Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming.

According to my good friend Rob Haines, one of my most often repeated phrases in conversation is "nobody gets that reference". It's all down to the fact that in every day discussions I'll punctuate my speech with random movie or TV show quotes in an effort to look clever and entertain those around me. Problem is, more often than not the quotes are generally so obscure that people will look at me quizzically instead of celebrating my brilliance as a raconteur. This is then followed by a long sigh and a resigned complaint that I'm on my own in realising how amusing I've just been.

Mind it's one of the reasons I love writing this blog. As some of you may have noticed more often that not the title of a post on here has absolutely nothing to do with the content. Instead it's generally a quote from a movie or a television show that I've briefly mentioned in passing while talking about a snowboarding vampire or something. Which I kind of take great pride in. In fact eveytime I'm linked to by The Debris Field or Alt News it raises a smile that someone is going to click on that link with absolutely no idea what they're about to read. Ah low level anarchy, thy name is Gareth.

Problem is today I find myself in a difficult position. Usually I'll write the post and come up with a title later, partly because I can only concentrate on one thing at a time (Gee Note: No really, this morning I was on a phone call while attempting to make myself breakfast at the same time. The person on the other end of the line said something important which I promptly made a note of only to realise halfway through I'd been writing with a butter knife) and partly because I have actually no idea what I'm going to write about exactly until I've, er, written it. I mean I have a general idea, and usually know the main topics I want to touch on. But apart from that I come up with most of it on the fly. You know, like Eddie Izzard doing stand up, or more accurately Spinal Tap performing a jazz odyssey. I believe this is called blogging without a net. If it isn't then it should be, if only because it sounds kinda sexy.

But, and here's the thing, I actually know what I want to write about today. As amazing as it sounds it all came to me in a flash of brilliance about two hours ago, including the title. And so I started to happily hammer away at my keyboard, humming a jaunty little tune as I did so, confident in the notion that I would be able to knock out a reasonable post in record time.

This carried on for about ten minutes or so until a thought came crashing in to my brain like an articulated truck in a Michael Bay movie (Gee Note: Damn you Michael Bay!!). I've used the title I planned to use for this post before.

See there's this wonderful scene in Jurassic Park where right after everyone's gone doo lally about the dinosaurs Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neil, Richard Attenborough and a couple of others are in the lab where said extinct reptiles were created. Jeff Goldblum's character is criticising Richard Attenborough for playing God, questioning how with no natural predators they plan to keep the dinosaur population from growing beyond the park's capabilities. Attenborough explains that the dinosaurs have been genetically engineered so that all of them are female to which Goldblum has this to say:

"You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will... breed?"

"No, I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."

That's the title I was planning to use. Life finds a way. Because never have truer words been said. For example, recently it was discovered that tiny little photosynthetic bacteria have managed to survive and thrive by using dim radiation from deep sea hydrothermal vents instead of light from the sun, the first life forms known to do so. Which is incredible really, as until that point the idea of life without sunlight was deemed impossible.

Even in harsh conditions such as the Arctic, creatures such as lemmings manage to live quite happy lives. You know, building bridges, using umbrellas to float down from high places, blowing themselves up when they get it wrong, that kind of thing. Life does just find a way to survive. Even if a nuclear holocaust ripped through the world, wiping out every man made structure, poisoning the seas and turning the sky black, what's the bet that, oh I don't know, squirrels somehow manage to live on and claim the Earth as their own? (Gee Note: If you ask me they're already plotting something. You should never trust a squirrel, what with their beady eyes and twitchy noses. Sign of a Machiavellian intent if ever there was one).

Another example of life finding a way are carnivorous plants. (Gee Note: Or more accurately Mother Nature's way of entertaining herself by messing with our heads. Plants that eat animals? What the hell? I've only just got my mind around a duck-billed platypus for God's sake. I mean a furry, venomous bird with legs instead of wings that lays eggs and sweats milk is pretty tough to take, but flowers that eat mice? I mean c'mon now. Give us a break once in a while). Carnivorous plants came to be simply because they somehow ended up evolving in soil that was poor in nutrients. Which, you know, I think we can all empathise with to a degree. After all most of us have probably lived in places that were less than ideal at one time or another. I myself lived in Neath for a bit. It's OK. I've recovered now.

