Cross-pollination on the pickets: Strike diary 11

Strikes are unnerving and unsettling. It is perhaps for that very reason that they are also sites of great creativity. There is so much art in making placards, creating slogans,  and writing strike songs. Our Cardiff rallies are becoming more entertaining and more cathartic by the day.

Another positive aspect of the strikes is that we get to meet people we would not meet otherwise. While universities praise interdisciplinary research on paper, it is fair to say that they do relatively little to facilitate that interdisciplinarity. Most British universities have lost their senior common rooms; staff are too busy to take their lunch hours; budgets for seminar series are dwindling. And when people from various departments meet, it is usually for administrative reasons, not to engage in “blue sky thinking”. So, quite strangely, striking can allow us to grow our academic circles.

If I were to use a botanical metaphor, I would say that strikes offer unexpected opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas. I touched upon the history of pollination yesterday, and I return to it today. The Greeks and Roman described processes that we would call pollination processes (in particular in the case of the fructification of the date palm; see here), but they did not understand pollination: they did not understand the ways in which plants reproduce sexually. This is why they could come to the conclusion – rather absurd in our eyes – that bees could damage flowers.

Gold plaques with bee-goddess, Camiros, Rhodes, 7th century BCE. The British Museum. Source: Wikimedia

We find that conclusion in an oration attributed to Quintilian (first century CE), on which I have written a few years ago (see here): a poor man and a rich man are neighbours; the poor man has bees; the rich man has flowers; the rich man accuses the poor man’s bees of damaging his flowers; the rich man sprinkles his flowers with poison; the bees die; the rich man is accused of wrongdoing. Then follows the long defence of the poor man (Pseudo-Quintilian, Orations 13).

This oration is well-known among classicists. Far less-known is the poetic reinterpretation of the case by Jean-Jacques Porchat-Bressenel, a professor of law, rhetoric and Latin literature at the Academy of Lausanne in the nineteenth century. His “Les abeilles du pauvre” was published in 1837 in his Glanures d’Esope (p. 295-6). By then, the role of insects in plant pollination was known (it was discovered around the mid eighteenth century). That fact is reflected in Porchat-Bressenel’s fable, which I translate here – rather freely:

Once there was a fellow, named Peter,
He only possessed a small plot;
Two goats he there struggled to maintain.
However, a great hive, bigger than his hut
Chez Peter flourished.
The neighbourhood whispered:
“His flies constantly on our flowers feed.
How dare he believe he has the right
To exact a toll on our meadows?
And to boast about his harvest!
I am in the tax collector’s good books,
And I do not need to pay more dues.
Against such pilfering, there must be a law;
By Jove, such a headache!
I want, when I have paid parliament and king,
To be sole master of my land.”
To that, what did the bee respond?
The bee, buzzing, kept to its labour,
Collecting up hill and down dale,
Never asking to whom the crimson flower,
To whom the plentiful pollen belongs:
They are the spoils of the hive or the wind.
And, in winter, when from the north the barbarian breaths
Spread in the neighbourhood colds and catarrhs,
The poor Peter with his honey,
Without asking a fee for his prescription
Came to heal his neighbours or alleviate their pains –
He even managed to sweeten their bile.

The story is clearly inspired by pseudo-Quintilian’s oration, but with some twists. The poor man’s neighbour is not presented as particularly rich, but rather as a narrow-minded, avaricious bootlicker, who has no understanding of new advances in science: he does not know what pollen is. The story is also given a moral ending: when the winter sends diseases to Peter’s neighbours, it is his honey that heals them for free.

There is a lesson here for modern universities!





This entry was posted in Ancient History, botany, History of Science, Poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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