Monday, August 17, 2009

Mr_Subjunctive Explains Modern Retail Horticulture to a Time-Traveller From the Year 1860

Preface from August 2009: This post is kind of old: I put a really huge amount of time into writing it almost a year ago and then decided that I didn't like the way it was turning out, so I set it aside and went on. Then yesterday, I woke up feeling really unwell (sick to my stomach, or something) and didn't have it in me to try to write anything new from scratch. I was looking through the old posts for something that I could maybe just polish up a bit and post without expending too much effort, and read this again, and decided that it didn't seem that bad. I think originally I wasn't happy with it because I was hoping for more of this to be about plants. And I would still like for more of it to be about plants, but there's just sooooo much to explain, as you'll see, that it's impossible to stay focused on plants for very long.

Pictures are recycled from earlier posts, intended for decorative purposes only, and not necessarily meant to relate to what's going on in the text. The reader is asked to please appreciate them, as they took a fair amount of time to dig up and relocate.

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Preface from October 2008: I actually spend a completely ridiculous amount of time, in my day to day life, imagining situations like this one. If someone were to travel forward in time from 1860 to 2008, how much of what happens in an ordinary person's life would they understand? How much stuff would you have to catch them up on in order to explain something as simple as listening to Justin Timberlake singing "Sexy Back" on the radio, while driving to the grocery store to get some frozen pizzas to cook for dinner? Marconi, pizza, boy bands, internal combustion engine, refrigeration, electronic music, The Pill, rock-n-roll, plastic, Madison Avenue . . . it'd be never-ending.

And then this makes me wonder if we'd be in the same boat, if we were to jump ahead to 2158. Would we have any idea what was going on? Would it even be possible for us to understand everyday life in theory, if we were immediately transported there? Would it just be terrifying? Would we think they were ridiculous? Would they think we were? And what kind of future can we expect to have anyway, given how things are going at the moment?

So I invented a time-traveler guy and wrote down a conversation. In reality, I think we'd have a much tougher time understanding one another than this, but I smoothed over some of those issues here because . . . well, we can't get sidetracked on every remotely slang word or phrasing I use, and I don't want to do all the research that would be necessary to make sure that his vocabulary is historically appropriate. (I did do some research, though!) The explanations about various things herein are, I hope, basic enough science that they won't come as news to my readers, but if anybody should happen to learn something along the way, well, so much the better, I guess.

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Mr_Subjunctive Explains Modern Retail Horticulture
to a Time-Traveller From the Year 1860

by Mr_Subjunctive

The greenhouse. Mr_Subjunctive is hard at work watering the ferns when there is a loud BANG! from the general vicinity of the bromeliads, and a flash of light. Dropping the watering wand, Mr_Subjunctive runs through the greenhouse to see what is the matter. He sees a large, steampunkish contraption, with a moustached man standing inside it, dressed in a charcoal gray frock coat, squinting through his glasses at part of the machinery, as if it were telling him something unpleasant. The man straightens up and looks around. Mr_Subjunctive and the man see one another.

MAN: Do not be ALARMED, o citizen of the future! I mean you NO harm!

MR_S: Okay. That's, um, nice --

MAN: What is this place?

MR_S: "This place?" You mean the greenhouse?

MAN: I mean this place. [gestures] Where we are standing.

MR_S: It's a greenhouse. Hey, are you all right? You look a little --

MAN: Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Doctor Horatio Phillip Ketchum. I assume you've heard of me.

Beallara Marfitch 'Howard's Dream.'

MR_S: [shrugs]

KETCHUM: But I've created the world's first time machine! Surely there is no more monumental achievement in the nineteenth century!

MR_S: I don't know, guy. Sorry. Maybe you don't get written into the history books until you go back. What year did you come from?

KETCHUM: I have traveled from the year 1860. What year is this?

MR_S: 2008.

KETCHUM: Really? My calculations said 2010. Are you quite certain?

MR_S [raises eyebrow]: You want me to go check what year it is?


MR_S: So why were you going to 2010?

KETCHUM: I thought one hundred fifty years sounded like a nice round number.

MR_S: No, yeah, I suppose I can see that. Makes sense.

