Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons From the Farm Lady

Sex fascinates, therefore flowers fascinate me, for after all, a flower is simply a plant’s sex organs. All plants reproduce by method of flowering, except ferns and coniferous trees which use spores or cones. Ferns and pine trees are interesting but primitive. They lack the complex reproductive organs known as flowers. There are many plants not typically referred to as “flowers” yet they all have some type of flower for reproduction. Even grass left uncut is a flowering plant.

Of course it is the big colorful flowers most of us think of, the ones that are screaming for attention with their beauty, although it is really pollinators they are trying to attract. We benefit from the pretty colors and sweet smells intended to draw a bee in for a sweet taste of nectar, while he inconspicuously gets a dusting of pollen on his back which he unwittingly carries to another flower, spreading the genes. Crafty little flowers offering sweet treat to their vectors in exchange for a free ride to a sex partner. Wouldn’t it be horrible if humans reproduced this way? Some guy rubs up against you in a crowd and leaves his sperm cells on you, hoping you will rub into someone else? Actually, that did happen to me at an underage Cuban dance club once, but that is another story.

Pollinators are as diverse as the flowers themselves, from the obvious birds and bees, to a host of other insects and even mammals. Bats are underrated pollinators. Pine trees do not have relationships with any pollinator and therefore rely on the wind to scatter their pollen. I loved to gross out my students by telling them that orange dust all over our cars was equivalent to a tree’s sperm cells. The lucky cells didn’t fall on my car, they were blown and stuck to a sappy pine cone which dried up and drew the pollen in far enough to meet the egg cell. Sex goes on around us constantly. It really is a beautiful thing.

I can’t talk to my mom about sex, but I thought we could talk about plants. I am always on a quest to find a topic, a common ground with her. I wish she appreciated art or liked to cook, but she thinks frozen food and microwaves are two of man’s best inventions. She grew up dirt-poor on a farm and knows how to slaughter a hog, so she thinks microwavable bacon is absolute genius.

My mom talks about plants often, but not in the same way that I do. I remember visiting her when she was working in the yard and she would tell me “I moved this bush over here, cut back that plant, planted such and such over there, then move another plant from a pot to the ground.” It was just work to her. Moving plants. I can’t say she even liked them, but perhaps it was something I could talk about with the farm lady?

“Hey Mom,” I started. I was teaching my students about photosynthesis at the time and thought she might be interested in something I found fascinating. “Don’t you think it is amazing that plants are really formed by molecules floating in the air?”

Blank stare.

“It’s true. I used to think plants were made from the soil, but consider a potted plant. The scientist who figured this out long ago planted a seed in a pot, but he weighed the soil first. The seed eventually grew into a good sized plant which the scientist removed including the roots, then weighed the soil again. Of course there was still the same amount of soil in the pot and that is how he figured out the raw materials were coming from somewhere else.”

Blank stare, but still maintaining eye contact.

“The air, Mom. See those leaves right there? They did not come from dirt, but from the air. The plant can take the carbon dioxide floating around in the air, along with a water molecule, then break those molecules apart and rearrange the atoms into a new molecule called glucose. Or more complicated molecule, such as starches, but the basic building block is glucose. That is what all plants are made of, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Just a different rearrangement of those three elements.”

Blank stare fading, eyes starting to glass over.

“You know how you can make a variety of food using four or five basic ingredients? It’s like that, Mom. That is what plants do, with elements. ‘Photosynthesis’ is what the process is called.”

I took a big risk with the five syllable word. Contact broken. Subject changed.

I tried and I kept trying, but it is hard to connect with someone who thinks so differently than I do. I once showed my mom photos of my trip to London and Paris, but she flipped through my photos and did not have a question or a comment. “That is ‘The Louvre, Mom. I saw the Mona Lisa!” She thought it was an absurd waste of money to take a trip like that and couldn’t see the point in it. My mom hated traveling and my siblings and I always teased her that she couldn’t leave a five mile radius from her home. She seldom did.

I tried to get her to go out to lunch with me, but she kept insisting that she had food at home we could eat. I finally said “Mom, I’m not poor. I went to college for six years, I can afford to go out to lunch. I enjoy eating out sometimes.” But the problem was, she didn’t enjoy it. She might go, but her discomfort of spending the money, even me spending my money took the fun out of it. Better to let her put something in the microwave than watch her scan the menu for the cheapest thing she could find.

The best time I remember having with my mom was the time she asked me to go to the Orange County Fair with her. We never did mother-daughter things like that, so it was very odd. We walked around looking at all the items people made or collected and we both really enjoyed it. I was interested in the amateur art and she was interested in the homemade quilts. We also visited the farm animals and watched a pig race. Then she surprised me by agreeing to go on the Ferris Wheel, a huge Ferris Wheel! It even gave me butterflies when it dropped. I believe it was the bravest thing I witnessed her to do. I felt like a normal woman enjoying the company of her mom. Sure, it wasn’t the mani-pedi-shopping date most women spoke of, but I’m flexible enough to enjoy farm animals.

Months later I was visiting again and she started telling me the story I told her about the scientist measuring the soil. I was amazed that she had listened and absorbed what I said, but the funny thing it she could not remember who had told her the story. I let her proceed and listened with great amusement when she started by “Someone told me that a plant doesn’t really come from the soil….” She honestly didn’t remember it was me who told her! She went on to explain the experiment. Then she got to the end of the story and waved her hand dismissively in the air, “But I don’t believe that.”