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The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil


Fig fruit

The fig tree is the gateway of man’s expulsion from Eden. It has been identified from early neolithic sites as the first deliberately cultivated plant. About 10,000 years ago, before even wheat and rye were tamed,  the fig initiated hunter-gatherers into a world of agriculture. And with agriculture came the architecture of permanent settlements and new social structures. It was one of the first great technical innovations of our species and one of the key shifts in the balance of our relationship with the rest of nature.

Since then we have been moving gently, almost imperceptibly, generation by generation, decision by decision, over thousands of years, from a participatory relationship to a domineering one. Perhaps this generation will be the one to wake up and realize that it’s a foolish fight, because it’s a fight we can never win. Perhaps, after 10,000 years, it’s time for a new global revolution.

So far a willingness to share has not been our greatest quality as a species. One aspect of our harnessing of the fig for our own use was to make the fig wasp redundant. Until Adam and Eve came along the fig tree and the fig wasp were one organism. One could not survive without the other. Is it even accurate to call them separate organisms? When life weaves and interpenetrates and shapeshifts before us with such dazzling complexity where can we draw the line between beings?  Over millions of years streams of DNA have branched and diverged and flowed together again and, in this case, wasp and tree, separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution have, in the last 60 million years or so, again converged.

Not content with covering them only with its leaves, the fig tree turns its sexual organs modestly inwards, away from public gaze. They grow on the inside of a sac on the stem of the tree. These baskets of flowers are what we think of as the fig fruit. Only the fig’s associated wasp is permitted entry to this boudoir and there’s nowhere else it wants to be. There are at least 750 species of fig tree and particular wasps are associated with particular figs in an incredibly intricate dance that we still do not fully understand.

We do know the general principles, however, whereby a wasp squeezes through a special passage in the flower cluster to lay her eggs, pollinate the fig, and then die. The eggs hatch and once the males have fertilized the females they chivalrously chew a way out before dying themselves. The fertilized females then exit through the hole made for them and fly off to find the right species of fig at the right stage of development in which to lay their eggs. They only have a few days of life in which to do this. The trees meanwhile call their wasps by perfumes released just when they are aching to be pollinated.

You can watch the whole process here. It’s a perfect example of poise and timing and complexity in the music of nature. Little wonder that this is Eden’s Tree of Knowledge and the sacred Bodhi Tree under which Buddha became enlightened.

fig assemblage

But Man has cultivated self-pollinating varieties of fig, and thus made the fly redundant. Perhaps he didn’t like the crunchy bits.

Why not follow through the logic of efficiency and utility in our exploitation of nature? We don’t need the wasps. Why not get rid of the whole messy business and do away with the fig altogether? After all surely as the lords of nature we now have the prowess to engineer far more efficient sources of nutrients. Maybe, since we’ve almost used up all the soil anyway, it’s time agriculture grew up. Perhaps we should cultivate algal blooms in the oceans, package them like tofu, and flavour them by electrical stimulation of appropriate centres in the brain. Why stop there? Once we’ve finished off all the resources of this limited planet we’ll need to invent nano-agriculture to synthesize the intravenous nutrient drips that will keep our brood growing while we swarm beyond this solar system in our search for new Paradises on which to feed.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Bodger permalink
    17/07/2009 8:56 am

    You seem very keen to bring religious imagery into some of your daily posts, Mr Hermit.

    Would you not agree that organised religion has often been at the forefront of the destruction you wish us to avoid?

  2. trine permalink
    17/07/2009 11:30 am

    hi Again,last time was a race against time,the musaeum was due to close so it was rather neck and neck, to get something posted in time>And returning to the subject of hand held,which was the inspiration for the last post,ive just enrolled for a comference on new technology and the incentive was an ipod touch.Eligablity,is all.

    Interesting you comments about figs,and lords of creation,well yes we might like to think so, but when weve shown scant regard? And we are capable of delusions,and of some scale given the boom to recession mentality, perhaps were more cave man,especailly Plato’s cave,than we think?
    and with all the tidying shopping mall mentality,more hermtically insulated that your self,withnour towering ambitions to tame,or is it defeat nature,when weve failed to tame our selves?

    what do we give fig for figuratively speaking?

