A beehive is not for everyone; but, if you are putting plants or trees in your yard or garden, you might as well plant bee food. Bee hives are dying at an astounding rate. Workers disappear and leave the queen and baby bees stranded when the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” strikes. This disorder combined with ants, moths, parasites and pesticides resulted in one third of our bees dying from 2016 to 2017.
The beautiful Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) pictured above is a small bulb available everywhere; it doesn’t require a big hole like a daffodil–and bees love it. Of course the bulb, all bulbs really, have to go in the ground in the fall and while the work required is not onerous, it’s still work. Gardening is work. But bulbs link are fun to me since they pay off long after they are planted. Other bulbs bees love include:
The purple flowering onions did not come up for me last summer; but I have great hopes this year for Dahlias that I am told will amaze me throughout the July and August. These ‘summer’ bulbs follow the early bloomers– crocus, aconite and squill. The bees need as many early flowers as possible. As winter breaks, they need pollen for the new baby bees. link
Nurseries, grocery stores and hardware stores are packed right now with annuals for sale. No pre-planning, no winter wait necessary. The annual plants I like best for bees include
Shrubs don’t require much attention. Elderberry, Sumacs and Summersweet all grow like weeds. My Elderberry is all set to bloom in the next month and will be covered with beautiful white flowers for weeks.
Lavenders are always recommended. Huge lavender farms provide for bees that then create lavender honey. I cannot grow it, but I have neighbors who can. The ubiquitous Crape Myrtle is a great bee favorite. My white Crape Myrtle hums with hundreds of bees on hot summer days.
Many trees are loved by bees. My almond was swamped with bees during March. Fruit trees are of course not only loved by bees, but the bees are necessary for fruit to set properly. Redbuds do not do well for me but they are ablaze right now in the supermarket parking lot and on the side of the road; they are a valuable bee tree since they bloom so early. I love Maples, Willows and Alders for later in the year–as do bees.
When ‘bee’ trees and plants are provided, the bees dine on nectar. Nectar provides the proteins, carbohydrates lipids, vitamins, minerals bees need; the same list humans need actually. Nectar supports the worker bees’ active lifestyles–and that includes flying miles and miles from their hive to collect food.
The bees use nectar to make honey. A bee sips nectar and an enzyme in the bee’s stomach then converts the nectar into watery honey. This watery honey is fanned by bees with their wings until it thickens. The honey is then stored in honeycomb and sealed with wax that comes from wax glands on the bees’ abdomens.
Failures mean little to dedicated gardeners. I have planted jasmine a half dozen times in the last half dozen years. Star Jasmine. Carolina Jasmine. And any other jasmine I came across. All dead now except a Carolina Jasmine lighting up my fence right now for the first time as pictured above. It’s like a Las Vegas slot machine with room for only two pictures, the one in my head and the ‘reality’. If I just keep pulling the handle, I can get the two pictures to match. Sometimes.
Another vine that lives in my imagination but not in my garden is the native, Passion Vine. Its flowers are drop dead beautiful and appear to have come from 1970’s movie about an alien invasion. I ordered the vine from an acclaimed nursery that specializes in native plants, I purchased another from a highly rated local nursery and I have planted it from seed. All dead–even though native plants are supposed to grow well here. I put in my fourth try yesterday; from the Home Depot. What the heck.
Planting natives is a good idea, but even better is to avoid plants that are not hardy in one’s growing zone. I just cut down a Meyer Lemon tree. It was just too cold for it, but I thought I had a perfect sheltered spot on a brick wall facing south where it would be warmed by the winter sun. Exceptionalism. Not good. English garden writers are very enthusiastic about cheating the winter weather with warm southern walls. But the Arctic winds drop down south, through the plains, and hit my garden hard. Every year, without fail, I have several days of temperatures in the teens. I have protected the lemon tree from the bitter weather with old-fashioned hot Christmas lights, Planketts, plastic piping with a heavy plastic overlay, the same piping with plastic and a Plankett. Even with the protection, it was just so ugly after its winter trials; although, to its credit, it would put on six feet of beautiful citrus leaves each summer. But it was right outside my kitchen window so the three months of ratty, cold-damaged branches was just not worth the two lemons I got each year.
