(This 790th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 21, 2006.)
At this time of year we Buffalonians are almost overwhelmed by the dramatic change of the world about us. From bleak off-whites, browns, grays and blacks we have passed rapidly into a technicolor scene: greens abound mixed with yellows and reds and blues and in fact virtually every color our eyes can discern.
We bask in those colors but don't often think about them. In his superb new book, Flowers: How They Changed the World (Prometheus), William Burger invites us to do just that. I will draw heavily upon his book for this column but I cannot do justice to it in this brief recounting. You should read it yourself.
Burger reminds us that most of those colors are provided us by what botanists call the angiosperms and the rest of us call the flowering plants. They are, of course, attracting pollinators, but in the process they are displaying their beauty to us as well.
Much of his book reviews how plants function, how they attract friends to pollinate them and how they defend themselves against enemies. In my favorite example, he tells how lima beans attacked by herbivorous mites emit volatile substances that invite mite predators to come to their defense. But these volatiles also communicate the problem to uninfected beanfields and those beans pass on the word. Although Burger calls evidence for this "still a bit controversial", it suggests plant-to-plant communication.
I learned much from these chapters but it is the later ones that I found most interesting. In them Burger describes how flowers contributed to the history of our own species. Here are two excerpts from that richly detailed story:
"Our human lineage first lived in moist evergreen forests, just as our closest living relatives do today. But what might have made our ancestors become two‑legged? The most reasonable scenario posits that the upright, bipedal posture was an effective adaptation for making a living in open woodlands, thornbush, and grass savannas during times when forests were shrinking and drier vegetation was expanding. With evergreen forests becoming more restricted, our lineage got up off its knuckles to explore drier, more open vegetation. Walking on two legs allowed us to range over greater distances and gave us a better view of our surroundings; it is also reasonably energy efficient. An upright posture also reduced our exposure to the hot tropical sun overhead, and exposed us to cooler breezes. Leaving dense moist evergreen forest had an additional advantage: we would be plagued by fewer diseases and parasites in a drier environment."
"Despite our extraordinary minds, having to procure sustenance in seasonal and unpredictable environments meant that starvation was a constant threat. Our big brains burn up 20 percent of the energy needed to sustain us ‑ even while we sleep. That requires a great deal of fuel! We were now elaborating new tools in ways never seen before, communicating more effectively, and expressing ourselves in artful ways. Finely fluted spear points, carefully carved fishing hooks, and needles were early expressions of this new creativity. Also, we were learning more about our environments and sharing that knowledge through sophisticated language abilities. Then, we took that knowledge of our local environments and its many plants and animals and did something really special. Quite suddenly, and in several different areas of the world, we humans selected a few species of plants and animals to become our close partners in the business of staying alive. We call these new cultural innovations agriculture and animal husbandry."
Burger ends his story with a ringing challenge: "Like it or not, we humans are now in charge of Earth, the planet that gave us birth. Unless we invest the same intensive efforts to preserve natural environments as we have done for our homes and gardens, the welfare of future generations is at risk. We humans must diminish our appetites and reduce our numbers. If we wish to provide our grandchildren with a better world, we'll have to do better. At present, no political pundits, economists, or journalists seem aware of the huge challenges facing our future. It will take a gargantuan effort to maintain our planet as the lovely home it's been over so many millions of years. From where I sit, it looks like the sixth major extinction over these last 500 million years is now well underway, the first grand extinction to have been caused by a single biological species. Here on planet Earth, we human beings may be nature's supreme intellectual achievement, but we have also become its most profound threat. We must change our ways; we must become the master gardeners of our biosphere, the stewards of planet Earth."
As we revel in the beauty of our flowering plants we would do well to heed Burger's message.-- Gerry Rising