The Role of Journalism in History

In his section on Opium in the book, This is Your Mind on Plants, the author Michael Pollan writes about how his first story that was to appear in the leading newspapers in the 1990s was redacted and cut after a legal review. (The entire essay is printed in the book that was published 20 years later). This essay seems to precede the opioid crises in America that was to surface just a decade later. But it was apparent that the undercurrent was already at play. The world just had no idea how it would pan out. 

This is your mind on plants – Michael Pollan

His sentence on journalism and its bearing on History resonated on so many levels, that I noted it down then and there. 

“There’s a parable here somewhere, about the difference between journalism and history. What might appear to be “the story” in the present moment may actually be a distraction from it, a shiny object preventing us from seeing the truth of what is really going on beneath the surface of our attention, what will most deeply affect people’s lives in time.”

Michael Pollan – Our Mind on Plants

Later in the book, when he is talking about caffeine, he mentions this piece of Asian history that emerged from the tea-drinking habit of the British. By the 1800’s tea drinking had become a normal routine of English life. Jane Austen refers to tea in her books published in the early 1880s. In the book, Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865, tea parties are galore. 

“Yes, that’s it! “, said the Hatter

with a sigh, “it’s always tea time.”

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland

Here is the excerpt of the section on the British East India Company’s tea trade with China.

Since the company had to pay for tea in Sterling, and China had little interest in English goods, England began running a ruinous trade deficit with China. The East India Company came up with two clever strategies to improve its balance and payments position: it turned to India, a country it controlled that had no history of large-scale tea production, and transformed it into a leading producer of tea – and opium. The tea was exported to England and the opium, over the strenuous objections of the Chinese government, was smuggled into China, in what would quickly become a ruinous and unconscionable flood.

By 1828, the opium trade represented 16% of the company’s revenues, and within 5 years, the East India company was sending more than 5 million pounds of Indian opium to China per year. This helped close the trade deficit but millions of Chinese became addicted. After the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of all stores of opium in 1839, Britain declared war to keep the opium flowing. Owing to the Royal Navy’s vastly superior firepower, the British quickly prevailed, forcing open 5 “treaty ports” and taking possession of Hong King in a crushing blow to China’s sovereignty and economy,.

So here was another moral cost of caffeine: in order for the English mind to be sharpened with tea, the Chinese mind had to be clouded with opium.”

Michael Pollan – This is your mind on Plants

The adage ‘History is written by the victor’ does ring true in most cases. How many perspectives of every narrative are there? How does one classify a good side or a bad side? The perspective of time lends a helpful lens. For instance, when Madeleine Albright, the first woman senator met Vladimir Putin in the 1990’s, she was asked of her opinion of him. She recognized him as a despot in the making, and one who was preternaturally occupied with the idea of a United Sovereign States of Russia (USSR before it disintegrated into Russia + all the other smaller countries). I suppose this is an example of a seed taking root in one’s mind and growing and festering with time. The war on Ukraine is but a step in that direction.

More importantly though, what is current journalism missing for the larger picture today? Whether it is in the reporting of Covid, the Ukraine crisis, or the larger commodity of people’s attention spans. Our future generations would point to this day and age of our shrinking attention spans in an attempt to capture our attentions, and see the arc from some place that humanity had reached. Would it be a virtual reality universe designed to give us more options to escape from life, or will life itself change? Nobody knows. But in order to see how it pans out, we need our critical faculties about us. 

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’

Lewis Carroll

What’s our hurry?

“Oh! How I love the fiery glow of the sunset and how I missed our quiet garden“, I said leaping out of the car after my long dredge of a commute back into the office. It has been two years since Covid shut office spaces down, and I cannot say that I missed the crowds on the trains, the noise of the city, or the snarling traffic inching along at peak times.

“I am so happy to come back to this suburban paradise from the hustling, bustling city!” I said sighing happily and taking in deep gulps of fresh air. I flitted to the rose buds starting to form, flew to the jasmine bushes sending wafts of jasmine-ly scent into the evening air, and lovingly tousled the lavender bushes. I suppose butterflies when let loose in a meadow from a bottle do the same.

I looked up to see the daughter giving me that look: the one where she is wondering whether it is prudent to have my head checked for bumps.

I am such a country mouse my dear!” I said by way of making conversation.

“I wouldn’t want to be a cat in a world that you are a mouse, that is for sure!”, said she, never one to falter at smart quips. 

I straightened my shoulders haughtily and wanted to retort. Sharply. With sarcasm, speed and humor. 

Nothing came. 

I shook my head and tried to fetch some quip, anything. Nothing.