  3. Leander permalink
    17/07/2009 12:53 pm

    It was my friend Dermot who, in 1998, first told me about figs and fig wasps. He said it was a fascinating relationship and he was absolutely correct. The fact that the male fig wasp, to all intents and purposes, never leaves the inside of the fig has really stayed with me all these years. The male fig wasp seems to have a bit of a dull existence to me but I guess, and hope, that they’re happy with their lot. I guess we’re all just fig wasps stuck inside our own particular figs when it comes to it. I, for one, shall try to make the best of my fig.

    I could ponder the fig wasp/fig thing almost indefinitely and I think many people would find similar pondering an enjoyable pass time. So, my offer for these specimens is to declare an International Fig Wasp Day on September 3rd. This will run each year and people will be encouraged to set aside an hour in their day to think about Fig Wasps and their relationship with Figs. This will be followed by joyous feasting at Fig Festivals where people will consume vast amounts of Fig wine, Fig rolls and Figgy pudding.

    Somebody happened upon the fig leaves with paintings on them in our collection of cultivated plants couple of years ago. This collection, of some 40,000 specimens plus a further 15,000 botanical illustrations, was given to us by Leo Grindon (1828-1904). He was a fascinating character who wrote innumerable books about botany, nature and many other things besides. His collection of plants contains loads of interesting stuff including illustrations, newspaper cuttings, letters etc. When we found these leaves it was definitely a ‘hey, wow look at that!’ moment in the herbarium and now, thanks to the hermit, we’re sharing it with a wider audience.

  4. 17/07/2009 2:18 pm

    It feels almost impertinent to say hello but hello! I was passing through to pick up a key and recognised you, and my key-bearer confirmed it was you. I hope that the hermetic space is giving you marvellous pause (paws?) for reflection. And drop me a line when you resurface.

  5. Nameless permalink
    17/07/2009 3:27 pm

    Om Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom the Lovely, the Holy !

    Avalokita, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond.

    He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and He saw that in their own-being they were empty.

    Here, O Sariputra,

    form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form ;

    emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form,

    the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.

    Here, O Sariputra,

    all dharmas are marked with emptiness ;

    they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.

    Therefore, O Sariputra,

    in emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness ;

    No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind ; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind ; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to :

    No mind-consciousness element ; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to : There is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path.

    There is no cognition, no attainment and no non-attainment.

    Therefore, O Sariputra,

    it is because of his non-attainmentness that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the Perfection of Wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble,

    he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

    All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied on the Perfection of Wisdom.

    Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth — for what could go wrong ? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this :

    gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

    ( Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail ! — )

    This completes the Heart of perfect Wisdom.

    (Translated by E. Conze)

  6. 17/07/2009 4:38 pm

    This is a topic I have spent far more than 40 days contemplating! I wanted to mention Adam & Eve in my comment on labels, but didn’t for the sake of brevity. Now, you’ve got me all excited, I don’t know if I can keep it short.

    The Garden of Eden allegory is one I’ve wrestled with quite a bit. What is the fruit of the knowledge of Good & Evil, and what sort of state of ‘perfection’ were we in before we knew of it?

    I have come to understand that the immediate, spontaneous result (fruit) of categorizing into Good & Evil is judgment. And the fruit of judgment is division, as we desire to create distance between ourselves and that which we have judged as evil. I no longer believe that the Fall of Man parable has anything to do with religious dogma, but the story holds a deep truth about how we have cursed ourselves through our practice of making value judgments. Interestingly, Jesus taught non-judgment as a way to escape the hell of judgment, though this is often avoided in the practice of Christianity.

    On a more physical level, this progression from what you’ve called ‘participatory’ systems to ‘domination’ systems is an idea on which I’m basing my graduate research. Life cannot live without death. We eat death, we grow from death, death is the womb of life. But we’ve taken a turn away from a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, and toward a quite parasitic one. I suppose being a parasite is a fairly successful way to survive – on the whole parasites seem to do quite well.

    But, what was it that tipped the balance away from a respectful relationship with our Earth? In my view, religion. The allegory of Adam and Eve is so rich. Almost all forms of religion reject the Earth and natural systems and impulses as base and vile. With that kind of a foundation, how could we live in balance with it? I know so many people who view the world as their enemy. As something to be dominated. When your own home is your enemy, how will you live?

