W: Have you ever wondered how we know which plants are good to eat and which ones are poisonous? Well, it was simply a very long and drawn-out process of trial and error. Throughouthistory, people ate what they could find, kill, or otherwise get a hold of. When there was a lack of a traditional food source, people had to try new things. Over time, they started to figure out which plants made them sick and which didn’t. Now, I am not just talking about ancient times before farming became established. This trial and error with plants was going on well into the 18th and 19th centuries! In fact, historical records indicate that in the 1800s plant poisoning had become a serious issue. Since food wasn’t as readily available then as it is today, people were forced to take more chances with what they ate. Rather than drop by the market at the end of the street, people would have to wander out into the fields or forests and find whatever looked edible. Today, because the food supply is rather ample and stable, we rarely have to go find our lunch or dinner out in the woods. Nonetheless, we still need to be careful. Poisonous plants can be found all around us: in our homes as decoration, in our lawns, and in the general landscape. Of course, we don’t generally go around putting random plants in our mouths. However, children do. Have any of you ever caught your baby brother or sister chewing on one of the plants in your house? Or maybe you were caught chewing on one! Considering the fact that a baby’s body is smaller and less hardy than ours, we have to look out for them. A small amount of poison that might go unnoticed in an adult can cause more serious harm to a child. So, poisonous plants are dangerous to kids, but there are measures that can be taken to ensure safety. You can identify the plants in your surroundings by giving a call to your local garden center. You can describe the plant to them, and hopefully they can tell you whether or not it has poisonous properties. Alternatively, you can take the plant down to show them. Also, if you buy a new plant, it is wise to ask whether or not it is poisonous. Now, there are three main categories of toxicity in plants: extremely toxic, moderately toxic, and minimally toxic. These names, however, are very misleading. You see, the severity of the poison depends on a host of other factors, like the particular plant and the metabolism of the person. The term “poisoning” itself is actually also misleading. Poisoning doesn’t only mean a person dies from the poison. Poisoning can result in anything from indigestion and skin irritation to lethal brain damage or death. Let’s talk about a few categories of poisonous plants now. One category is the alkaloids. These are bitter-tasting plants with nitrogen compounds in them. A good example is hemlock. I mention it as an example because hemlock is famous. History buffsin the class may recall that it was the poison extracted from this plant that Socrates was forced to drink as his death sentence for corrupting the youth of Athens. That’s just an interesting side note. Anyway, the effects of hemlock are similar to nicotine, but, obviously, much more severe as it can cause the nervous system to shut down, resulting in death. Plants with minerals in them form another category of poisonous plants. These plants build up a large amount of some mineral that is toxic in humans, such as lead or copper. The effects of eating these plants can include psychological malfunctioning and, in higher doses, death. Plants containing oxalatesare the third category. Oxalates, spelled O-X-A-L-A-T-E-S, occur as small crystals in the plant and irritate the mouth. Not quite as serious as the other two, but poison nonetheless. Once again, those three categories of poisonous plants are the alkaloids, plants with minerals, and oxalates. So, you may be wondering, why did poisonous plants evolve? What purpose does this serve? Well, there are many different sources of poison in different plants as we just heard, but in most cases, the poison is a by-product of one of the plant’s natural life processes, and the poison serves as a defense mechanism for the plant. Animals learn which plants to stay away from because they get sick when they eat them. So, it follows that the plant will survive and reproduce because no one is eating it.
M: OK, let’s start with a bit of background on Plutarch before we get to his work. The particular work I mean is Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch lived from the year 46 to the year 120 in what had been (and at a later date continued to be) Greece. For many years, Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty miles from his home. Greece, by the turn of the first millenium, was a sad ruin of its former glory. Mighty Rome had lootedits statues and reduced Greece to a mere conquered territory. Despite these circumstances, Mestrius Plutarchus --- that is actually Plutarch’s given name --- lived a long and fruitful life with his wife and family in the little Greek town of Chaeronea. So, that is the man. Now, about his work. Plutarch’s plan in his work Lives was to pair a philosophical biography of a famous Roman with the biography of a Greek who was comparable in some way. Plutarch’s work includes short essays of comparison for each pair of lives, and after each essay, Plutarch pauses to deliver penetrating observations on human nature as illustrated by his subjects. This structure makes it difficult to classify Lives under a single genre --- I mean to classify it as history, biography, or philosophy. Plutarch’s announced intention was NOT to write a chronicle of great historical events, but rather to examine the character of great men, as a lesson for the living. I think --- and I certainly hope you agree after you’ve had a chance to read it --- that this is a fascinating work with applicable lessonsfor living for readers even today. An interesting point about Plutarch’s Greek heroes is that his subjects had been dead for at least 300 years by the time he wrote about their lives, around 100 A.D. That means Plutarch had to rely on old manuscripts, many of which no longer exist today. All we have left to rely on is Plutarch’s work. But even ancient legends can yield some insight, as Plutarch says at the beginning of his life of Theseus. Plutarch himself had no faith in the accuracy of even the so-called factual materials he had to work with. He actually made a comment to this effect in his essay on the life of Pericles. To quote, he said, “It is so hard to find out the truth of anything by looking at the record of the past. The process of time obscures the truth of former times, and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist the truth out of malice or flattery.” That’s something for you to keep in mind the next time you’re reading your history textbook. Anyway, in spite of this problem, Plutarch managed to compare Roman and Greek heroes, and do it well enough that his work has survived the ages. It is interesting that this work was very popular until the 20th century. Then, people pretty much forgot about it. Let’s talk a little bit about why that happened. The Romans loved Plutarch’s Lives, and enough copies were written out over the next centuries that a copy of most parts of Lives managed to survive the Dark Ages in different places. It’s interesting to note the number of famous figures from history who have appreciated Plutarch’s writing and wisdom. Beethoven, as he was growing deaf, wrote in 1801, and I quote: “I have often cursed my Creator and my existence. Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation. If it is at all possible, I will bid defiance to my fate, though I feel that as long as I live there will be moments when I shall be God’s most unhappy creature ... Resignation, what a wretched resource! Yet it is all that is left to me.” Beethoven read Plutarch’s comparisons of the lives of Greek and Roman heroes and found wisdom there. There are many other examples of famous people finding inspiration in Plutarch. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was another fan of Lives. So, you may be asking yourself, “If this book is so famous, why haven’t I ever heard of it?” Well, despite all of the attention Plutarch’s work got through the ages, by the 20th century, Plutarch’s popularity began to fade. None of the literary scholars were putting out revitalizednew editions of Lives. Probably because students were demanding more diversityin the reading curriculum, so a lot of classic works of literature were being pushed aside. Another factor could have been that Lives is a difficult book. Plutarch uses a complicated style of writing, so it’s not an easy read.