I stood there fumbling and stammering. Maybe the pace of the day had taken it all out. So, I finally laughed. 

It was while I was out sauntering on a mild spring morning a few days later that I remembered the study on the pace of life in the book, In Praise of Wasting Time – By Alan Lightman. 

In Praise of Wasting Time – By Alan Lightman

In the book, Alan Lightman writes of the study where people’s average walking speed was measured across a decade. The speed was measured in suburban places, cities and bustling city centers. Apparently, the walking speed had increased considerably. An average woman of today in San Francisco city walks faster than an average woman in the 20th century. Makes us pause and think doesn’t it? What are we hurrying towards?

Excerpt from the book:

A momentous study by the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with the British Council found that the walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities around the world increased by 10% just in the 10 year period from 1995 to 2005.

How did we arrive at this point in the history of the world?

First, there is business. The pace of life has always been driven by the pace of business, and the pace of business has always been driven by the speed of communication. In 1881, in a book titled American Nervousness: its Causes and Consequences, physician George Beard noted the increase of nervousness and stress in the public caused by the new communication technologies of the day: The railroad and the telegraph. Today, its the Internet. 

In Praise of Wasting Time – By Alan Lightman

It is no wonder that spending time in Nature is such a soother, acting almost like an analgesic. The pace of nature hardly varies. 

Like Lao Tzu says: 

Nature never hurries, yet accomplishes everything.

Lao Tzu
Bryce Canyon National Park

Purpose, Meaning 🌌 ? Experience 🌿

I was sitting on the window ledge talking to the daughter of this and that. Outside, it was a beautiful spring day. All the world seemed to be up and about. Bustling, blooming, tittering, fluttering, racing. “Life seems abuzz with a sense of purpose and so full of meaning today, don’t you think?” I said lazily to the daughter. I myself was content sipping coffee in my night suit.

She laughed and said something to the effect of meaning being humbug or some such thing. I sipped my coffee and waited. Seeing that she had lapsed into painting, I prodded on giving her the talk about finding the meaning of life, and how some days are more important than others etc. When she still didn’t bite, I pulled Mark Twain for support. 

“But you know what Mark Twain said? Two days are the most important days of your life. The day you were born and the day you figured out why you were born.”

“And who is Mark Twain exactly to be talking about this? “

“Mark Twain!”

“I know who Mark Twain is. Point is: of course his saying would be skewed towards purpose and meaning and all that because that is what he spent his life trying to find the answer to. I just don’t think there is one grand purpose to each of us you know? I mean, saying that we all come to this Earth with one grand purpose is subscribing to this theory of God putting us all here for this-and-this-and-this. There is nothing like that. The accident of life happened. A thousand things could’ve gone wrong, could’ve gone differently, but they panned out this way and therefore we are here. When we are here, I get that we must do things to be useful, happy etc, but that is it. There is no, like grand scheme of things or whatever!”

“So, you are saying it is okay for me to be wasting time like this, when I could be doing anything.”

“Well…again. There is no wasting time.”

“Ah – but that is the arrogance of youth isn’t it? Time isn’t exactly ticking for you all.”

“At your fine age, it is. “ she laughed a bit too callously for my taste, but that is youth all over. 

“So, you are saying that if all I want to do is look at the wind rustle through that pine tree, it isn’t a waste of time.”

“Sure…if that’s what you want to do!” she rolled her eyes and I couldn’t blame her. Watching wind rustle through pine trees isn’t exactly teen-buzz.

I get that you are cuckoo when it comes to nature stuff. But we’ve all got to do stuff we don’t like, stuff we like, stuff that’s just got to be done whether you like it or not. But whatever it is, if you are experiencing it, it isn’t a waste of time. And yes, all this stuff about meaning of life etc has been done by philosophers who spent their entire time trying to figure out the answer to that. If you were to pick any random person who lived 200 hundred years ago, what was their purpose? I don’t know. But if they lived happily, then I suppose they had a good life, and that’s what matters.”

I looked at the child astounded. There she was, teaching me to experience life, when she seemed to have only been born a few short years ago

“And this thing about the most important days of your life. The pressure of a thing like that could completely throw enjoying the day you know? I mean I could say it was the day I got a brother. But it wasn’t you know? It was more like a normal day with a wailing baby sure, but in time,  he grew up to be a brother that I enjoy. Don’t tell him that!”

She isn’t the philosophical kind. She is barely the deep thinking kind, yet she has this refreshing outlook that bodes for a contentment in life that I strive for. At this fine age, as she so eloquently described my age, I still confuse achievement, purpose, meaning and life. Here she was, happily painting one minute, off to hang out with her friends the next, while keeping up with her course work, and all that was required to be done.

