Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Alien Wakeup Call

It's time everyone woke up to the fact that aliens walk among us. It seems recently that individuals are coming forward with alien abduction tales having taken place at some point in their life, but not me. I caught on to that alien game early on. You see, I have cats.

Maybe many of you other cat owners know what I'm talking about. Cats are inventive tricksters. They love playing with human minds, and that characteristic combined with a very demanding ego can create havoc. One of their eccentricities is that at some early morning hour they boldly go where others would fear to tread. Mine usually approach just before dawn. Sometimes they let me know they're coming, but often they just magically appear standing on my chest, their nose nearly touching mine. Their message is clear: "I'm hungry and the food bowl is empty," or "I want out. Now."

So far it's not too bad. Anyone with kids or dogs knows about early morning demands. Cats take it a step further. When their human comes awake from the weight on his or her chest, perhaps the touch of a cold, damp nose, or the tickle of a whisker against the cheek, the first thing the human sees upon opening their eyes is ... an alien! Sometimes, just for fun, they play this game in the middle of the night, waking their person from REM state. All the person perceives is large eyes and small nostrils, not a recognizable being. Don't believe me? Check out these comparison photos of mug shot versus police suspect drawing.
Suspects in alien abduction

This is your cat playing with your brain while you remain in some hallucinatory dream state. I wonder how many of those reporting alien abductions owned a cat?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Leaf Magician

How lucky we are that alien magicians are not a rarity. Each and every leaf performs the same magic feat: they make sugar. Every animal on the planet survives at some level on the sugar plants create, but that's just an unimportant side result in the plant's perspective. The vast majority of food that all the plants produce is inedible, transformed into other plant parts. All animals together use less than three percent of the total yearly production.

Scientists are working hard so that someday humans may learn this function, but to completely do away with leafy plants would be impossible. They perform another magical feat. Leaves produce all the free oxygen lacing the atmosphere as a waste product of making sugar. To do this each leaf has small pore-like doors that absorb carbon dioxide and release excess water vapor, and unneeded oxygen into the air.

Within each leaf are many cell specialists, but all those containing green chlorophyll perform photosynthesis. This mysterious process uses sunshine to combine six molecules each of water and carbon dioxide to create a molecule of sugar and some loose oxygen molecules as a byproduct. For a miracle, it sounds so easy.

Most of the plant is composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, but other chemicals are needed, too. The roots deliver most of these chemicals  but leaves also absorb some materials from the air. These chemicals are combined in many different ways to provide the plant all the parts it needs for growth and reproduction. It is those chemical combinations that provide humans the vast variety of substances and tastes we call vegetables and fruit.

The next time you see a human magician trying to flimflam his audience into believing something that isn't remember there are a host of alien beings making true magic. This is one reason I love plants, love gardening, and love science fiction-fantasy.

Spring is starting here at last. Now that I've made a connection between science, plants, gardening, aliens, fantasy, and science fiction, perhaps I'd better move on to the actual topic of gardening.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More Illud Tempus

My e-book reader doesn't include the cover for the book. Not sure why, probably some techno-glitch I made myself since I used to get them, but now I feel positively deprived and dissatisfied. This made me wonder about covers and the importance of the illud tempus.

The illud tempus is simply a device telling listeners to suspend their disbelief-- that sense that what they are about to hear could never really happen. I say listeners because this all began with the oral folklore traditions of 'once upon a time.' That short phrase translates into 'just go along with this without asking too many questions about how and why.' The illud tempus told the listeners they were about to visit another realm, another time, even another dimension: a place of fairies, trolls, dragons, and now superheroes, impossibly beautiful characters, space travel and all sorts of bizarre settings and plots.

The best examples today are TV show trailers. We all know our favorite show's music. It calls us from loading the dishwasher or balancing the bank account. Those beginning images and sounds are the show's illud tempus, asking us to suspend our disbelief for another thirty to sixty minutes. We know the hero or heroine will again surmount terrible odds, or find themselves once more in some implausible situation.

As a reader, I want to suspend my disbelief, that's what getting into a story is all about. However, few novels or short stories today begin with 'in a kingdom far, far away.' Reading a story where I just cannot identify with the characters, or they behave in unbelievable manners shows I have not suspended disbelief. Stories like this dissatisfy me, the reader. I want to become each character and participate in his or her success and failure. I want to share the characters' emotions, feel their physical word, and sense their inner selves. It is escapism at its best. This involves the art of writing.

But what makes me chose a story? What is the illud tempus of written fiction? The illud tempus only takes seconds, so perhaps the book's cover best draws me into suspending disbelief. Covers give hints about characters, setting, genre, historical era, and plot. Certainly looking at another six-pack abs forces most women familiar with men's physics to suspend their disbelief (or, like me, question why they can't). Quite frankly covers seem to make me want to believe whatever the author says. Covers are in themselves fantasy images, but images often convey an impression of reality, so if I buy the cover, am I not more open to buying the story? I think so.

So is the cover an illud tempus?  "Once upon a time?"