Then somehow the plants worked out that they could gain nutrients from other living creatures, namely by eating them. Rather than target other plants however (Gee Note: Because brother against brother violence is just wrong man) these cunning wee shrubs decided that flies, spiders, and even in some cases small mammals were the best choice when it comes to a mid morning snack.

Now this is the kind of thing that makes me question the theory of evolution over some kind of divine intervention. I mean I know plants react to the environment around them, but at what point does one work out that the best way to survive is to become carnivorous? Surely if the ground doesn't have enough nutrients then said plant would just whither and die? For example if you plant a rose in some wood chippings, chances are the damn thing is going to be looking a little droopy after a couple of days, not sitting there sharpening up a meat cleaver. In a way it defies belief that these life forms actually exist.

But exist they do, the most famous of which is the Venus Flytrap (Gee Note: I once knew a woman who had the nickname “Pen...”. On second thoughts nevermind. Telling that story would send this blog in to rated “R” territory). Combining all the ingredients of a really good B-Movie monster, a Flytrap just looks like a killing machine. Big teeth, blood red gaping mouths, both of which can be snap shut in 0.4 of a second. Seriously if it wasn't for the fact that the trap is only a couple of inches big these things would scare the hell out of me.

Thankfully though flytraps are just that, traps big enough for flies and other similarly sized insects. Even the largest carnivorous plants like Nepenthes can't realistically catch anything larger than a mouse. But, (Gee Note: Why must there always be a “but”? Can't for once we just finish one of these things with “Look there's no such thing as man eating plants. Nobody has ever suggested otherwise. OK? Relax. There's nothing to be worried about.”?) over the years tales of even larger carnivorous plants have been reported, with varying degrees of criticism.

Take for example the Ya-te-veo. First reported in J.W. Buel's book Land and Sea, published in 1887, this monstrous tree is said to have a short thick trunk with long reaching tendrils with which to catch prey. It is claimed to exists in areas such as Central and South America, as well as Africa and on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It's main diet allegedly consists of large insects but it has been reported that attempts have been made by the tree to consume humans as well. (Gee Note: By the way "ya te veo" can be loosely translated from Spanish as "I can see you". Which is an awfully cute name for a potentially dangerous organism. It would be like calling polar bears "big cuddly snuggle bundles" or something). Also making the rounds as far as stories of human flesh loving trees is the Duñak. A folklore tale from the tribes of the Philippines the Duñak is described as having thick foliage and a dark bark. When a large animal walks underneath it's branches a set of vines extend down and grab the animal, lifting it up in to the branches where upon it is crushed to death and consumed. According to legend it normally preys on deer and the like, but will occasionally feed on human as well. In both cases, neither the Ya-te-veo nor the Duñak have been proved to exist by serious scientific study.

So evidence for man-eating trees is pretty thin on the ground. Well unless you count the events of October 2007 in the small village of Padrame, India. The world (Gee Note: And by "world" I mean geeks like me) had it's collective interest piqued by this news article in India's Express Newspaper.

Mangalore: Carnivorous trees grabbing humans and cattle and gobbling them up is not just village folklore.

Residents of Padrame near Kokkoda in Uppinangady forest range sighted one such carnivorous tree trying to dine on a cow last Thursday [October 18, 2007]. According to reports, the cow owned by Anand Gowda had been left to graze in the forests.

The cow was suddenly grabbed by the branches and pulled from the ground. The terrified cowherd ran to the village, and got Gowda and a band of villagers to the carnivorous tree.

Before the tree could have its meal, Anand Gowda and the villagers struck mortal blows to the branches that turned limp and the cow was rescued. Uppinangady range forest officer (RFO) Subramanya Rao said the tree was described as ‘pili mara’ (tiger tree) in native lingo.

He had received many complaints about cattle returning home in the evenings without tails. On Friday, the field staff confirmed coming across a similar tree in Padrane, partially felled down.

However no detailed inquiry was made as the authorities were not asked for any report, Rao said

This was soon followed by this television news report.