Clerodendrum thomsoniae.

KETCHUM: Might I trouble you to fetch me a scientist? I would like to talk to someone about my discovery, and repeat my calculations, in order to find out why I am two years early. You do have scientists in 2008?

MR_S: Oh sure, sure. Lots of them. And I'm sure they'll have some questions for you. Try not to let the government find out you've got a time-machine, though, or they'll take it away to some secret U.S. military base and you'll never ever get it back.

KETCHUM: The Republic has endured, then?

MR_S: Oh sure the Republic endured. Sorta. It's been better, though. And there was a Civil War. That hadn't happened yet when you left?


MR_S: Oh. Well. There was this whole war about slavery, like, 1861-1865 or something, and lots of people died. But then eventually the country came back together again and all was well. Except that they shot Lincoln.

KETCHUM: No! Who shot Lincoln?

MR_S: Which reminds me! I bet money's changed quite a bit in fifty years. [opens wallet, pulls out a $5 bill] Here's a $5 bill. Check out who's on it.

KETCHUM: Lincoln is on your money?

Passiflora coccinea.

MR_S: Yep. He's pretty popular, what with saving the Republic and everything.

KETCHUM: But who shot him?

MR_S: Some guy. John Wilkes Booth.


MR_S: I don't know. I guess he really wanted to keep his slaves. Or he was crazy. Maybe both. I don't remember. I could check Wikipedia if you really want to know.

KETCHUM: So you no longer have slavery?

MR_S: Well, not the way you'd remember, no. Actually, you might get a kick out of this -- our current election is between an African-American named Barack Obama, who also happens to be a Senator from Illinois, and a 109-year-old man named John McCain, who was born in Panama. The election's on Tuesday.

KETCHUM: "African-American?"

MR_S: We don't use "Negro" anymore. Or especially -- and I cannot stress this enough -- anything that sounds like "Negro." It's "African-American" or "Black," period. But as it happens, "African-American" is especially appropriate for Obama, since his mother is a white woman from Kansas and his father is an actual African from Kenya. And he was born in Hawaii.

KETCHUM: In where?

MR_S: Never mind.

Aechmea 'Del Mar.'

KETCHUM: Your current election is between a mulatto and a 109-year-old?

MR_S: Sorry, that was me having fun with you: McCain's not really 109. He's old, though. Seventy-something. Also, point of interest, we don't use the word "mulatto" anymore either.

KETCHUM: Why not? Why have you discarded so many perfectly useful words?

MR_S: It's complicated. Basically it's like Lincoln freed the slaves, so now they have the same rights as anybody else. They go to school, they vote, they have jobs, they marry. A lot of the words you used for them are considered offensive now. I guess mostly 'cause nobody wants to be reminded of when their people were forced into involuntary servitude. Understandably.

KETCHUM: The, ah, African-Americans vote?

MR_S: Oh sure. Women vote too.

KETCHUM: [blinking]

MR_S: And they wear pants. Er. Trousers.

KETCHUM: Who? The African-Americans?

MR_S: Well, I meant the women, but yes, the African-Americans wear trousers too. Pretty much everybody wears trousers.

KETCHUM: You're having me on again.

Thelocactus setispinus.

MR_S: All true, actually. But I'm sorry. I've overloaded you, I can see. A lot has happened in the last 148 years; I shouldn't try to tell you about all of it all at once.

KETCHUM: No, no, it's perfectly fine. I came to the future to learn, after all. I have been training my brain to retain facts for many years. It's just that so many of these ideas are so unexpected and queer.

MR_S: [facepalm] Um. About "queer." We don't really say that anymore either. Or, um, I guess we do, but the meaning has changed a lot. Also "gay" has gone through some changes, you should know.

KETCHUM: Why? What do those words signify?

MR_S: Well, they both refer to men who, uh, who have relations -- sexual relations -- with other men. Or women with women, though for women you usually say "lesbian" instead of "gay." "Queer" is either a noun or an adjective, and "gay" is usually an adjective but is occasionally a noun.

Belamcanda chinensis cv.