My reader is so old it's out of production. If I want covers to draw me into a story, maybe I better invest in a newer reader.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Root of the Matter

Blogging at Night Writers on Roots, gardening topics with a touch of fantasy.

7/13/13 Update: As Night Writers is in Hiatus, I've posted the article here:

Some novels have characters who cannot survive sunlight or prefer to live in caves to hunt the Earth's treasure or to explore her dark recesses. Of all the great fantasy, adventure or suspense characters, none are as successful in these environs as roots.

When plants first took to earth from their sea habitat, roots were mere anchors. Certainly serving as support remained an important task. Roots kept early plants in place despite the action of wind or the waves of water. Moss, one of these primitive plants, still survives. Its roots don't absorb moisture, so the parts above ground must fulfill that task.

Through a few million years of design and development, some plants grew root tips. These cells outgrew the tough root covering most of the long tendrils, always growing a fraction of inch ahead of that impervious covering. They understood support in a different meaning from anchor. The tips absorbed and distributed the moisture needed for the plant. Nearly all plants today use this unique growth pattern, but ancient roots still weren't satisfied.

Even more generations later, some roots developed another innovation: root hairs. With this advance roots became miners. Now cells tunnel and excavate through soil using the hydraulic process of osmosis to move the treasures they find to the demanding horde of manufacturing cells living above ground. The root cells seek out water, oxygen, and the chemicals of life in the sustained warmth and dark of the underground. They either find moisture or die. When a root strand fails, new roots emerge from other roots, from underground stems, and in certain cases even leaves. They travel off to explore in new directions.

Growing roots release carbon dioxide into the soil. This carbon dioxide mixes with available moisture to produce an acid that dissolves soil molecules, even rock, freeing useful elements need to produce food. Root tips also release hydrogen, which exchanges place with nitrogen, potassium, and calcium in soil molecules, allowing the desired minerals easy entry into the root's vascular system. However, the denizens of the dark realm cannot make food like the upper echelon, sun-worshiping cells found in green leaves and stems.

These basement trollers often send so many raw materials upstairs, that food manufacture far exceeds the community's needs. The top story executives, rather than waste their production, send food back to the roots. There, a long time ago, the clever root cells developed another strategy--storage units for surplus food in the form of bulbs, rhizomes and tubers. These inventive cells still do more. Like in some apocalyptic novel, when climate changes make living upstairs tough, these inventive prospectors hunker down to wait the right time to send new shafts into the light of day.

Similar to many other underclass citizens, the mass of tangled roots below ground far exceeds the total of leaves and stems privileged to exist in the light. They often seek depths greatly exceeding the plant's height. Roots form the plant's structural foundation, they seek out the raw materials of life, can change the soil around themselves, and they store supplies for future needs. What greater heroic effort could any story character make?

Much of my knowledge about gardening comes from books. To learn more about how plants work, I recommend finding a copy of The How and Why of Better Gardening by Laurence Manning, an inspirational source for understanding plants.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Time Capsules

We had an ice storm yesterday, with snow today. Snow over ice, how great is that? Anyway, I'm staying indoors looking at seed catalogs, which always makes me think about what miracles those paper packages hold.

Plants existed millions of years before seed reproduction developed, and many of these ancient plants still exist. For instance, ferns produce spores, but spores can't survive harsh, dry climates. From this ancient background, almost every plant possesses more than one method of reproduction, and when it comes to cloning, they are masters. Most plants can spread through their root systems. They start as a single stem that grows into a clump. Once thriving, the clump expands into a thicket or grove. So why develop seeds?

Seed production involves sharing genes, which we now know expands the chances of survival by allowing plants to adapt in an entirely new way. Seed production is the only reproduction method that produces an entirely new plant. They may grow to look exactly the same to you and me, but I expect if they could see us, they'd say the same thing. We learn in basic biology class that pollen from the male plant lands on the stigma of the female plant. Soon afterward the male and female cells combine, sharing their genes. These genes create an embryo-like the parent plant, but different in some small way that might improve its survival. This embryo's chances are initially enhanced by encasing the tiny life in a spaceship filled with food and surrounded by a hard shell. When conditions outside are good, the shell softens, absorbs water and allows the embryo to develop.

How long can the embryo survive inside a seed? Viability changes from species to species. Most last at least one year. Vegetable seeds usually remain viable three to five years. However, there was a date palm seed found in Masada, Israel at Herod's palace. Carbon dating aged the seed at two thousand years old. To prove viable, the seed's embryo had to develop into a plant. A carbon-dated 1,300-year-old lotus seed has also proved viable.

Isn't it amazing that so many of the sciences man tries to invent like cloning, and longevity, plants have already accomplished? Besides their self-serving purposes, plant seeds provide human food. Wheat, oats, corn, rice, peas, cherries, and strawberries are all seeds. They also serve writers, providing great metaphors and similes. Another huge plus for humans from plants producing seeds--to make seeds, they must first make flowers. How wondrous is that?

Update 7/13/13: Night Writers in Hiatus, so I'm placing the article here.