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Amorphophallus titanum Analogy

August 31, 2007

A Trilogy

a n a l o g y

8/30/07

I was asked on the spot at our university meeting of August 31 to articulate an analogy comparing the opening of the Amorphophallus titanum (corpse flower) inflorescence on the night before the opening of our initial semester of the new Liberal Arts Core at ECSU for Fall 2007. This document adds the third part of the trilogy.

The First Response:

What no one knew was that I was near the end of a two-day fast for medical tests, that I had spent much of the night in the greenhouse with the plant, and that I had been up at 5 AM to sweep the floors and prepare for greenhouse tours that morning. So I was not in good condition for quick thinking. Worse, most of my night was spent under the influence of the tremendous stench of this plant. My morning guests had just experienced a small sniff of what I had been drowned in that night. It was eye-watering and nauseating.

Given my condition, and maybe just five seconds for thought, the only positive thing I could think to say at that moment was that "the stench is abating."

This was wholly unacceptable on its face...and I'm sure that those not experiencing the evening before could only interpret this incomplete analogy as an attempt to say that the new program was odious but that its perception was improving as we were getting used to it. But that would be wrong...completely wrong. I just didn't have the presence of mind or luxury of time to explain any further.

The Second Response:

Within a few seconds of thinking what I had just said and how others might interpret that, I realized I would need to guide interpretation a bit. Fortunately at the end of the meeting I was given that opportunity. I had formulated a germ of an analogy while still trying to listen attentively to the other speakers during the meeting. My second attempt went something like this:

Several years ago an exotic seed was planted. With the direct contribution of leaves, the infusion of light energy from countless photons, gallons of water, pounds of fertilizer, unmeasured volumes of carbon dioxide exhaled from the voices of numerous students and faculty, and the nurture of the horticulturist, a corm developed below the soil...just out of sight. During seasons of development, the corm grew and expanded, building energy and momentum for producing an inflorescence.

And then, suddenly, the inflorescence appeared above the soil and burst into bloom at the beginning of the Fall 2007 semester. It is beautiful and brightly colored...huge...comprehensive. But also it rapidly heated up to release its fragrance...which reeks. The stench is eye-watering and nauseating to humans. And, at first thought, you might think the odor is repulsive...in fact, biologically, it is beautiful and critical.

The reduction of the stench is usually a wonderful signal; not so much as a relief for humans, but more-significantly as a signal that the necessary biology has been achieved.

The Rest of the Story:

As Paul Harvey would say, "And now for the rest of the story." I could not tell this part at the meeting...for this part of the analogy was yet to happen in our greenhouse. What will happen and what can be achieved will depend upon many factors. Clearly the continued light, fertilizer, the contribution of leaves and nurture will be essential. And whether the transformation from flowers to fruits will occur will depend upon those factors and more.

In the case of Amorphophallus, if we look past the stench, and deep between the spathe and spadix at this opening time, we would see literally a thousand tiny flower buds. Some are male and some are female. They hold the potential to grow, to function biologically, to contribute to and nurture together yet another generation of plants. If our horticultural skill and resources are up to the task, the potential for the great achievement we hope for on this day may be realized as these young flowers progress in the time ahead.

Yet, with the arrival of these young flowers today is also the fragrance. While offensive to our senses, it is attractive to flies. These animals ferry pollen from inflorescence to inflorescence in the rainforest of the native island of Sumatra. Thus the stench is a necessary part of the development of these young flowers. It facilitates the next phase of development and permits the achievement of their full potential. If the smell is sufficient then flies arrive, the stench is reduced, and the flowers may begin to develop into fruit.

And so, indeed, when "the stench is abating," we have a good sign that all is well...that these developing flowers are starting to achieve their potential. And so perhaps now it seems the analogy has come full circle. As Paul Harvey would say, "and now you know...the rest of the story."

But, as others would say, "knowing is half of the battle." The other half of the battle is what happens as the crude and rude stench abates and further development begins. There is much work to do if the full potential of these flowers is to be ultimately realized.

The environment will need to provide more resources, the corm must work directly to feed and nourish, additional leaves and roots will stimulate with hormones or other signals from the outside. Genes will respond, guide, and direct internal physiology. And it will take some time for the full potential of these young flowers to be achieved.

And so today this work lies ahead of us in the liberal arts. As we begin our first semester, let us rejoice as the initial crudeness and rudeness of our precious flowers are replaced by educational refinement and achievement. As the rough ore of our students becomes well rounded, we will know that our work is progressing and that our work is noble.

Finally, as a take-home lesson, we learn that with adequate rest, with a little food, with more than a few seconds for thinking, a better and more complete analogy can be conceived. Two of my favorite in-class questions include: How many of you have had breakfast this morning? How many of you got eight hours of sleep last night? Responses indicate that students usually come to class both famished and exhausted. Our faculty and staff have observed a potent demonstration of how these conditions diminish the responses of a faculty member. Hopefully sufficient resources of all kinds will be available to optimize the maturation, development, and performance of our students in their four years with us.

ross


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