Focus B 02
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. Throughout history,
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
buffs in 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 oxalates are 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 looted its
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 lessons for 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 revitalized new editions of Lives. Probably
because students were demanding more diversity in 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.