Saturday, July 21, 2012

The maintenance of self -- a Saturday reprise

Ah, yes, the pitcher plant. Those devouring goblets. Those caldrons of digestive juices. And now naturalists have found the biggest one yet, as big as a chalice, on a mountaintop in the Philippines, its punch bowl filled with beetles, flies and wasps.

Come hither, ye who flitter. Admire my colors. Sip my nectar. Yes, yes, just like that, touch my milky pool. I'll be your Tar Baby. Your flypaper paramour. That's it. Sniff my irresistible scent. My buffet waits. Sip. Lap. Gorge yourself.

Gotcha!

Countless plants use insects to consummate the business of sex, and some, that generally live in nutrient-deficient soils, have turned to carnivory. Alastair Robinson, who was part of the team that discovered the gargantuan pitcher, says the plant is "akin to an open stomach." Which is miracle enough. But what I want to know is: Why don't its dissolving juices dissolve the plant itself?

Oh, wait. My closed stomach does the same thing, digesting plants and animals but not itself. How can that be? Well, as we all learned in school, it does. The gastric juices eat away at the stomach's mucus lining, which has to be constantly replaced. Somewhere I read that the stomach lining sacrifices half-a-million cells a minute, completely replacing itself every three days. Digestion of food is a work in progress, a delicate balance between the dissolver and the dissolved. The stomach lining works like like an ablative heat shield on a space craft, except it is perpetually regenerating.

Pitcher plants, apparently, use a variety of mechanisms to turn their prey into useful nutrients -- enzymes, bacteria, mutualistic insect larvae -- but they too must have some way of maintaining the integrity of self. Maintaining the integrity of self! That's what it's all about, isn't it. We need to eat. Other organisms want to eat us. Ablating stomach walls. Immune systems. Repair mechanisms. Our bodies are winds of molecules, torrents of cells. Blowing in and blowing out. And somehow a self remains.

The biological integrity of self, upon which depends utterly the intellectual integrity of self. Astonishingly resourceful -- for the pitcher plant and for ourselves. But not unlimited. We are all doomed to die. Let's give the last word to one of William Blake's Songs of Innocence:
Little fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.


(This post originally appeared in April 2009)>