Strong as a mountain

Work-wise, the last few months have been hard. And ‘hard’ is the right word: none of the tasks I carried out have been particularly difficult, but they have been hard. The final stages of book writing are taxing – I take my off to those academics who appear to write a book almost every year. Formatting, proofreading, and indexing: not my favourite tasks. Fortunately, this time around, I had a great co-author to help and encourage me. And I had my boys to keep me away from The Book in the evenings and at weekends, thus preserving my sanity.

Walking the hills in the Lake District

Walking the hills in the Lake District

I like to compare book writing (or any hard task) to climbing hills, our family hobby. We have climbed quite a few this year, mostly under the leadership of Big Boy T (aged 8), who seems to be training to climb Mount Blanc – he’ll have to do that one without me! Hill walking is hard, especially when carrying Little Boy G (aged 3, 15 kg) on our backs. But then, we reach the top, and the view is breathtaking, and we feel on top of the world. Except that, in the British Isles, we often find ourselves at the top of a hill with a visibility of no more than 5 meters, rain soaked, and winging. But, it is still worth it because we feel you have achieved something, we have worked as a team (solitary hill walking is not for me), and we are that little bit stronger than when we started the walk. Also, physical activity does help me think. While I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and breathing, a small part of my brain seem to do its own thing and come up with ideas.

Centaury in the Vienna Dioscorides Manuscript, 512 CE

Centaury in the Vienna Dioscorides Manuscript, 512 CE

Yes mountains do make us stronger. They are also, of course, very important ecological habitats and host numerous plant species. The Greeks and the Romans often observed that the best pharmacological plants grew on mountains. Theophrastus, the so-called father of botany (fourth century BCE), wrote that:

It would seem that [pharmacological plants] require a type of air that is cold but also pure, and again the right amount of nourishment. Certainly, it appears that most drugs grow on mountains, and particularly on the highest and greatest. Theophrastus, Causes of Plant Phaenomena 6.13.5

Not all ancient pharmacological plants were gathered on wild mountains – some were grown in house gardens – but the ancients observed a strong link between drugs and mountains. They also knew, that trying to transplant a pharmacological plant from its native mountain to a garden would not work. In one of my favourite passages, Theophrastus describes the terrible consequences of submitting a wild pharmacological plant to cultivation:

Hence it is reasonable that cultivation should not be beneficial to certain plants, such as those that are dry, pungent and bitter, and put simply, those that are drug-like and useful to us in this manner. For they are made effeminate (ekthēlunetai) when their powers are removed and some do not even carry fruit at all, others [carry] fruits that are watery and inferior, and the plants themselves become more watery, as in the case of wormwood, centaury, and in general all plants with drug-like properties. Theophrastus, Causes of Plant Phaenomena 3.1.3-4

Woman spinning wool on an Attic vase, c. 490 BCE. Source Wikipedia

Woman spinning wool on an Attic vase, c. 490 BCE. Source Wikipedia

When removed from a the wild, a pharmacological plant becomes ‘effeminate’ – the female element in it is drawn out. Note that the main characteristic of effeminacy is to fill with water, to swell, which interestingly leads to barrenness. One is reminded of the Hippocratic physician who described women’s flesh as spongy (chaunos, On Glands 16). It is because the body of a woman is more spongy, more porous than that of a man, that it accumulates blood produced through food consumption. That blood must be evacuated regularly through menstruation or pregnancy, lest diseases manifest themselves.

Effeminate plants have almost no power, but the power of the masculine plant is not necessarily pleasant: it can be bitter and sometimes even poisonous. We are not talking in simple terms of ‘male: good/female: bad’. There is here an understanding that ‘power’ is complex and cannot be handled without consideration for its effects.

While I would not want to put in the same gendered terms as Theophrastus, it is true that being at the top of a hill – real or metaphorical – makes me feel stronger. It may sometimes be possible to take a cable-car to the top of a real mountain, but there is no such short-cuts for writing hills. Those just have to be climbed, in the hope that the view from the top will be clear. I am glad to say that on this occasion it is! Ancient Botany by Gavin Hardy and myself will be out on the twelfth of October.



This entry was posted in Ancient History, History of medicine, Plants and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Strong as a mountain

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #12 | Whewell's Ghost

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