Of Dendral Bondage

As a child of the 1980’s I am saddled with a deep and culturally engendered fear that one day my discarded beer packaging will trap a little baby duck. So strong is this phobia that even now, knowing that the rings have been made from a rapidly photo-degrading plastic for over 20 years, and that they cause little harm to wildlife, I still reflexively snip each and every loop before I throw them in the lake.

You see along with most members of my species I have a very soft spot for ducklings.  In the 1950’s the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote a paper that I think explains why.  Piece and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies suggested that we have an evolutionarily inbred ‘innate realising mechanism’ that deploys affection and tenderness towards animals that display features of human juvenility. Creatures triggering the ‘nurture response’ have ‘a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements’. Or  in other words, are ducklings. To us the idea of a tiny doomed bird, snared in a Heineken holder and cheeping pathetically into the dusk, is subconsciously analogous to the idea of leaving our baby up a hill to be eaten by wolves.

If there is any living thing least resembling the elastic and chubby cheeked human child it is a 40ft Atlas Cedar. So last week when I came home from work and informed my girlfriend that I had saved a mature Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ that had become entangled in plastic waste I was not surprised to receive considerably less cooing than if I told her I had saved a duckling. Even though I had to climb a ladder.

Last week’s strangulator was a length of black Polypropylene netting, the sort allotment holders use to keep pigeons out of fruit cages. It had twisted itself into a rope and had spent the last few years gradually pressing deeper into a slowly expanding bough, like cherished 34” jeans into an aging security guard. In horticultural language the branch had been girdled. (Those fortunate enough to have seen a man or woman clad only in a girdle will know how apt this terminology is; the wood on either side of the garrotte bulged as adipose tissue on the ribs.) Eventually the bark would have swallowed the tie, or the phylum tissue would have died and starved the tree of carbohydrates.

When I freed this tree from its unnatural bondage I was careful not to tear the net from the wood as resulting wound could have left the tree open to infection, and might even have ring barked it: meaning I’d never be reborn as a Dryad.  I only cut off the loose and indenting plastic, leaving submerged bits  as a foul smelling present for some future wood burning stove. The limb once freed was shaped like an hour glass and surprisingly attractive.

I find the weird extraterrestrial growths and carbuncles caused by damage to trees strangely beautiful, and to me their slow consumption of foreign invasive bodies is compelling beyond measure. There is a famous tree in America that has supposedly swallowed a bicycle, the handlebars come out of one side and the back tire the other, and few everyday sights please me more than benches, railings and fences being gradually ingested by trees.

I rejoice in the un-babyish nature of trees and their way of looking nothing like ducklings. Through them I can appreciate the beauty of deforming, crippling bondage – and it’s good to have a wide range of interests.

The Author Reborn as a Dryad

Ring-barking Author Reborn as a Bike in a Tree