I also tried Olive trees. There are several large commercial Olive gardens near me. One owner said that every few years a ‘blue norther’ comes down and he loses a third of his trees. He considers that a cost of doing business. The costs to my garden are three out of four trees dead. One very large one died of root fungus, cold killed two others. The one Olive I have left is of French, not Italian origin and better suited to my climate. It is supposed to grow to about 20 feet, but it never gets bigger than its three feet. The weather dropped to 13 degrees two months ago and the little tree did not seem to mind the cold. It’s tough and really charming. It reminds me of the dwarf in Game of Thrones.
Failures aside, I am just not happy with the fashionable idea that I should plant only natives; I am a little skeptical about the labeling. Who decides? When I lived in the North daylilies, originally from Asia, were much loved. They are dependable and beautiful; bullet-proof. I thought they would love my southern garden. Shortly after I moved, I ordered three pricey premium plants from a southern nursery that specializes in daylilies. My chickens ate them; the buds, the leaves, the tubers and the roots on the tubers.
Nevertheless, when a neighbor offered a clump of daylilies after her spring cleanup, I drove right over to get them. I pulled the big clump apart and wound up with twenty or so starts of the Daylily, Stella D’Oro. I have put my new daylilies in the vegetable garden where the chickens are not permitted to go; I am hoping the plants will thrive and that my intelligent and resourceful birds will not find another feast. Hope.
Near the daylilies is a very special rose, Pioneer Spirit, purchased at least seven years ago from the ‘Antique Rose Emporium’, a nursery only a 100 miles or so from my house.
I am a great fan of Vita Sackville West, an English grande dame, whose garden writing has inspired my friends and I for decades. She grew rose bushes 10 feet tall and her favorites were the cabbage roses with their hundreds of petals. Bred at Texas A&M in the 1990’s, my Pioneer Spirit is supposed to be 10 feet tall and its flowers are said by the rose purveyor to mimic famous luxurious roses of the past. The rose is a modern version of the grand traditions of the great gardens of England. While I have lots of good clay soil, this poor rose wound up near an underground vein of caliche and began suffering from Chlorosis shortly after I planted it. Chlorosis is an iron deficiency caused by alkaline soil that locks up nutrients including iron. I have tried fix after fix and last fall I told the homely three -foot tall rose with its yellow and brown leaves that I would dig it up in the Spring.
In preparation for my new and trouble-free imaginary plant, I piled hay and manure from my new bull in a ring about 18 inches high around the rose, expecting lovely compost after a winter of freezing and thawing. Last week I ran across a new expensive soil drench that promised a cure for Chlorosis. I thought I’d give the rose one more year and walked out with my bucket of ‘cure’ to find the plant with lots of healthy new green leaves and only a few yellow ones. Wow. I applied the drench but now will never know whether the manure/hay mixture might have cured the plant without help.
Gardeners. Even when we succeed we drive ourselves crazy.
When we decide to make gardens, sometimes a kind of madness creeps in, a single-mindedness that results in, for example, the beautiful Hanging Gardens of Babylon built in Iraq by Nebuchadnezzar II in 600 BCE to please his homesick wife. Historians tell us that evidence of pleasure gardens in Mesopotamia dates back 6000 years or so; but I am skeptical that humans have not always had the desire to shape the beauty of nature for their enjoyment and consolation.
Gardens are temporal and even a garden considered to the one of the Seven Wonders of the World can be left unrecorded and only available to us through the imaginations of artists. The illustration above is my favorite depiction of the Hanging Garden; it looks like a happy place, just the thing to make a woman longing for home make peace with a new world.
Gardening in relatively nearby Turkey was also an ancient practice. Enjoying the then-rich soil and availability of water, market gardens flourished for 1500 years. Large parts of Istanbul were planted with fruits and vegetables for the urban populace. These gardens, called bostan, were vast and faded away in the middle of the 20th century as demands of population growth squeezed out the famous strawberries, lettuce and figs to make way for human habitation.