KETCHUM: I see. Perhaps there is some more neutral topic we could converse about, instead of these horrifying social developments. Although I can see how your men might be confused, if women are voting and wearing trousers. Perhaps your men can no longer tell the difference and engage in -- relations -- with one another accidentally --

MR_S: That's really not how it works. And it's not all the men, or even most of the men. If that makes you feel any better.

KETCHUM: Regardless. What of science? Is it equally depraved?

MR_S: Hmm. Well, some of it, yeah. I mean, don't go asking anybody about genetic engineering or stem cells.

KETCHUM: I certainly will not.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cv.

MR_S: Are you interested in botany at all? Botany's pretty safe.

KETCHUM: Ah. Yes. Yes, thank you. Botany. Let us talk about these marvelous specimens around us. You said earlier that this was a green house, did you not?

MR_S: It's "greenhouse." One word. It's like a really big, er, "Wardian Case," basically.

KETCHUM: And you have collectors around the world to bring back specimens for your sponsors?

MR_S: No, no, all of these are grown in Florida and sent up to us here.

KETCHUM: What? All of these species are native to Florida?

MR_S: Oh no. They're from all over. They just . . . I guess you'd say they farm them in Florida. And then we call them up and say, we want six of these, and thirty of these, and so on, and then they ship them up to us on trucks and we sell them.

KETCHUM: You . . . "call" them?

MR_S: Oh, right. There's this thing called the telephone. You can dial a series of numbers that tells the telephone systems who you want to talk to, and then the system makes their telephone make a sound that tells them that there's someone wanting to talk to them, and then they pick up a mouthpiece and talk into it and the two of you have a conversation.

Zantedeschia 'Picasso.'

KETCHUM: How long does this take?

MR_S: Um. I dunno. Maybe a minute?

KETCHUM: Marvelous.

MR_S: Yeah, I guess so.

KETCHUM: And these "telephones," how do they operate?

MR_S: Not sure what you mean.

KETCHUM: You just speak into a long hollow tube and the sound comes out the other end thousands of miles away, or --

MR_S: Oh. Duh. No, the sound is converted to electrical signals first, and then the electrical signals are transmitted to the other telephone, and the other telephone translates them back into sound. Basically like a telegraph, I think, just with the ability to send complex sounds instead of just dots and dashes.

Dendrobium NOID.

KETCHUM: I see. And are we any nearer an explanation for electricity?

MR_S: Um. Yeah. It's sort of related to magnetism. Electrons flow --

KETCHUM: "Electrons?"

MR_S: Yes. Electrons. It turns out that atoms aren't solid, indivisible little balls after all. They're made up of three smaller particles called electrons, protons and neutrons. Electricity happens when the electrons are all moving in the same direction through a motor or something. I'm a little unclear on the specifics.

KETCHUM: So the telephone you use to speak with Florida is powered by the movement of these electrons, and then Florida puts the plants on a ship and sends them to you?

MR_S: More or less. Now that I think about it, the telephone signals are probably more fiber-optic now than electrical. And that's leaving out cell phones, which is a whole other thing. Also Florida sends stuff to us by truck, not by ship.

KETCHUM: And what is a "truck?"

MR_S: It's like a large carriage, I guess? Or a covered wagon? They're very large, wheeled vehicles, but instead of being attached to horses and pulled by horses, they're self-powered.

KETCHUM: And what do you do with all your horses?

MR_S: [blinks]

MR_S: .

MR_S: I really don't understand that question.

Eucharis grandiflora.

KETCHUM: No matter. Continue. Where does the power to move the trucks come from, then?

MR_S: The truck contains an engine, which burns gasoline --

KETCHUM: "Gasoline?"

MR_S: It's from petroleum? Flammable liquid?

KETCHUM: Oh, for lice!

MR_S: [blinks]

MR_S: Very possibly. Anyway. There's a thing called an internal-combustion engine, which converts the power from the burning gasoline into motion of a motor. I don't really know how that works; I've never been all that interested in finding out. But so then they put the plants on the truck, and the truck travels along the roads to us, here in Iowa, where we take the plants off and send it back.

KETCHUM: It all sounds very exciting. This is exactly the sort of discovery I had hoped to make with my time machine. You're quite certain you've never heard of me?