How great is that? My favourite bit is the music. I love the way it starts off as a 1950's gameshow, segues in to a blaxploitation movie about a private eye who works outside the law for the greater good, before finally ending up blatantly stealing the theme from the X-Files. Ah if only someone could come up with a television show to combine all those elements. Seriously that would have money written all over it. (Gee Note: By the way I'd like to point out that a man biting a dog isn't really news either. My late grandfather got bitten by the family dog once when it was a puppy and retaliated by biting it back. You know you haven't lived until you've seen a dog with a "What the hell?" look on it's face. The dog never bit anyone again. Actually, come to think of it neither did my grandfather).

Two things are obviously apparent after reading both the article and watching the video (Gee Note: Firstly that anchor woman is a babe. What? I'm just saying she is, that's all. Secondly a tree that's powerful enough to grab a cow was beaten back by an old woman. Which, you know, is all kinds of brilliant. I bet she's like the Indian version of Supergran or something. Speaking of which how the hell did I manage to write three, yes count 'em, three separate posts on Werewolves and not put in one mention of "Woof!"? I swear I should start planning these things out).

Firstly what happened to the rest of the tree after they cut it down? I mean if the damn thing's been eating cows then it must be worth looking at no? Secondly how did the cowherd manage to alert the villagers to the tree's carnivorous ways? Unless they had skippy like telepathic communication skills then I'm honestly struggling to work out how you connect "spooked cows" and "it must be caused by a meat eating tree" together.

Thing is I don't really buy it. Any of it if I'm honest. As previously discussed plants that have become carnivorous have done so because of the lack of nutrients in the soil around them. Hence the reason why Venus Flytraps are naturally found in North Carolina's Green Swamp alone. Man eating trees on the other hand are reported from all over the place, nutritious soil or not, which destroys the logic of how these things would have evolved in the first place (Gee Note: Unless, like in Little Shop of Horrors, they're aliens. But I doubt that tremendously. After all plants don't make the best spaceship pilots. By the way in answering a question I've posed on this blog before, it turns out having retired from making films Rick Moranis isn't up to all that much these days, outside of making the occasional comedy album and doing the odd spot of voice-over work. Which is a shame really, especially with all the rumours of Ghostbusters III flying about. Moranis was one of the best things in that movie. That bit where he's possessed and copying everything Harold Ramis does inside the fire station dissolves me in to giggles every time).

So what could cause folks to believe that a tree could be a potential heath risk? Well one theory put forward by many for historical reports of large carnivorous plants is misidentification of already known plants such as the meat loving Sundews.

But what of the Indian Cow Eating tree? Well the most logical explanation is that the grabbing branches were noting more than a common snake. India is home to some deadly blighters in that regards such as the Indian Cobra and Russell's Viper and to a peckish, presumably starved snake, a cows tails might look like a tasty snack.

Admittedly it doesn't explain everything about the case of the Cow Eating Tree. But with so little evidence either way other than a few eye witness reports and a tree stump I guess it's the best hypothesis available. However, nature is constantly throwing curveballs at us, new species that are discovered on a daily basis are constantly re-writing what we know to be true of her wonderful work. A man who knew this all too well was Charles Darwin, who celebrates the 200th Anniversary of his birth on February 12th (Gee Note: Well OK maybe he won't celebrate it as he's all kinds of dead, but I'm sure some dude's wearing with long hair and black rimmed glasses working out of a lab in California are going to pop a cork in his honour). And to quote the man himself:

"I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects."

And maybe in the case of a meat eating tree, life has found a way.


Rob said...

One of my friends used to keep venus flytraps. Strange fellow, he was. But cow-eating trees? Seems tenuous at best. I'd say it was more likely aliens sitting in the branches having a levitating barbeque.

Speaking of life finding a way, have you come across tardigrades before? Damn little invincible buggers that they are. Impressive, though.

Naveed said...

I think Josh Gates and the Destination Truth guys need to get out there and look for Indian carnivorous tree. It'd be all kinds of fun watching them flip out the instant they bump into a vine or branch while wandering around in the dark.

Nathan said...

First it's cow eating trees then it's triffids... I have the same thing about putting references into sentences at random places then looking at everyone to see if they got it. Makes life interesting!