Ancient gardening in India still amazes the world. The famous Mondore Gardens of Rajasthan were created by the flower-loving migrants from Central Asia who settled in Northern India after they fell in love with the Palash trees, covered with red flowers, and other exotics. They became devoted to the brightly colored lotuses that grew wild because of the abundant water that flowed from the Himalayas. Southern India? A dozen famous names occur throughout our literature; for example, Shalimar, a household word–stunning with trees and water features. The grand garden alley here makes it clear that the single-mindedness, the madness to create perfection apparently extended through many generations in India.
The gardens of Japan are so different from ours in their construction, yet my garden contains a surprising number of Japanese cultivars. The Japanese gardeners practiced botany at its highest level. Ancient Japanese gardens were first described in 720 AD in the Nihon Shoki, the first book of Japanese history. In the spring of 74 AD, that book tells the story of the Emperor putting carp into a pond and rejoicing; the animation of fish are now always a part of a Japanese garden. Not long after, another Emperor expanded the idea to a lake where he could take his favorite concubine to feast and bask in the beauty of the combination of water and plants. I have never toured a Japanese garden that did not contain a water feature.
As esoteric and, perhaps out of reach, Japanese gardens are, ancient Roman gardens are easy and friendly. The typical middle class Roman home included a garden and one we Americans can relate to. They did not use lawns, a very recent form of gardening madness. Their gardens were located in a courtyard in the middle of the house, very green and fragrant with herbs the Romans used for cooking. Bringing nature in–using it. It’s in our DNA; it’s part of being human.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” -Cicero
The terrible decline of bees is a frequent topic here, but today I’ll set aside my usual complaints about the 40% losses of the bee population due to pollution, paving and the overuse of pesticides by humans. Bees are a part of the natural world; the world of nature which includes a give and take with other beings who need food. Bees, like the majority of Earth’s creatures suffer during the winter; and, food pressures during late winter and early spring are the most intense.
When food is scarce, skunks, woodpeckers, badgers, raccoons, mice and opossums will prey on bees.The bees themselves are nutritious, the spring brood is loaded with protein and the honey is a wonderful winter treat. When the ground is frozen, a woodpecker will drill a hole in the bee box to get at the bees and honey. Some predators like the badger or the fox will knock over the bee hive and feast. Skunks and raccoons will scratch on the hive and as bees emerge to defend the hive, they eat the bees. There are toads and frogs that sit on the hive entrance and eat bees as they leave the hive. Beekeepers will strap hives closed and some use electric fencing; my dogs protect my hives from these predators.
Other insects eat bees too. Wasps are very thorough and can wipe out a hive in a few days. They eat the honey, the brood and the bees. link Yellow jackets, mites, spiders all like a bee for dinner. Of course, the bees defend the nest. My africanized bees have defended themselves from the dreaded Varona mite, and from wasps so far.
When winter begins, bees will have stored up as much honey as possible to make it through the winter. When the cold hits, the workers envelope the queen in what is called cluster. The bees then “shiver” moving their wings rapidly. This warms the hive. The temperature range in the hive can be as low as the 40’s near the exterior to a high, typically of 80 degrees, at the center of the cluster. To expend all this energy the bees must have plenty of honey. If they run out of honey the hive dies.
Winter losses of bees average 10 to 15% and bad conditions can cause a beekeeper losses of closer to 100%. For example, in a year of drought, it’s hard for bees to store enough honey to last a winter. My beekeeper came last Sunday to check my hives and she said my bees had plenty of honey to last the rest of winter. She had inspected hives that were in trouble and that would need sugar supplements to make it through. I was thrilled of course and glad the MacMillan Sunflowers and the White Wood Asters had done so well last fall. Both plants are covered with bees for weeks.
Now I expect more days of bitter cold. March is not a month to take lightly. But I have peach trees in bloom and and an almond tree in bud. So in the warm days ahead my bees will be able to feed themselves and their brood–their babies.