MR_S: [shrugs]

KETCHUM: Then you keep the plants here and sell them.

MR_S: Yes.

Degarmoara Flying High 'Stars and Bars.'

KETCHUM: [looking at a price tag]

KETCHUM: In what units are these prices?

MR_S: Dollars.

KETCHUM: Your customers must be extremely wealthy!

MR_S: Not especially. Money has, like I said before, changed a lot in the last hundred and fifty years.

KETCHUM: Hundred and forty-eight.

MR_S: My bad. Hundred and forty-eight.

KETCHUM: These plants are available to all, then?

MR_S: Well sure. Anybody who has the money.

KETCHUM: And then the money goes back to Florida?

MR_S: No. Or: well. Some of it does. Most of it stays here. The boss covers her costs, and then whatever is left over is profit. I'm sure it was the same in your day. Some of the costs are probably different.

KETCHUM: Like what?

MR_S: Well, um, she has to pay her employees, and pay the electric bill and the phone bill, and --

KETCHUM: The electricity and telephone aren't free?

MR_S: Oh my no.

Goodaleara Pacific Truffle 'Surrogate Star.'

KETCHUM: Hmm. [gestures] Do go on.

MR_S: Plus she has to pay for gas for the trucks, and the fertilizer and soil we use to pot the plants in, and the pots too, as far as that goes. And she has to pay taxes on the land, insurance for the business, poisons to kill the greenhouse pests, and so on. It does add up.

KETCHUM: Greenhouse pests?

MR_S: Yeah. Some of the plants we bring in have bugs on them, and the bugs can make the plants look bad, or kill the plants, so we spray the plants with poison once a week to kill the bugs.

KETCHUM: And then you bring in new plants, with new bugs?

MR_S: Well, yeah.

KETCHUM: Would it not be more sensible to have the Floridians, the farmers, spray the plants with poison before sending them?

MR_S: [sighs] You'd think so, wouldn't you? I think it's a cost thing. If they did it, then they'd charge us more money for the plants they sell us, and we'd make less of a profit.

KETCHUM: But you're spraying the plants every week. Doesn't the poison cost money as well?

MR_S: Yes. [pause] I guess the real reason why we don't have them do it first is because some of the bugs live outside, here, and could get into the greenhouse and cause trouble even if the plants were completely clean when they arrived.

KETCHUM: This sounds like a poor system.

Tillandsia NOID.

MR_S: It really is. But it works well enough. Mostly. It doesn't have to be perfect.

KETCHUM: Why not just grow the plants for yourself, here in the . . . "greenhouse?"

MR_S: We don't have the space, for one thing: I mean, we do a few things from seeds or cuttings, but it'd be impossible to grow everything we needed on our own without having a lot more room to lay it all out. And then we'd have to heat it all during the winter, which costs a lot of money, and someone would have to water it all, and with some of these plants, it'd wind up being a good seven years before we got anything big enough to sell, and even then it wouldn't look as good or be as cheap as something that had been grown outdoors in Florida and shipped up here. It's too bad, though, that we can't do that with citrus.


MR_S: They're not sending citrus out of Florida anymore, because the state's being quarantined for a citrus disease. We could take on a new supplier, from California or Texas, but that's a hassle, or we can wait for Florida to get the situation under control, or we could grow our own, or we could just not have them.

KETCHUM: And for right now?

MR_S: We just don't have them. Though maybe I could go to the supermarket and buy some oranges or lemons or something and we could try planting seeds. I've never done that before; I don't know how well it'd work, or whether the plants would be pretty when we got them.

Cordyline fruticosa.

KETCHUM: "Supermarket?" What about them is superlative?

MR_S: Mostly that they're very large, and many products are available. Lots of produce, actually, fruits and vegetables. Any time of year, you can go to the supermarket and buy bananas and apples and grapes and strawberries and what have you.

KETCHUM: Any time of year? How is this possible?

MR_S: Well, I'm not saying it works out that great. Some stuff is grown in the Southern Hemisphere -- Chile is a good one, for example, on the I think west side of South America. They grow a lot of our off-season grapes and ship them up here. Other stuff is grown in greenhouses similar to this one, but much larger, in other parts of the country.

