Sunday, July 27, 2008

All our friends are dicks

So we all know that a tomato is technically a fruit, though we use it as a vegetable. It was even, based on the latter reasoning, once legally classified as a vegetable for the purposes of tariffs (Nix v. Hedden - 1893), though even that decision conceded that they were in fact a fruit. It's been said that much of the confusion stems from whether you ask a chef or a scientist the question.

What I derive from this is that the way one classifies a tomato says more about the person or the reason for the classification than it does the plant itself. And I think you can go further, because really fruits and vegetables are just plants. We put them into special categories and sub-categories based on which part, if any, of a plant that people eat.

The way we relate to plants speaks to and of us.

All of which has been kicking around in my head for quite a while.

Recently I read Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, in which he talks about the co-evolution of plants and humans. The apple offers, I think, the best example. Each apple a tree produces contains five seeds, all of which would produce genetically different trees and would also be different from the parent tree. Of the thousands of varieties of apple trees that these seeds could produce, only a portion would be at all palatable to a human being. Enter grafting, which allowed a farmer to produce and maintain an orchard of identical trees bearing palatable fruit (prior to that, untamed and varied apples were mainly harvested to make booze). The apple as we understand it today, as it stands in our lives today, developed in co-evolution with people. Were it not first for our desire for hooch and secondly for consistent, palatable apples, it would be just another plant.

This idea hasn't been kicking around nearly as long as the first, but they bumped into each other this week.

I was walking back home through my neighborhood after the Greenwood Seafair Parade, and happened tp notice some Morning Glory. The stuff is everywhere, covering fences, choking yards - it really is Seattle's native invasive.

But it tripped a bunch of other switches that had been set when I recently read a book about the fisheries of the world called "Bottomfeeder," in which aquatic invasive species are mentioned often. The two that most stand out are, of course, zebra mussels, and jellyfish, whose populations have been bursting into giant colonies in the Atlantic, killing even large predator fish that make the mistake of wandering into their field.

Looking at the Morning Glory, it seemed to me obvious that as human beings began to travel, they would intentionly and unintentionally transplant species, be they zebra mussels in a ballast tank or English ivy planted by a foolish homeowner who thought it looked pretty (and if you have ever, as I have, spent a day ripping ivy out of a public park, you too would curse that foolish gardener).

But given that plants and human beings co-evolve, and that much can be read about human beings in their relationships to plants, what exactly does it say to us and about us that invasive species seem to flourish under our stewardship? That the species most likely to succeed in the world we create are the toughest and most self-centered species, those that have no interest in maintaining a balance with other organisms but instead take up more and more space and resources until everything else is choked out, and even until their are no resources left for their own survival?

Just wonderin'.