I have always had great affection for the Terminator movies; I love a story about the interface and conflict between humans and machines. I sometimes wondered what the energy source was for the machine army, who mined the metal and other pedestrian concerns unrelated to a story of valor and romance.
I had the same thoughts when I learned that Eijiro Myiako was developing insect-sized drones capable of artificial pollination. Researchers Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology worry about the decline of bees and other pollinators and have looked to technology for a fix.
As shown above, Miyako’s team sent a little quad-copter to pick up pollen from a lily after which it deposited the pollen on the female part of another flower. The little drones were equipped with gel stuck onto horse hair. An electrical charge kept pollen grains attached during flight. Could this be a solution to the potential extinction of bees?
Not really. For example, there are one million acres of almond trees in California. Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota explains, “Every flower needs to be pollinated to set the nut. Two million colonies of bees are trucked in to pollinate the almonds, and each colony has between ten and twenty thousand foragers. How many robots would be needed?” In addition, the 20,000 species of bees are adapted to different plants; some better pollinators for tomatoes; others for alfalfa, and so on. The programming and control of millions of artificial bees attuned to the needs of plants are mind numbing. link
And could the little robo-drones communicate? Bees can. Among other communication skills, a scout will return to the hive and perform a little dance that illustrates to other bees the direction of a discovered food source and its distance from the hive. link In addition, bees are great chemists and communicate with each other using pheromones. The queen can produce pheromones to control reproduction encouraging or discouraging the male bees in the hive. Worker bees use pheromones to defend the hive: when a bee is forced to sting, the bee alerts all fellow workers who then meet any threat in great numbers.
Scientists have no idea whether bee communication is accomplished by electrical currents, air currents from buzzing or vibrations in the honeycomb. One research team “found that antenna deflections induced by an electrically charged honey bee wing are about 10 times the size of those that would be caused by airflow from the wing fluttering at the same distance—a sign that electrical fields could be an important signal.” link
It is entertaining to imagine that bees understand the current threats to their existence. The rusty-patched bumblebee and the Hawaiian yellow faced bee are on the verge of extinction; and last year 44% of honeybees in the United States died. What if bees kill time during winter months telling each other stories about the Rise of the Machines: imagining millions of little flying drones, all able to communicate –going from flower to flower across the world. They might even imagine the dystopia that might result.
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht..
This is an excerpt from a beautiful medieval poem asking for divine help to find peace in winter’s grip. link As do we all here in the South where winter loosens its hold reluctantly, teasingly. In fits and starts. The forecast for the next 10 days is of moderate temperatures after weeks of bitter weather. I look forward to 71 degrees this afternoon. This is fortunate because, in Central Texas, it’s time to put in part of the Spring garden.
I will start cleaning this week. Yesterday I said good-bye to the ‘Winter’ garden and cut the last small cauliflower and pulled the last little cabbage. I have neighbors who are harvesting beautiful carrots and asparagus. My carrots failed for some reason (I suspect the chickens) and my asparagus has been deterred by bitter cold snaps into the 20’s these past few weeks. Unpredictable old winter gardening.
This weekend, I’ll plant onions, spinach and lettuce. I’ll try carrots again and protect the seeds with fencing wire. I have to put my spring broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower seedlings in 6 inch pots for planting in the garden later this month. All of these winter plantings will be battered off and on for the next six weeks by freezes, cold rain and icy winds. And they should be fine — adjusting to the roller coaster of warm and cold weather in this climate far better than their human caretaker.
Of course, up North, everything is quiet. The cold protects gardeners from doing much work outdoors. The problem with year round gardening is that one doesn’t get much time off. The other problem is that there is nothing really gorgeous outdoors right now. Even on blistering summer days there will be zinnias and cannas and mistflowers in bloom; the banana trees and citrus trees will be in their glory.
Now I have only a few blooms on the honeysuckle and some pretty new leaves on the Satsuma orange trees that were beleaguered by 13 degree temperatures in January. I have to look for inspiration to do my work in my imagination.