KETCHUM: And when you say the grapes are "shipped," to you, you mean trucks?

MR_S: Well, no, I think I mean ships sometimes. Probably mostly airplanes. I've never really thought about it much.

KETCHUM: Airplanes?

MR_S: Oh. Right. We can fly now. Planes are basically hollow metal tubes with wings; when they go fast enough, they can lift off the ground and then fly to wherever they're going.

KETCHUM: How fast do they have to go? Do the wings flap, like birds' wings?

MR_S: No, no flapping. I don't know how fast. It's something to do with the air pressure over the top of the wing being different from the air pressure underneath the wing. But anyway, the planes or ships or whatever have refrigerated compartments --

KETCHUM: "Refrigerated?"

MR_S: Like an icebox? Did you have iceboxes?

KETCHUM: [blank stare]

Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica.

MR_S: Um. Well, okay. When you compress a gas, it gets hot. When you expand a gas, it cools down. Refrigerators work by compressing a gas, blowing away the heat, and then expanding it in a different chamber to cool that chamber down. Then it's moved out of the chamber and compressed again, until the compartment has been cooled to a specified temperature, which is usually around 34 or 35 degrees Fahrenheit, because cooler temperatures slow down the rate at which food rots.

KETCHUM: And then it's brought to the "supermarket" and allowed to warm back up for purchase?

MR_S: Well, no, it's usually kept cool for purchase. The slower it rots, the longer they can keep it on the shelves, and the longer it's on the shelves, the more opportunity for the customers to buy it. All kinds of things are refrigerated in supermarkets: meat, milk, cheese, TV dinners --

KETCHUM: [questioning look]

MR_S: Maybe later, on explaining TV dinners.

KETCHUM: I see. You were saying something about citrus fruit, though.

MR_S: Oh. Um. [pause] Right, so -- I was just saying that we could try starting our own stuff, but it'd take so much time and effort that we're better off to just pay Florida to do it. But the other reason why we don't propagate our own plants more than we do is, a lot of the plants here are patented varieties. We can't make more of them to sell without paying the patent holders.

KETCHUM: So the patent holders own these plants even after you've purchased them?

MR_S: Partly. It's complicated.

KETCHUM: And you accept this?

MR_S: We don't have much choice. There are publications out there, magazines and such, that promote certain plants, and then our customers read about these plants and want them. So we have to buy them, because otherwise the customers will see that we don't have what they want, and they'll go somewhere else to get them. But, if the plant is a patented one, there's usually only one place we can buy them, and so the seller can name their own price, more or less. So we pay a lot of money for the patented variety, and then our customers pay us even more money, and eventually you see eight-dollar geraniums.

KETCHUM: Why, you're all mad!

Anthurium cv. 'Pandola.'

MR_S: [frowns] Well not really. You guys are pretty nutty-looking from our perspective, too, you know. Slavery and child labor and women not having the vote and all that. Slavery kind of in particular. Besides which, it's not my system. I didn't invent this.

KETCHUM: But how could you patent a plant in the first place? How could anyone prove that the plant had been stolen?

MR_S: Oh frak. We are going to have to do genetics. [sigh] Um. Okay. Well. In each of your cells -- you guys knew about cells, right?

KETCHUM: (impatiently) Of course.

MR_S: Well, in each of your cells, there is a chemical which is sort of a long thin line of repeating units, sort of like Morse code, which is called DNA. It contains the instructions for building a living body, more or less, but in a really abstract form. Scientists can now read the DNA from cells and compare them to one another. So not only could you demonstrate that the DNA from one plant was the same as the DNA from a second, patented plant, but if the patented plant were crossed with some other variety, you could determine that, too.

KETCHUM: How is the "reading" done? Are there microscopes involved?

MR_S: Well, potentially, I guess, but it's not that kind of reading: nobody's looking at the DNA up-close and seeing what it's saying; we have instruments that pull the DNA apart in various ways, and then the instruments can tell us whether they got the same pieces.

KETCHUM: I see. So you must be able to make any life form you want, then? If you can read the DNA, does it not follow that you may also write it?

