100Cyborgs: All-Request August!
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TreeWhen we think of biotechnology, the image it conjures up is typically of lab coats and test tubes and tinkering with DNA. But of course, humans have been tinkering with plant DNA for millennia as part of agriculture, even though genetics was not understood until Gregor Mendel's 19th century work on pea plants. The plants were at it long before we got involved: I already explored how chlorophyll, upon which the existence of plants is predicated, can be poetically seen as allowing plants to become some of the first ever cyborgs.

Flowering plants formed cybernetic systems with insects in the Triassic, and we are the inheritors of those plant-animal relationships today. Thinking of ‘biotechnology’ focuses our thoughts narrowly upon the human capacity to shape plants to our purposes – and this for both good and ill. Against such achievements as pest-resistant plants and increased crop yields ought to be weighed those cases of agricultural corporations bioengineering seeds that were cursed with cyber-despair, contributing to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. But there is more to our cybernetic relationship with plants than this purposeful interference – especially when we consider trees.

At the start of the Bronze Age, the British Isles were completely covered with wildwoods. By the end of the iron age, these were cleared back to about 20% coverage, making room for agricultural fields. Yet despite this arboreal apocalypse, the human-tree cyborgs of this time were cyber-prudent; land was cleared, but woodland was protected from intrusion by grazing animals since trees were highly valued as a source of wood – for both building and for fuel – and venerated as a sacred part of the world. Ironically, despite knowing far more about trees than ever before, we have a worse relationship with them today than at any prior moment in time. There are very few human-tree cyborgs left: mostly, wood appears in our lives as a mere raw material for making furniture, although we have at least started caring about ‘sustainable’ sources of timber.

When humans lived intimately with trees, the situation was beneficial for both species. Today, we prefer to use building materials like concrete and steel that are far less conducive to our long term survival as a species, and fuels that are order of magnitudes worse than burning wood – although with solar power, at least, we seek to emulate the ‘chlorophyll cyborgs’ in their sustainable life practices. For all the talk about striving for a ‘circular economy’ today, where nothing is ‘waste’, it seems we have completely forgotten the cyber-efficient, cyber-prudent world of the tree-human cyborg, who for millennia were able to work together for mutual benefit. Yet tree breeding (which has only been going on for about fifty years) isn’t just about increasing fruit yield, but also about helping trees survive the environmental impact of our species. Perhaps our relationship with trees still leads to a future worth hoping for.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #21, requested by Patrick Davis (@PatrionDigital)


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Hi Chris,

Above and beyond what I was hoping when I proposed this topic! Thank you for this!

I will take a few days to properly reply to this, but before that I want to add a (possibly apocryphal) note on a side effect to a point you raised.

I have been lead to believe (can’t recall the source) that a significant contributing factor to the deforestation of the UK was due to the rise of British Naval Power; Hearts of Oak and all that.

Oak is also the preferred material for vessels containing that wonderful spirit whisky (or whiskey if the Irish is more your flavour) and the prodigious lack of oak trees in Scotland inevitably led to the early batches of the product being of somewhat lower quality. “Rot-gut” is a natural symptom of oak-heart it would seem.

Among other things, such as the previously mentioned spelling, this was a driving force behind an act of Congress spearheaded by a prominent owner of distilleries who went by the name of Washington. In an example of what we now know as “DOP” branding, any whiskeys labelled as “Bourbon” not only had to originate in the borders of Bourbon county (however, only 2 or 3 Bourbon distilleries still hold that distinction, the rest having it stripped by the tender ministrations of gerrymandering politicians) but also could not modify or adulterate the spirit post-distillation. This meant that the practice of “finishing” a whiskey by storing it in wine casks for example, was outlawed in Tenesse.

The booming market for Bourbon whiskey soon lead to a glut of fine oak casks, since, by letter of the law, a cask that had been used to age a previous batch of whiskey would be affecting the new batch post-distillation. At the time, there was only one other viable market for such a commodity, the poor Scots distillers long bereft of fine, locally sourced oak of their own.

So, it seems to me it’s a fine thing to deem oneself quite cyber-virtuous when enjoying a dram, and the only sane position in a world such as we find ourselves in now would be to “top-up” one’s virtue generously.

Always the warmest regards,

Patrick S. Davis

Hi Patrick,
The clearing of trees in the British Isles took place over an extremely extended length of time... the greatest of that occurred, as I say here, at the end of the Iron Age (from 100% to 20%), but there was indeed (as you suggest) another round of clearance connected with ship-building (from 15% to 5% over about 8 centuries according to this piece from the Guardian. I had hoped to bring this in - since you had specifically name-checked man'o'wars in your request - but 500 words is a really tight restriction, and I had to narrow my focus.

"'Rot-gut' is a natural symptom of oak-heart it would seem" is a truly marvellous piece of word-play, and I must also thank you for that magnificent anecdote about bourbon (which I love) and whisky (which is the greatest drink ever created). Finally, many thanks for suggesting trees as a topic - it was a pleasure to work on this one.

All the best,


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