Of ‘Barbara’ and Weeds

As we sat down to dinner, hosted by our Chinese professor of acupuncture in 1987, we were taken aback as we were offered soup of “Barbara” — as an entrée. We, who had always kept aloof of such a slimy creature during our sea swim — could not convince our psyche to swallow such soup as a delicacy. We did not disappoint out host — we did tuck uneasily into the menu. Yet, nowadays we would be lucky to come across such Barbara — or “concombre de mer” — at our seashores — for the simple reason that there is none to be found — businessmen have been harvesting these sea creatures to export to Singapore or Hong Kong! We understand that there are even farms where they are being cultivated for that purpose. What a revolution!

We used to be told what a nuisance and crop destroyer were the crickets; but their days are counted. We were surprised to see in an African documentary how some brainy chap would rent a roofless old house! After installing a sort of a huge metallic like funnel — with the mouth facing skyward, he would, at night, light a strong electric bulb on top — and sure enough the crickets would swarm in — get burned and fall down the funnel, onto to the reservoir below. After being collected, treated and roasted, they would be sold in the local village market place as a good source of protein. If we think that this is just a Third World strategy for quick money, we would be mistaken. It seems that the cricket protein has drawn attention of business men in the USA, where farms have been set up to capitalize on that cheap source of protein — because of its minimal carbon footprint.

Similarly, old scrap iron, like the Barbara, that was encumbering our environment has suddenly found takers. The scene of some poor, lean men pushing their bicycle or wheel barrow loaded with all types of scrap iron along one of our roads is not uncommon. Some may look on those men as doing us a favour by tidying up our environment; but news that even official metallic sign posts, people’s iron gates, or metallic decorations on some cemetery tombs are falling prey to those new “ironmongers” is raising eyebrows in some quarters about this supposed “good deed”.

And travelers in India would be wondering why some kids (or their elders) would be running after the cow dung dropped by some of the roadside cows; they would be surprised to know that the same dung would be mixed with dry grass, baked in the sun and sold as fuel!

Suddenly, old “redundant matter ” — dead or alive — is becoming financially important to some people, who are keeping their mind open to all environmental possibilities. That’s good — because with 7 billion people around, any survival strategy is welcome.

And The Weeds

However, as we trot along on our daily walk, we realize that there are a few other unwanted things that have kept nagging and challenging our intelligence. Casting a glance at the side of our footpath, we discover those weeds that give us the impression that they are mocking at us, humans. They have been here long before us – and we are still wondering how to get rid of them. If only we could treat them as we have our Barbara, cricket and old iron, we would gain another battle; we would have no use for herbicides; our environment would be safer. But of what use to us could be the ‘chien dent’, the creepers and all their likes?

A layman would have but contempt for them; but should we be some expert botanist –we would suddenly discover a paradise that would push us to all sorts of theories and wonderful applications. These weeds may fall prey to bush fires but they are never defeated – they come back relentlessly and stronger. Why are our botanical cultivation and gardens so fragile – while these weeds are so successful at survival? Have they beaten some evolutionary principles somewhere that have made them almost eternal and very pervasive in our environment? Botanists – examining them under a microscope, finding them of different shapes with different coloured flowers, with different pollen dispersal strategy; discovering the battle for survival that they go through in their small jungle – would be in a position to write wonderful books. On closer scrutiny we discover a panoply of shapes of leaves, flowers of different hues of purple, yellow and red. Some are leafy, with slender small branches, or stronger stem and larger leaves. They struggle to keep atop as they endeavour to catch as much sunlight as possible. Yet on other occasions, should you pass by again, don’t be surprised if the nice little green “paradise” you have noticed have disappeared under a heap of invading creepers.

How that garden of ordered bean plants suddenly got invaded by those weeds and “Brede de chine” in bloom. Mingled in between are “Brede Martin” or “Brede Malabar” –which make the day and dinner of some poor people; they are still around. The ‘Lerbe pistache’ or‘ Lerbe panier’ or the ‘Lerbe Liange’ (Ylang Ylang — are still there to be prized by a pet rabbit owner. That so much hated ‘Chien dent’ does assume its importance during one of our religious ceremonies – when the presiding priest would stick a few branches of same in some turmeric paste – to symbolize Mother Nature. Further down you may notice some “Lerbe Fataque” invading its environment and winning the race for the time being. Apart from making sweeping brooms with it, we were using it as a hedge to our compound not too far in the past – but few of us would know that a law of 1885 or so forbids us to plant it in front of our house, lest it invades the nearby road. But nowadays in many countries it is being planted for use as biofuel! Nearby we may notice some “ L’herbe lelefan” — always wondering why we Mauritians call it so. Thank God we have not seen the Japanese knotweed — if we do, then run for dear life; there where it grows — the land depreciates like anything; it attacks concrete foundation; it cuts through roads and tarmacs like knife in butter. The only tool to get rid of it is a biocontrol strategy — some insects aphids, we are told.

Those hundreds of different weeds — coexisting side-by-side, or competing in a perpetual race — have learned to exist in perfect cohesion and from one bio cycle to another. They remind us of our cosmos — however disorderly they may seem to our orderly mind — yet they have some hidden law somewhere. A bit of botanical entropy, what! Many would make the day of researches, reminding them of all those plants that have given us the pharmacopoeia of so many systems of medicine.

How is it that we humans have receptors on our cells that respond to molecules coming from so many plants? By what magic are we sensitive to opium, to heroin, to alkaloids, to belladonna, and so many other medicinal plants? Where, when and how did we in our evolution cross the path of these plants? This year “Artemisia annua’, known as Sweet wormwood, won the Chinese lady pharmacologist Tu YouYou a Nobel Prize for her work on the treatment of malaria using it as the cure element. The latest is the blue green algae — Aphanizomenon flos-aquae –, which seems to stimulate production of our stem cells — with possibility of prolonging our life. It is already being marketed! But that is still controversial.

Those weeds have been around for some 2 billion years, using sunlight to generate our oxygen and capturing CO2 to maintain the carbon footprint at its lowest-so that we humans can flourish!

And the Creepers

The creepers “celui qui rira le dernier…” — slowly and surely they conquer all the other weeds. They twist, cling and spiral themselves around everything that come in their way – like the Lysine, it would twist even our iron gate. They also go skyward looking for the panoply and more sunlight. And as we look around everyday, we ask ourselves whether they have a lesson to impart to us. They are slow to rise; they come late when all other weeds have had their day. They remind us of the recent neocortex of our brain; they graft themselves on existing basic instinct below — the weeds — always keeping a nose lead in their battle against them. Could it be that the weeds below represent our negative basic values — and the creepers, using them as scaffold, are our ever-blossoming positive values? Happiness cannot exist by itself — in solo; we need unhappiness to stimulate its antithesis; do those weeds serve as an analogy – the creeper, with its fragile colourful flowers, being the final winner — as it tries to invade everything below?

Is our happiness the same? Always trying to creep and cling skywards — grafting on our basic instincts and emotions to rise and shine at the apex?

We stroll along. We wonder. However much we keep explaining about the environment, Nature keeps presenting to us its own inexhaustible store of surprises as part of what Darwin called “the survival of the fittest”.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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