  7. becky permalink
    17/07/2009 6:17 pm

    Dear Ansuman,

    Now I know where the cruncy bits in Figs come from!!

    Interesting and complex. A delightful informative link you gave about the topic.

    I adore the photo of the beautifully decorated leaves and they now are on display they could be inspirational. I see a decaying process has been slowed because somebody took the leaf, made it different and it became more embodied. Similar to dye on fabric, carving in wood, paint on the coffin of an Egyptian mummy therein is the essence that a story must be conveyed. That emotion of action without words.

    As Figs provide a multiplex of functions these should not be destroyed but used to educate and stimulate the audience.

    the leaves make good fans!!
    destroy these not.

  8. 21/07/2009 12:50 am

    I’ve been chewing on this one for a few days now. Ihtink that cultivation is a beautiful example of cooperative living. At the same time, the question of whether these ‘two’ species can be considered separate is a fascinating one. How far out might we take that, though? The universe itself may quite well be considered a single living entity.

    But, the Fall of Man being the first step taken toward cultivation/domination of nature is intriguing. Could we find separate definitions for cultivation and domination or are they irrevocably united? Was the wasp cultivating the fig or vice versa? Why do we not have the right to do as the wasp does and nurture a species for our mutual benefit? Is it just disagreeable because the wasp is made obsolete?

    Oh, and those wasps have some fabulous …um…appendages, yes?

    • 23/07/2009 12:07 pm

      What would it be like if we did see ourselves as a single living entity?
      It’s selfishness that tears us apart.
      Co-operative living is fine, but it’s rare for us to even extend that hand of co-operation to other humans, let alone the whole universe.
      Perhaps there is a way to cultivate without domination. What about cultivation as an offering? What if every grain of food was first offered before being taken?
      Sacrifice is unfashionable amongst capitalists. Giving one’s work, one’s self, as a gift rather than taking what one can get. Mutual benefit can be pictured as mutual taking or mutual giving. The latter is more fun. Opens us to love rather than competition.
      We don’t need to change any of the mechanics of Darwinian science, just look at it the other way round.

  9. 21/07/2009 12:58 pm

    Your “streams of DNA” reminded me of this, one of the texts I hold closest to my heart, from John Berger’s ‘And our faces, my heart, brief as photos’:

    When I open my wallet
    to show my papers
    pay money
    or check the time of a train
    I look at your face.

    The flower’s pollen
    is older than the mountains
    Aravis is young
    as mountains go.

    The flower’s ovules
    will be seeding still
    when Aravis then aged
    is no more than a hill.

    The flower in the heart’s
    wallet, the force
    of what lives us
    outliving the mountain.

    And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

    Tim Healey read that for us in Oxford, last Friday night, at the launch of the Dark Mountain Project. Thinking about our project and your post, I wonder – is it hubris to talk about our generation, after 10,000 years, as being capable of a “global revolution”, a turning-over of the relationships of domination into something more like the wasp and the fig tree? Why should we be able to change a direction set for hundreds of lifetimes? (Chris TT, one of our other performers, warned us of the example of the artilleryman in ‘The War of the Worlds’, who claims to be building a new civilisation underground, but has only dug a twelve-foot hole to hide in.)

    • the hermit permalink*
      23/07/2009 11:52 am

      Dougald, this is a brilliant contribution. Many thanks. I’d forgotten about this poem and perhaps never grokked it with the vividness I have now.
      On the subject of hubris and the artilleryman, I have a million thoughts flying around but will not make them prosaic. A better response is in gestation.

  10. Leander permalink
    07/10/2009 11:30 am

    The Collections Development Panel, along with the director and the artist, discussed the fig specimens at a meeting on 3rd September.

    The blog responses and discussion were summarised as “There was little discussion around the specimens themselves, but much on the relationship between the plant and the wasp. No reason was expressed to dispose of the specimen. While the hymenoptera collection of Museum isn’t particularly strong, it was suggested that we actively seek a fig wasp for the collection.”

    The group suggested that we retain the specimens and acquire a fig wasp.

  11. 01/05/2014 5:49 am

    Magnificent artwork with a very detailed, realistic and colorful figure using just a dried leaves as a canvass. Very nice.

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