But I disagreed with her on one thing. I do think there are special days and special moments – even if we don’t always celebrate them. The day she was born is one of them. 

The whole chat left me feeling like I had read that quote by Ursula K Le Guin again. It never fails to enlighten and uplift.


“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

Ursula K Le Guin

Plant Influences

March is a beautiful time where we live. The spring equinox is approaching, the moon is waxing and the beautiful luminous joy it brings every evening has to be seen to be believed. It is also the month of the great flowering. All around us, the Earth seems to be bursting into bloom. One evening after a particularly beautiful walk admiring hillsides with golden poppies, I came home and picked up the book, ‘This is Your Mind on Plants’ – By Michael Pollan.

This is your mind on plants – Michael Pollan

The book is split into 3 sections: The mind soothing, mind enhancing, and mind altering 

Morphine in the opium poppy; the caffeine in coffee and tea; and the mescaline produced by the peyote and San Pedro cacti. (In short, it deals with sedative, stimulant and hallucinogen classifications of plants) 

After reading the first introduction I could not get the image out of my mind. How could that beautiful flower innocuously growing on hillsides in the wild, the relatively common poppy be associated with the Drug Wars? How did human beings even pick up these things and figure out what the effects are. The simplest explanation points to humans observing the calming effect of poppy eating cattle and trying a bit for themselves. I was curious to read that poppy tea was served at funerals in the Middle East as they were known to help induce feelings of happiness and thus dull the grief of death. Could the beautiful, innocent loving flowers be responsible for the opioid crisis that have resulted in the death of thousands in America in the past decade alone?

California poppies

Finding the use of a sedative would have been one of the first things human beings checked off their evolutionary list. In fact, some of this knowledge may even have been handed down to us by our ape cousins. 

For instance, apes make trips of miles to procure certain herbs to cure themselves of stomach upsets. When I read it in one of Jane Goodall’s essays, I was astounded. Of course our animal cousins have a more intimate relationship with nature than we do. 

If sedatives could be obtained thus, hallucinogens couldn’t be far behind. I remember reading somewhere that the myth of flying reindeer has hallucinogenic origins too. Seeing the effect of the magic mushrooms on the reindeer, the humans near them experimented them as well, and lets say their hallucinogenic effects seem to have echoed down the centuries in endearing stories of Santa Claus and his red nosed reindeer. 

I put the book down meditatively, and went downstairs to make myself a cup of tea to start the day. Nothing wakes us up like a good cup of tea! Often teased about my fondness for tea, this is one of most oft taken for granted plant influence. The caffeine in tea and coffee has stimulated human kind for over two centuries.

After a particularly beautiful walk admiring the golden poppies in the light of the setting sun, I looked it up. It was a small relief to read that the California poppy though in the same family as the opium poppy is not classified as a narcotic. 

Quote: 

“It should be noted that although California poppy is in the same family as opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it is not a narcotic and is much gentler and non-addictive.”

I am looking forward to finishing the book.

Precarious Egos

I was tired emotionally and physically, and slept the minute the flight took off. Why they have international flights taking off in the wee hours of the morning I don’t understand, but there we are. Groggily, mid way through the flight, I switched on the console to see where we were. Just a month ago, I was flying over Russian airspace on my way back from India. The situation in Ukraine was  already deteriorating. There was nothing for it. What was this mad rush for controlling more areas? Tanks were piling up near the borders then, and another crazed ploy for power, influence and space was in motion. Would we be able to defuse this situation without it escalating further and displacing thousands?

I took this picture of the console after we passed over Russia.

Involuntarily, I sighed and sent a little prayer, indulged in a little wishful thinking, and thought of Carl Sagan’s quote on the little blue dot. It was dark outside making our obscurity in this universe even more stark. The flight shuddered, and the seat belt signs came on. The pale blue dot and its trappings of our ego, power and greed never feel more real than when at the mercy of the headwinds around one. The cloak of gravity over the precarious egos on the planet.

Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan

In the month since, the situation has deteriorated multi-fold as we all know. Sanctions have been imposed. No flights over Russian airspace and through the Ukrainian region.

The threat of another World War looms high in the air. Syria remains in the throes of civil war. Even in moments of alarm, I belong to that category of people who believe in the balm of time and all that. Give it time, things will resolve. Give it time, reason will stagger back to its throne in the head etc. 

