Sunday, July 31, 2011

Twisted Poplars

Consider these lilies

What would you conclude if you were exploring a remote forest and found an acre or two of poplars that were bizarrely twisted like cork screws while those in the rest of the forest had trunks as straight as hydro poles? There exists an anomaly like this an hour’s drive from here. An art work based on this phenomenon is currently on display at the Station Arts Centre where I work.
         Two couples traveling through stopped for lunch yesterday and I got into a conversation about the twisted poplars with the two men. One of them opined that since it was not a normal earthly occurrence that poplars should grow this way, the logical conclusion would be that it was the result of extra-terrestrial interference—an alien visitation in other words. His friend scoffed at this and offered the biological, rational explanation as follows:
          We are constantly bombarded by cosmic rays that pass through our bodies, through plants, through everything around us. Occasionally, a cosmic ray will strike in such a way that a gene is damaged; in this case, the gene that regulates the shape of the tree as it grows.
The flying saucer man was skeptical: “but why, then, isn’t this characteristic passed on through the seeds scattered from that first, mutated tree? Why is the twisted-poplar phenomenon confined to a discrete couple of acres?”
Like a crop circle? I thought.
“Simple,” said his feet-on-the-ground companion. “Poplars populate by suckering, not through seed. Cloning, in other words. All the twisted trees are really only one tree popping up at various places through the root system.”
 His listener wasn’t convinced.
          Hello! I thought. Are you two traveling in the same car? That should be interesting!
               . . . As the world itself is interesting, populated as it is by people who see the unexplained around them as manifestations of planning and execution by an unseen outside force (let’s call them religionists) traveling alongside others who rely on science and logic to find answers to the riddles of life (let’s call them rationalists.) The rationalist in our conversation was asked by the religionist why he was so sure of his “cosmic-ray theory?”
        “Because it’s the truth,” the rationalist replied, raising his chin just a tad.
‘Twas ever thus, eh?
         “Huh!” said the religionist.
          Thereafter, they had a jovial and companionable lunch with their wives at the best table in the house—by the big, sunny west windows under a prairie landscape by Darrell Bell, a landscape awash, apparently, in cosmic rays.
          This is not a sermon. If you can find a metaphor in this story that illuminates anything for you, help yourself.
          As for me, I recalled how someone said to me when my daughter died tragically at fifteen: “Perhaps God took her to save her from something horrible,” and I said: “No, she neglected to fasten her seat belt.”
          Twisted poplars.              


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