Since this site started taking shape, the people here on the People page have been gently pressing for an explanation of the name. Which is fair enough, since they’re being represented by it without having had much say! And some kind of context seems a good way to kick off, so why not give it a go.
Also probably the moment to pose the question: is this a firework or a flower? Either way, nice shot, Nick Veasey.
If, like me, you grew up in Australia in a certain decade in a previous century, you might have some high school memory of studying, a short play called Under Milk Wood. Given that it is quite well-known, at least in the English-speaking world, I suppose this experience may actually be fairly common.
Anyway, I liked reading and wasn’t particularly given to judging books by their length, but I remember our copy was a thin little edition, and this made it seem unassuming and innocuous. Easily sized up as unlikely to trouble a rowdy bunch of year twelves, or to impinge too much on their more urgent pursuits.
However, at least for me, this turned out to be far from the truth, given the mischievous riches it contained. Like the setting - a fictional Welsh town called Llareggub. Get it? And the long cast of characters; Organ Morgan, Nogood Boyo, Mr and Mrs Pugh...
Here's your arsenic, dear
And your weed-killer biscuit...
I could go on and on. But then things like this:
We are not wholly bad or good,
who live our lives under Milk Wood.
Spoken by the First Voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, in a prayer no less. Definitely food for thought. And this:
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-or-go
Simple, humble, mysterious. Embracing both the ordinary moment and its passing.
It was one of those dangerous first hits, and led to many other discoveries. Including, somewhat later, another Dylan Thomas creation; darker and more difficult than Llareggub.
At the time I first met this one, I was roughly the same age as the author when he wrote it (amazingly, only 20), and in the middle of my undergrad studies in Biology and Biochemistry.
Plants were a new thing for me then and I was slowly catching on to some of their features, their tendencies, their themes… and their language, both literal and figurative. Even the most basic concepts seemed intriguing.
Like the fact that leaves, in their variable form and easy convergence, can be downright misleading, and it’s only when flowers appear that you can really know who’s who. An idea leading on to the breathtaking, worldview-shattering elegance of the evolutionary synthesis, and its interpretations of all diversity in terms of common descent and genetic code.
And looking over my shoulder, anticipating, agreeing, giving voice to the mystery and still somehow pressing on in the face of it, was Thomas and his force.
In my final year, one of the Botany units on offer was “Dev Phys” - a unit structured by Ian Murfet around a chapter-by-chapter exposition of Wareing and Phillips. Look out if you hadn’t done the week’s assigned reading before the lecture rolled around.
Murf favoured a... let’s say... interactive approach to teaching, which he implemented with an eagle eye and the raptor’s rapid swoop-on-the-prey bit too. Avoiding eye contact and scrunching down in your seat was not an effective escape strategy.
Whether because or in spite of this, something about the unit grabbed me. It wasn’t the hormones, to which a fair chunk of the term was devoted. They were interesting enough, but to me, also… (sacrilege!)... kind of underwhelming. They seemed to be doing too many things in a not-particularly-clear way, and were somehow just a little too sterile for my liking, possibly because all of the chemical structures and detailed accounting of ATPs etc… we were being required to learn for Biochemistry at the time.
Whereas the unknown, elusive driver of the flower; that resonated.
Pre-loaded with Thomas’s imagery of latent explosions and deep connections, I found myself quickly and almost inescapably drawn towards this particular search and its global society of seekers – which later became at times a near-obsession, equal parts a mystical quest and a breathless sciencey gossip-fest.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I am surprised to find myself actually still here. Here at all, yes, but also still here in the same old building, and although no longer in my green age, somehow still driven, and somehow still with the opportunity, to chip away at understanding the flower, the fuse, the force.
And still easily distracted.
Turning from the screen to the explosion out the window, which at the moment (early September) is bright wattle yellow, and trying to take it all in, I’m right back with Thomas, dumb to tell.
Not an unusual or unfamiliar state, but certainly inconvenient, given that the privilege of being paid to do research also brings the obligation to report on it; in presentations, papers, and increasingly, it seems, in blogs. For all of which, being dumb is definitely not an asset.