I was ordering hay for my stock and complained that I had no pasture. The normally gentle hay lady snapped, “Nobody has any pasture now.” She is, apparently, in absolute agreement with the 12th century poet quoted above. Winter grinds. But when people ask me why I go to the trouble of putting in a garden, the answer is of course ‘hope’.
The so-called invention of agriculture is considered by many to be the beginning of civilization. Recent reports and articles about the threat of modern agriculture have accumulated in my files in the past few months. They weigh heavily. We are barely into the new year so I have been reluctant to write about the the future collision of the number of humans who need food and the number of acres of land on our planet that can produce food.The global population is expected to increase by 38%, from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 9.6 billion in 2050. Of course, many factors could intervene to prevent such an extraordinary increase; still how to feed even half such an increase is the stuff of bad dreams when combined with the decrease in arable land.
A UN study has found a worldwide decline of 20% in cropland, 16% in forest land, 19% in grassland and 27% in rangeland. In addition, the UN reports that over 1.3 billion people, suffer on land that is degrading under their feet and they are seeking refuge in cities, losing their cultural identities and depending on the production of their evening meal by ‘others’. link
After a frustrating winter of wind and punishing weather, I have more insight into this move from rural to urban. A pay packet at the end of the day might not seem so bad, even if earned in some horrible factory or mine–or any source of income to avoid the vagaries of growing food.
When families move off their farms, big agriculture moves in. In a perfect world, large, well-funded farmers would work to increase organic matter in the soil, conserve water, build terraces, plant cover crops and rotate plantings. It’s not a perfect world sadly.
George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that that we are “flogging the land to death” and that coupled with increase in population mass starvation in inevitable. He writes that, based on the above-cited UN projections, the world has perhaps 60 years of harvests left. link
Critics of agriculture write longingly of the more stable lives led by hunter-gatherers. One such critic welcomes a population decline. The aserbic and controversial John Zerzan, an anarchist and primitivist philosopher, is a hater not only of agriculture, but all technology. It is hard to disagree with Zerzan and other anti-agriculturists since where agriculture has been practiced, intensely lush and beautiful land has turned into rocky, dry terrain. link
J. Russell Smith writes compellingly of erosion. For example, in China, “The slope below the Great Wall was cut with gullies, some of which were fifty feet deep. As far as the eye could see were gullies, gullies, gullies — a gashed and gutted countryside… Hence, the whole valley, once good farm land, had become a desert of sand and gravel, alternately wet and dry, always fruitless. It was even more worthless than the hills. Its sole harvest now is dust, picked up by the bitter winds of winter that rip across its dry surface in this land of rainy summers and dry winters.” link
The Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, much of the American Southeast, my own Hill Country are just a few other examples of soil erosion and the devastation of plants and animals and whole civilizations that follow. Plato complained bitterly that the deforestation of Greece turned Attica into “a skeleton wasted by disease.”
My moral concerns are shared; mostly by writers dismissed as cranks and extremists by big agriculture. Animal rights activist James Serpell believes the more we attempt to increase the production of food, the more havoc we will wreak. If the beaks are cut off chickens so they can be crowded into tighter cages, and pigs have their teeth and tails removed to prevent fighting in their pens, so be it. It is some trouble to find humanely raised animals and it is expensive to raise or to find food grown where the land is nurtured and not drenched in chemicals. Civilization costs a lot.
Anti-agriculturists claim that a disconnect was created 10,000 years ago when huge farms were created to support cities. How do we reconnect. How do we care.
Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide in reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.” Dan Barber
Taste is being pursued now by chefswho have left their kitchens and sought fine foods where the food is grown. Dan Barber, in his wonderful book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, provides insight: “Truly great flavor— the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder— is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste breaks through the delicate things we can’t see or perceive.”
