Friday, June 01, 2012

Loose concupiscence

New England is smothered in pine pollen. Every outdoor surface is yellow. Automobiles are sticky with the stuff. Decks and patios are a mustardy mess. Son Dan lives in a pine grove; his house is nearly unlivable.

Something about the season has caused an explosion of pollen. A horrid, ubiquitous, jaundiced scum.

But wait! Look at one of those tiny pollen grains under a microscope. That little bundle of sperm in a package with air-filled Mickey Mouse ears. The pine trees are not just on an idle "paint-the-town-yellow" binge. The are doing what they were born to do. What most plants and animals were born to do.

Having sex.

It was the great 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who formalized the theory of sexual reproduction in plants. Apparently, it came as something of a shock to some of his contemporaries that plants "did it."

Early in the next century the aged poet/botanist Johann Goethe welcomed a new theory purporting to show that plant reproduction had nothing to do with sex. He wrote: "For the instruction of young persons and ladies this new pollination theory will be extremely welcome and suitable. In the past the teacher of botany has been placed in a most embarrassing position, and when innocent young souls took text book in hand to advance their studies in private, they were unable to conceal their outraged moral feelings. Eternal nuptials going on and on, with the monogamy basic to our morals, laws, and religion disintegrating into loose concupiscence -- these must remain forever intolerable to the pure-minded."

Well, it turned out that the new theory was wrong and Linnaeus was right. Plants do it. Our moral feelings may no longer be outraged, but we'd still like the pines to keep their voluptuous nuptials private. Or at least off the patio.

If you have access to a top-notch library, look for a book called Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, a magnificent coffee-table collaboration between a professional botanist at Kew Gardens, Madeline Harley, and an artist micro-photographer, Rob Kesseler. Such a wondrous variety of pollen grains, breathtakingly photographed in all of their jewel-like shapes and colors.

By contrast, pine pollen grains are rather pedestrian, unlike so many of their Faberge cousins. And, lord knows, this season their sexuality is anything but hidden.