Sunday, 14 March 2010
Hydrotropism and other matters
Yesterday I am on the train to Cambridge to take a Poetry School class. It being Saturday the carriages are a little more crowded than usual and I sit at a table opposite a man with a trim white beard and moustache and a smart cap, reading The Guardian Travel Section. I guess he is Caribbean or African or possibly Indian (Trinidad?) but am not sure. We give each other a polite nod and half smile and I open my review book and start reading.
After about ten minutes he leans forward, smiles, and asks: Why do you think they do that? and he points to the full-page cover photograph of the travel section showing some coconut palms on a beach. They are distinctly leaning towards the sea. I put down my book and hazard a guess:
He asks me to repeat the word, so I do, with a brief explanation of what I think the word means. It is a word I learned in Biology at school, one of three such: hydrotropism (plants being drawn to water); phototropism (plants being drawn to light); and geotropism (plants being drawn to the earth, a characteristic, I suspect, I am confusing with gravity).
Ah, hydrotropism, he says. I don't think so.
I see that under the travel section there is a programme for the Cambridge Festival of Science.
He says it would be primarily the roots rather than the topmost branches that would be drawn to water. Nor would it be phototropism or geotropism. And he tells me how coconuts often fall into the water then float away, which is not seed dispersal but something else. They remain edible. The salt doesn't ruin them. He asks me if I am a scientist. I tell him no. So what are you? A writer.
He takes it in but doesn't respond. I am sure he is a scientist so ask him if he is a botanist. No, a cell-biologist. Next I ask him about the John Innes Institute nearby. He knows it but did not work there. On the other hand he knows some of the people I know there and has worked with them.
He is in full swing now. He talks about plants such as seaweed, that taste of salt but actually keep out salt through their cellular structure. It seems the Sodium can't get through. And he tells of the occasion when some big shot scientist in Cambridge (where he studied) talked about the atomic weight of elements on the periodic table and how they would form a natural progression in terms I now can't remember, and how he - my fellow traveller - stood up and challenged him on the basis of evidence, and was dismissed by the big shot without his evidence being addressed. Later, it seems, my man's observations proved correct and he met the big shot again and confronted him with it, when an embarrassing scene followed, embarrassing for the big shot that is. So, I secretly guess, we find out who the real big shot is, but make no comment as the story is part of an enthusiastic account that flows on without any more personal triumphs.
I ask him what he has researched. He tells me he spent twenty years in tea. By now I have worked out - or has he mentioned? - that he is from Sri Lanka, so two and two get put together. From tea he went on to parsnips and eventually ended with onions. Potatoes, when I ask him, have too much starch. Less interesting.
It then turns out he has been studying theology too. He is a cell-biologist-chemist-theologian. Eventually, therefore, the conversation turns to God and the miracles of complexity far beyond the mind of man. He points to the sun and says: People think it is simple. It shines or it doesn't shine. But it is infinitely complex. Part of the divine.
At some point he asks me what I write. Poetry, I say. Books? he asks. So I drag out one of my books from the bag. He looks at the photo on the back.
A bit Hollywood, he says. Taken ten years ago?
It was taken in autumn 2008 but I just say: Less.
You look older, he says. Graver. More serious.
What a strange time this is on trains. On one train I look famous, on this one I look nine years older than my one year old photo, but grave. Grave and more serious. I will consider the advantages of looking grave and serious. Can I add these qualities to looking famous and work them into a presentational presence somewhere between Bertrand Russell, Charles Bukowski and Albert Einstein?
We are at Cambridge. He is still in full swing. The God tack has taken us into rather more predictable areas than hydrotropism had done. The train has stopped and he is talking. We get off. On the platform he gives me a leaflet about his theological work. I dash off to my class in a taxi.
I am workotropic.