According to Barber, chefs cannot make delicious food if fruits, vegetables, grains and animals are grown on compromised soil, and the history of American soil is one of “degradation and death.” While Barber gives many examples of food that has been subjected to breeding programs that value chemical growing processes, ease of shipping and long shelf life over taste, the one that resonates with me is the story of bread. The puffy over-processed white stuff in our stores will last forever. It is making some people sick and others suffer blood sugar issues when they eat it.
Barber believes we have lost the real taste of grain which, in days past, had a shelf life of only a few days before it began to spoil. It was the staff of life for ten thousand years and now it’s junk. “Who’s responsible for killing wheat? It’s no mystery— what makes the story of American wheat so interesting, and so tragic, is just how obvious it all was…. Everyone and no one killed wheat. It was the perfect murder.” When I make bread at home it grows mold in just a few days; grocery store bread never gets moldy. Never. Mold doesn’t even like modern bread.
Barber is also enlightening on the subject of ‘the perfect carrot’, which he serves in his high end restaurant as a ‘steak’. The carrot dominates the plate. He can do this only because the carrot is delicious; it is a carrot with a long heritage grown in really good soil. “Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds. It comes from the synthesis… Phytonutrients— like amino acids, esters, and flavonoids— are key to the flavor of the mokum carrot,”
The soil must be alive to produce good food. It breathes, digests and a teaspoon of good soil contains a billion tiny creatures: bacteria, microbes, fungi, worms, grubs, bugs, and slugs. This soil produces a carrot, or tomato or other food that will have ‘persistence’. For example, good wine is ‘powerfully persistent’. It’s in your mouth and nose–alive. Barber even finds persistence in iceberg lettuce. Not the white tasteless variety, grown on dead soil, but the old varieties of the lettuce, “full of flavor, bitter and sweet” at the same time.
Famed chef, Alice Waters, claimed that she did not cook, she picked. She made me laugh when she described a dessert plate containing only a perfectly ripe, delicious peach. In the 1970’s, when she made her mark, breeders had developed low-acid, high-sugar peaches that could be picked hard and shipped cross country–many people forgot what a peach should taste like. Waters reminded us that eating local and seasonal was a easy and cheap and it provided an interface with the natural world. One has to pay attention.
The American love affair with junk food and convenience food has brought us disease and lethargy. The salt and sugar and unhealthy fats do have taste. But there is no persistence of good taste. It is tasteless.
Of course hybrid plants. This is the Plantswoman, not the Carwoman. Hybrids are not very fashionable in the upper reaches of the gardening world right now. Generally hybrid plants do not come true from their own seed. This creates a bonanza for seed sellers and garden centers since a gardener can’t just save seed from one year to the next–new seeds or plants have to be purchased every year.
The riot of tomatoes pictured above are not hybrids; some are heirlooms, meaning they have been around for generations and all are open-pollinated, meaning the seeds can be saved and replanted to produce the same tomato year after year. Taste is the most important criteria in these older varieties. It doesn’t matter that they are ‘homely’ looking, misshapen and have little shelf life. Sadly, I have had little success growing them or any other non-hybrid vegetable.
Although hybrids are produced by the most aggressive corporate plant and seed dealers, nature is also a great hybridizer of plants. Hybrids are simply a cross between two plant varieties, a cornerstone of the evolution of plants. Because of all this natural development, most ancient wild plants are no longer recognizable. Two plants growing near each other, the wind, a few pollinators and voila’, something new and different, but often with an added bonus of something called ‘hybrid vigor.’
Plant scientists at the John Innes Centre sought a reason why second generation crosses have more vigor than their parent plants. They rejected natural selection as a key factor in the vigor question. And they concluded that closely related plants have a type of genetic ‘noise’ caused by a high degree of variation in gene activity. That noise is cancelled in hybrids, and the reduced gene activity fortuitously leads to greater vigor. link
Natural selection has been so closely associated with evolution that we overlook other processes that drive life evolving from one form to another. A favorite scientist I cite regularly, Stephen Jay Gould, tells us that “many evolutionists argue that substantial amounts of genetic change may not be subject to natural selection and may spread through the populations at random.” Even Charles Darwin believed natural selection had received too much attention. link
So instead of some plodding path, when plants cross, a little miracle happens. Many home gardeners love the mystery and magic that occurs when breeding their own varieties–seeking a positive genetic outcome after patiently crossing plants year after year. I do not have that much patience, but I am not using old seed lying around the house or seed from local stores this year. I ordered from a respected seed house, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. And I have ordered only hybrid seeds for spring and summer 2018 for two reasons . First, I seek the disease resistance bred into most modern hybrids. An I need the vigor.
