From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 15, 2005

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower #4

... is a continuation of my overview of the history of plants and their important influence on man.

All living things require food.

Food. All living things require food. Animal and vegetable. True plants obtain what they need from the earth, the air, and sunlight. Plants nourish themselves. The organic substances that plants produce also nourish all of the animal world. Food for all, courtesy of plants. And, not just food. Shelter, clothing, heat - whatever is needed for the sustainability of other living things.

In the year 2000 the world population topped out at 6 billion people. By 2025 forecasters predict 8 billion, an increase of one third. We witness starvation in many corners of the world. Imagine in twenty-five years. One third more people and half the arable land available to feed them. What is at the top of the wish list? No matter what the area of specialty - plant genetics, crop management, soil conservation, ecology - one would hope the common goal is to end malnutrition and world hunger.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. My goal is to present an historical perspective, albeit rather compressed. From the time homo sapiens first appeared on earth, to the time he experienced his first success at growing a plant, some few hundred thousand years had to pass. With a brain twice the size of his hominid competitors, and having observed countless seasons over countless years coming and going, it is highly likely that some foragers for food made attempts at imitating nature.

Imagine collecting wild grains and fruit while others are hunting. Isn't it logical that after careful observation, one might be led to plant some of the very materials harvested? And, after a time and some success, to conclude that weeding out unwanted plants might reduce competition and even save time and energy? With some successes in front of him, it could not have taken too long to realize he could plant his crops near a chosen site instead of scattered all over the countryside.

The advantage of that large brain must have manifested in choosing plants easier to germinate, harvest, and keep as well. Not having to forage far and wide must have allowed for more time to establish an area, build a shelter and invent tools. We know with certainty that grasses were the first plants cultivated - starting with emmer and einkorn. Experimental interbreeding (hybridization) paved the way for the much improved cereal grains of wheat, oats, rye and millet.

One of the earliest tools, the sickle, ca. 8000 B.C., greatly multiplied the quantity of crops that could be harvested in a given time. Surpluses followed, as did community, experimentation and more invention.

What followed, too, was the rapid exhaustion of topsoil. Instead of just poking holes in the earth or scratching it, this problem was solved by the invention of the mold board plow somewhere around 6000 B.C. The first ones used sharpened flint stones and obsidian. Iron followed. The yoke gave way to the harness (via Asia) that allowed more efficient horses to replace oxen.

Agriculture was soon off and running and the products of the soil were shaping local populations and civilizations. The plants that fed the region's people became the specialty. North Africa became synonymous with wheat. Greece with olives. The Orient with spices. For nearly three thousand years the tropical Arabian peninsula had a monopoly on cinnamon. As might be expected of human nature, the specialization that took place around the globe gave way to jealousy, competition, migrations and even wars. As populations expanded and dietary tastes became more varied, the quests for new plants and plant products inspired voyages of exploration and discovery. In spite of advances in technology, man remains ever dependent on plants.

Bread, the "staff of life" from the stone ages to the present, is the near miraculous product of leavening brought about by the presence of yeasts (microscopic, single celled non-flowering plants) in the air we breathe. Rice was cultivated in what is now Thailand, ca 3500-4000 B.C. Potato was grown in the Andes 2000 years ago. Maize, 7000 years ago in the Mexican Valley of Tiehuacan. Watermelons were cultivated in Africa 2000 B.C., so were figs in Arabia, tea and bananas in India and apples in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan.

In the Middle Ages the size and number of villages was reflected by the kind and amount of food available locally. A brief look at the global appetite for oils reveals olive, coconut,cotton seed, corn, palm, soybean, wheat germ, rape seed, safflower, and so on and on. No less impressive is the dense variety of fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, herbs, sugar plants, timber. If we look to specific qualities such as supplying essential vitamins or minerals, or providing quality fibers for making rope, fabric or paper, or we seek dyes, rubber, gums and resins, wax, cork, fragrances - then we begin to grasp the immense complexity and glimpse the long way we have come. The food we consume today comes from all around the world. For at least 500 years, food has been the main item of trade of any advanced country.

The late Carl Sagan expressed the notion that we are "star stuff"; that is, that all life on our planet originated with material that came from the stars. I am convinced that from the beginnings of human life on this planet, an accurate record of a person's life could be expressed in terms of plants. People not only depend on plants, they are plants, the nature of which has been altered by substances which themselves derive from plants. We are "plant stuff" as much as we are "star stuff". Every molecule we consume to sustain our life is plant stuff or plant stuff transformed. Through toil and invention, and owing our dependence on the vegetable kingdom, we have changed the face of our planet.

Having come this long way, isn't it time we address the top item on our wish list and unite our energies to nourish our larger family around the world?

line     to be continued...   ( previous #3 of 7 )   ( next #5 of 7 )     line


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 15, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.