Will time be able to help the situation from escalating into a Third World War? I hope so. Fervently. After all, we are smart enough to have the technology and weapons to annihilate ourselves several times, and are dumb enough to do so.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Carl Sagan in the book, Pale Blue Dot

The Leaping of Spring

We had been on a short trip up the mountains recently. On the way back, I realized yet again that I had taken far too many photographs that were of no use. So I sat sagely deleting them making space for more. In that moment of weakness, I told myself that I would not whip out my phone at the slightest thing, and take a photograph. That is how I landed up missing the picture of the blackbird racing a red hawk for a few meters. It is also why I have the image clearly etched in my head. 

I took a short morning walk to clear my head. It was cold, I had not slept well. As I trudged on, I was already listing the different things to get done during the workday, the things that needed tending in the home, and the things I wanted to do with the children and friends. All the mundane things that flit through a working woman’s mind on a weekday morning flitted, and I stopped to chastise myself. This was what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said he walked without leaving the village behind or something to that effect.  I was physically there, but not spiritually or mentally, and that would not do, I told myself sternly.

Taking a deep breath and feeling the cold rush of fresh air, I moved on. This time, I felt the difference. The clear, trilling sound of the swarms of blackbirds, that is missing in January or even February was clearly filling the air. I stopped to look around, and the soaring of the blackbirds with their little flashes of red beneath their wings, the tittering of the thrushes, and the quacking of the ducks in the distance were all enough to pin me to planet Earth even as my spirits soared from the ground. 

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

Henry David Thoreau
The influence of the Earth

A little distance away, a red hawk took flight, and a little blackbird flitted up against it. Trying to keep up, basking behind the great birds wing span and sheltering against the air currents. It was a marvelous sight to catch. The little one’s sense of adventure elicited a smile. After a few minutes of this folly, the little one veered away. Happy to go back to flitting joyously. 

It is amazing what a little spring time air can do for the soul. One can come back energized in soul, and tired physically, and that is just as it should be. 

The 🌏 Laughs in 🌸 🌺

Most trees are still bare. Winters are milder in California than elsewhere. Even so, the bare branches of the brilliantly hued trees just a few months ago is stark against the skyline. But then, there are early spring heralders that enthrall and enchant. When I am out walking these days, they are often punctuated with rapture – little stops to admire a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, a tulip bulb poking its head out, or snowdrops working its way through the cold hard months and blooming just in time for the spring equinox.

Snowdrops

Spring is the best time for a saunter. Californian Springs have the best combination of rainy days, cloudy days, sunny days, warm days, cold days, and windy days. Through it all, there is the breathtaking beauty of the flowering trees. It is hard to imagine an Earth without flowers given how much they brighten our days on Earth. But it wasn’t that long ago that Earth was rampant with life and lifeforms without flowers. Makes us stop and think doesn’t it? What else evolution would have up its sleeve if allowed to go at its own pace. How many creations beautiful, mesmerizing, unknown and somewhat hampered by the limits of our own imagination?

Sitting inside on a cold March day and watching the wind whipping the trees outside, and looking at the petals of the cherry blossom flit towards the earth below is fascinating. On sunny days, the birds pecking at the cherry blossom flowers and sending showers of little petals earthwards is showtime. 

I cannot help thinking of the distant lineage of the little birds. Did their dinosaur ancestors see flowers and interact with them? I thought beaks were a particular evolutionary step for nectar. But maybe not. I remember reading that flowering plants only appeared towards the tail-end of the dinosaur’s time on Earth, or maybe even later. I also remember walking along the Natural History Museum time line and thinking that the dinosaurs really missed the marvelous great flowering of planet Earth.

https://earthhow.com/earth-timeline-geological-history-events/

But then again, this recent article seems to think the dinosaurs may have seen flowers after all.

https://www.livescience.com/40088-flowers-existed-with-dinosaurs.html

Quote:

Newfound fossils hint that flowering plants arose 100 million years earlier than scientists previously thought, suggesting flowers may have existed when the first known dinosaurs roamed Earth, researchers say.

LiveScience Journal – article linked

Whether or not the dinosaurs saw the flowers, I am grateful we live in an era when we can experience flowers. All the musings of the cosmic accident of life seems glorious in the flowering trees around us. Meadows are bursting with wildflowers. On a little hike near the coastline one day, we saw hillsides filled with golden orange poppies, lupines, and flowers of yellow, white and pink weaving and waving amidst the fresh green of Earth. Set against most trees that are still bare from the winter the flowers are a sharp reminder of all the stark contrasts of life.

We don’t know about all the forms of life possible in our universe, and probably never will find the enormity and possibilities. Yet in that very paradox lies the power of musing.

%d bloggers like this: