undeniably dwells in place whereas a person’s home is born in motion.  Agnes Arber, the Cambridge plant anatomist and philosopher, remarked in her 1950 classic The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form that “among plants, form may be held to include something corresponding to behaviour in the zoological field.”  If by behavior we refer to the sum of all the activities of an organism, then the manner in which a plant grows – marshalling its leaves to best secure light, disposing its roots to obtain nutrients and to harness it to the earth – is comparable to the more rambunctious activities that animals deploy for analogous purpose.  The behavior of plants – the punctuated rhythms of their growth – is founded on the quite simple laws of cell division and extension.  This was Arber’s lesson.  And this, at eighteen, was the first conceptual framework that preoccupied me.  If simplicity rules the world of plants, why not also true for animals, for people, for me? 

Thirty years ago I took several wintery trips out to North Bull Island, a five-mile stretch of sand in Dublin Bay which formed in response to 18th Century engineering projects at the mouth of the River Liffey.  Now a site of considerable conservation interest, I went along with fellow biology student Liam Dolan to observe the curious behavior of Armeria maritima roots.  The plant, commonly known as sea pink, grew profusely on the dunes.  The two Liams were at that time under the thrall of Jim White from the Botany Department at University College, Dublin and were both taking his course on the architecture of trees.  To those of us who studied with White in the 1980s, he seemed like a visitor from another planet, one who pointed out the strangeness of his new home to the gaping residents, most of whom had never noticed the oddness of the world surrounding them.  Jim’s lectures were marvels of erudition, scientific concision, and anecdote.  Many years later when I worked in a Costa Rica, a well-known tropical forest researcher told me that he had only written one “fan letter” in his life and this was to James White.  Anyway, we returned to White with our sketches and observations on the architectural patterns formed by sea pink roots.  He was little incredulous at first – surely we were out looking at birds?  In those days it was not uncommon for hale teens to spend their days traipsing out with binoculars to Bull Island to observe birds.  It was unimaginable, apparently, that the youth would be looking at plant roots.  Perhaps it’s best for a teacher not to sense the full measure of his impact, as it may constrain the random suggestions with which he peppers his lectures.

Read on a 3quarksdaily.com

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