My seeds are germinating in seed flats (potting soil in aluminum cake pans). Much is made on the internet and in gardening books about germination. But seeds kept wet and warm will pop up and mine always thrive under my indoor grow lights. The problem is the transition to the garden. Transplants get pounded by rain, eaten by rabbits and squirrels and devoured by insects. Once broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cool weather plants get a foot tall, all is well, so a plant that can grow fast is a plant that can stay alive. In addition, all cool weather plants must race to their finish before the killing summer heat arrives.
My fall vegetable garden of 2017 was not a great success. The weather was extremely wet, the cold came early and bit hard, the insects were voracious. So many excuses. But my practical seed selections have not leaned toward what will be delicious, only what will survive. Next week: taste in the garden. Poor taste, left out too often.
Is it a mammal or a reptile or a bird? The remarkable platypus has a thick, beautiful coat of fur and looks at first glance like any respectable mammal. But the mother platypus digs a burrow on a river bank where she lays her eggs. After hatch, unique from all other animals, she nurses her babies with breast milk. In addition, this amazing animal has what appears to be a duckbill, but a very fancy one fitted out with exquisitely sensitive nerve endings called electroreceptors that detect prey. Its reptilian sideways feet scream alligator; the male platypus has a stinger with venom, like a snake, that can sentence a victim to months of pain unaffected by opiates.
The origins and evolution of the platypus remain a mystery and many scholars have declared that this genetic mess “should really be extinct.” Bitter debate raged among eminent scientists of the early 19th century who desperately wanted to ‘classify’ the little creature and now, 200 years later controversy continues. Modern teams of scientists have found that the platypus egg genome matches those previously found only in birds, amphibians and fish. The breast milk of the platypus has genes for the same family of milk proteins found in human milk. The platypus venom tracks reptilian-like genes.
A New York team of scientists found “microRNAs that are shared with chickens and not mammals as well as ones that are shared with mammals, but not chickens.” link And many scientists draw a false conclusion from this genetic soup. For example, Matt Phillips of Australian National University theorizes, “The new genomic data make a water-tight case for [platypus] egg-laying truly being a primitive retention from reptilian ancestors.” link
Why primitive? Why burden a marvelously adapted creature with this pejorative? It is true that the animal is ancient. The literature, including serious science writing, tells us the platypus was ‘discovered’ in Australia in 1797. I imagine Platypuses were perfectly aware of their existence long before European naturalists first spotted them swimming happily in a river just outside Sydney. The platypus was a contemporary of dinosaurs according to Timothy Rowe of the University of Texas, surviving “without any problem” the 85% extinction of life, including all the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous. link
One of my favorite scientists, Stephen Jay Gould, writes passionately about the mistake of confusing early or ancient with undeveloped. Gould is both deeply religious and a tireless advocate for evolution; and, in fact relies on Proverbs for his favorite metaphor for evolution: a multi-branched Tree of Life. See Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991. He disdains evolutionists who imagine a ladder where reptiles are on a rung below mammals and are considered more “primitive” than mammals.
The platypus is not some ill-formed creature whose characteristics failed to blossom into complete mammalness. It is instead a perfect animal, in the sense that the adaptions of fur and milk were well and good, but egg-laying and sideways feet built for swimming were good as well, worth hanging on to. Gould urges us to throw off the shackles of thinking one kind of attribute such as egg laying is primitive and inferior and another like feeding babies with breast milk is progressive and superior.
One shackle to lose this year: imagining life progressing ever upwards, the newer always being better. The platypus reminds us that there are old things that do not need be changed.