Monday, July 12, 2010

Glory be

I know I've written about this before, but so what. Some things are worth a reprise.

Each summer when I arrive here in Ireland I stick a few morning glory seeds in pots on the window sill by my desk. And wait. And watch.

They start slow. Lifting their paired two-lobed leaves out of the soil. Unquestionably morning glories, and that in itself is cause for wonder, that the seed knows how to make a morning glory plant. GATACGATACC and all that.

But the best is yet to come.

Four inches. Eight inches. Now, the exploring tendril. Sweeping around. Looking for something to climb on. Touching the pole. Ah!

From here on, it's home free. Up the poles, every plant twining in the same counterclockwise sense, up, up.

Watching those tendrils searching, touching, grabbing -- it's almost as if the plant had a mind, a purpose. Knew what it was looking for.

No wonder Darwin was so taken with climbing plants. His biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore write: "Tables and sills were an entangled mass of twiners and tendrils; pots perched on every ledge as he timed sweeps and tested the effects of light. Warm summer days were spent in the hop fields watching the plants snake up their poles. He brought hops inside, and sat ill in bed tying weights to their tips in an attempt to slow their ascent. Around the house the vines took on a surreal appearance, covered in paint markers as he timed their twisting movements."

Sixteen miles to the north, London had been stirred into a tizzy by the publication of Origin of Species. If all living things were related by common descent from a primeval ancestor, what made humankind unique? If chance and struggle shaped the tree of life, what was the role of Divine Providence? Oblivious to the turmoil, Darwin tended his twiners.

The ineluctable agency of genes. A lovely word: ineluctable. That which cannot be escaped from. In the seed, the two-lobed leaves, the tendrils twining counterclockwise up, the blue trumpets blaring their sunrise tantaras. GATACGATACC. A window full of plants, and beyond the glass still more: bramble, fuchsia, rose, montbretia, willow. The morning, noon, and evening glory of burgeoning plant life written in a four-letter code.