Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lateral assault

My bedtime book these days is another "lessons of plants" book, great fun but entirely different from the last, the revelatory Braiding Sweetgrass. If Kimmerer shows us how to recognize plants as people with whom we make a world together, Mabey's about worlds of extraordinary plant personalities in which people hardly figure. Yet at a time when human hopes seems saggy it's satisfying to see him toss apples at Newton. The Second Law explained why apples fall down.

To an eighteenth-century botanist, an equally perplexing question was how an apple could, as it were, be raised perpendicularly from the ground, how biological growth could defy gravity. What was the vital force that made life able to challenge the Second Law's vision of an ever descending spiral of energy? The peculiarity of Newton's apple - it's now recognized as a scarce variety called Beauty of Kent - added a kind of lateral assault on the Law, contradicting the gravitas of Linnaean certainties and the idea of 'species fixity'. By the eighteenth century there were tens of thousands of apple varieties in existence, all the Old World varieties at least now known to have descended from a single species in Central Asia in a glorious pan-continental proliferation. The generation of biological forms (what we call biodiversity today) and the tendency of all living systems to become progressively more diverse and complex fly against the cosmic gloom of the Second Law.

Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life
and the Human Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016 [2015]), 168

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