MR_S: Yes, but in a very limited way. We only just found out what DNA was and what it did about fifty years ago. But yes, we can at least take certain pre-made pieces from one organism and insert them into another. It's called genetic engineering, and not everybody is happy about it.

KETCHUM: Are all of these [gestures at plants] modified in this way?

MR_S: Probably a few, but I think most of them were created from cross-breeding different species. Which I guess is sort of technically genetic engineering, though it's a really clumsy, time-consuming kind. Some of these are also probably the result of radiation treatment, which is . . . .


MR_S: Well, you remember I said that atoms are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons? Certain configurations of protons and neutrons fall apart spontaneously, releasing energy when they do. Irradiating something involves exposing it to the energy produced by this falling-apart.

Portulaca grandiflora 'Tequila Yellow.'

KETCHUM: How do you make the atoms so they'll fall apart?

MR_S: They're that way naturally. Uranium, for example. Or radium.

KETCHUM: I am unfamiliar with "radium."

MR_S: Really? I would have thought -- well, but it doesn't matter. The point is that these natural elements are constantly in the process of breaking down, and the energy they produce can change DNA. So you might start with a plant with green leaves and yellow streaks, and then irradiate the seeds, and the seeds that germinate wind up being green leaves with white streaks. Or solid yellow leaves. Or leaves that are a completely different shape. It all depends on what kind of damage the radiation does to the DNA in the seeds. This gives us some of the varieties of plants that we sell.

KETCHUM: Then some of these plants must be producing radiation.

MR_S: No. Or, yes and no, but mostly no. All living things produce some tiny amount of radiation, because potassium, an important element in our bodies, is naturally slightly radioactive. Also carbon. But it's not being irradiated that does it; it's just a fact of having bodies that are partly made of potassium and carbon. Just because you irradiate something doesn't mean it's radioactive, any more than illuminating an object makes it luminous.


MR_S: We should probably really find you an encyclopedia or something.

KETCHUM: (absently) Perhaps, perhaps. But I am curious on one more point: are people better-natured now, as in my time we all trusted they would be? Are they more intelligent? More courageous? Are your whalers, your clergy, your scientists, all sluggards, debased, greedy, braggarts, murderous, timid and foolish men like our own, or are they nearer the divine, slow to wrath, in control of their depraved instincts, compassionate, wise, lovers of God and mankind alike with all their strength and force of will?

MR_S: [looks at floor] No. I'm afraid human nature remains pretty much unchanged. They haven't really found a cure for that yet. I'm sorry.

KETCHUM: Perhaps then you would do me the honor of accompanying me further into the future. Say 2160?

MR_S: I guess. Are you pretty sure you can go backwards in this thing too? I don't necessarily want to get stuck living in 2160.

KETCHUM: Going backwards in time works as well. [frowns] Plus or minus two years, it would seem.

MR_S: [gulps] I may want to call the husband too, before we go.

KETCHUM: The who?

MR_S: [already leaving] Back in a second.

THE END . . . ?


Water Roots said...

Har har har...amazing! Loved it... More, more, more :)

lynn'sgarden said...

Mr_Subj. Once I started reading this morning, I HAD to finish..which made me late for class! but I'm back!

l. hope you're feeling better!
2. can't believe you've held on to this story for a year! A lesson in history, science, economy, political satire, sexual verbiage (lol!)...all rolled into one great post.
3. I DID appreciate your photos, especially beautiful cordyline terminalis!
4. The end...No! Part two, please ;)

our friend Ben said...

This is great, Mr. S.! Not only was it on target and funny, but I never had known how refrigeration worked, and now I do. Thanks!!!

Karen715 said...

Very enjoyable. One tiny quibble: I don't know when the word "greenhouse" became common in English, but I do think your traveler would have recognized one, even if the the concept of a commercial greenhouse was foreign to him. Buildings made partially/mostly/entirely of glass for the care and display of plants were around well before 1860.

Anna said...

oh, Mr._S., you are amazing.

sheila said...

I am so glad you decided to post this! Not sure about the word "greenhouse" - perhaps it would have been known as a "conservatory" or "hothouse" back then? A good topic for someone with time on their hands to research (maybe a topic for a future post, mr subjunctive?)