Saturday, 21 April 2012

Love in the Time of Aphids

There's this gorgeous little story in the Origin of Species, in which my old pal Chas. D. describes his attempts to tickle an aphid with a hair in order to simulate the way ants stimulate aphids with their feelers. I can't remember whether or not he succeeds in coaxing the aphid to secrete honeydew (though my guess is that he doesn't), because my entire recollection of this story is bound up in the image of my all-time favourite bearded Victorian (sorry Engels) hunched over his desk tickling a wee little arthropod. (It's almost as beguiling an image as the one in which Charles and his son Francis sit up for 36 hours to record the movement of a climbing plant (can I have my pocket money yet, Dad?). Or the one of Charles slipping botanical condoms over a selection of local weeds to stop any illicit acts of cross-fertilisation from spoiling his study of vegetal inbreeding. Cutesy-wutesy Darwin, right?)

So, aphids. Ticklish ant-cows! What's not to love? Their rampaging vegetarianism, for one thing. These chaps eat whole lettuces for elevenses. If you yourself had an eye on a whole lettuce for elevenses, you might be a tad peeved.

I know this about you because I myself have been peeved. Herds of ravenous aphids marauding up and down the cucurbits, the tamarillo, the roses, the silvanberry, the lime, the Japanese quince have precipitated many a peeve. Peevishness 'r' us, in fact. But in my customary fashion (too busy and/or lazy) and according to my horticultural family crest (Natura Indolentibus Favet), I have abandoned the cucurbits, tamarillo, roses, etc, to their hideous fate and left these aphids to their 300 square metre salad bar.

And you know what? This has led to the most wonderful thing EVERRRRR: ladybirds, who eat aphids like I eat ... whatever comes my way ... are romancing their spots off. All over the garden. Fornicating coccinellidae. I couldn't be happier.
Ladybirds having sex, ideally positioned for their post-coital snack.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


I like the word seminal. It derives from the Latin word for seed, and it suggests things that have the capacity to generate. There are two main types of plant propagation: clonal (via cuttings, for instance, where the new plant is genetically identical to the parent) and by seed, where the new plant is similar to, but will slightly vary from, its parent or parents. It's this generation of new things that are similar to, yet different from, their ancestor (and given time and many generations, potentially very different from their ancestor) that makes reproduction by seed so exciting, and that in turn makes the word "seminal" so apt for descriptions of cultural phenomena that engender new, different, but related cultural phenomena.

The Latin word for seed from which seminal derives is semen. It's the same word we use for male animals' sex cells, and for this reason, there's been a kind of quailing at using the word "seminal" in public, as if we're reinscribing the illegitimate authority of male sexuality or the notion that men are more culturally generative than women. That is perhaps what we are doing, if when we hear the word semen in seminal, we think only of the sex cells that issue from testicles.

But rather than losing the beautiful metaphor embedded in seminal, a metaphor that suggests that words and stories scatter seeds that germinate into new and different words and stories, perhaps we should interrogate our use of the word semen (seed) to describe male sex cells.

A seed is what comes about when a plant's ovum and pollen fertilise each other. It already contains all the genetic material necessary to produce a new organism. A seed is necessarily already fertilised. Animal semen, on the other hand, is not sufficient to produce a new organism. If we draw an analogy between animal and plant reproductive elements (as we already do with the word semen), then the male sex cell would be better called pollen, and the fertilised ovum could be called the semen.

I guess this ain't going to happen, so in the meantime, perhaps we might take to calling our generative texts plain old seedy.