“Remember the senator who was attacked by Triffids?”
He caught me unawares; he always does. He only shares a few stories a year, always on the trail, never at the Fire Watch. And always after dinner, when I am cleaning up.
He leans back against the tree, stirs the bowl of his pipe and relights it. I continue cleaning up, strict division of labor, Christy cooks and I clean, it works well. And I wait for the story.
“Of course, they weren’t really Triffids. That’s just what the media called it. If they had been Triffids, he surely would have been whipped across the eyes, permanently blinded, and he might well have, knowing the particular gentleman, ended in an abandoned bar, lamenting that every bottle was gin.”
I am out in the wilderness, on a hillside overlooking a pristine valley, with Dr. Alex Christy, double Ph.D. in botany and biochemistry. The world’s most famous scientist chooses seclusion, musing over a science fiction novel as he taps his pipe against a tree root.
Triffids. Yep, there he goes again. Another whopper coming. Except I am never really sure. I look to see if he is smiling but it is already too dark. And I am remembering: there was a politician, whose house was overgrown, and overgrown, and overgrown again…
“I tried to make one once – a Triffid. Think of it – a seven-foot-tall walking plant, topped with a lightning-fast whip. To enslave and dominate humanity. Might be just what we need.”
“Hellish problems with the root structure. Ever try to make a knee? Sadly, my best efforts were in vain and Triffids remain the fictional subject of Wyndham’s classic.”
“Okay, Alex, you have something to say?”
He pauses. He taps his pipe against the tree root. It’s coming back to me, the details.
“Maybe ten years back… I was part of a team. We were working on Rubisco – do you know what that is?”
I shake my head, playing my part, the movement visible in the campfire light.
“Look it up sometime. It’s an enzyme, an important enzyme in photosynthesis. In fact, Rubisco fixes carbon, turning carbon dioxide into sugar. Every food you eat came from Rubisco. It is the most abundant protein in leaves and it may be the most abundant protein on Earth. And it’s slow, painfully slow. One Rubisco molecule processes only three carbon dioxide molecules a second. There are lots of theories… one school says that Rubisco is ‘near-perfect’, given the diversity of environments plants live in. Another says that millions of years of evolution cannot be improved on.”
Another pipe tap, another bowlful.
“The grant money came pouring in. There were lots of groups doing similar research but the political climate was right. A faster Rubisco? Amazing! Splice it into a plant, it takes CO2 out of the air, produces fuel for cellulosic ethanol… we had a new approach, and in five months we had a variant that fixed eleven molecules a second.” His voice quieted. “After nine months, we had ‘Slim Ruby’, half the molecular weight, that fixed 25 molecules a second – six times faster than natural Rubisco.”
“Scary, Alex, really scary…”
“Whatever, John. Anyway… Ruby was a woman… she was finicky. We put her into bamboo – you could watch it grow in front of you – but it didn’t last. We tried everything, food crops, algae, a few trees, same result. Rapid growth for a day or two, then death. Our team had split into two, one group working with Ruby and the other looking for a home for her. We found it in a strain of Kudzu from Tokyo. And slim Ruby was now thin Ruby, fixing 37 molecules a second.”
“Alex…” the words dropping out of my mouth “Kudzu? You improved kudzu?”
“It’s a food, John. You can eat every part of it, flowers, stems and roots.”
“It’s a menace, Alex. It has no predators, it grows out of control, and you made it ten times faster?”
“Do you see any Kudzu? Is green goo taking over the world? Do you see any green monsters in this valley? No? That’s because we’re not idiots, John. We built in dead-man contingencies, and we tested it on an island. This was ours, it wasn’t going anywhere. We made excellent progress, until we went to Congress.”
He paused a long time. He was in another place. I waited, patient.
“I really did make a Triffid – sort of. I thought of sending it after him….”
“We gave them Mother Nature, thin Ruby, and Senator Robert Cardwell Maxwell, was the swing vote that buried it . Too dangerous, bad science, sloppy protocols – take your pick. Politicians who read science popularizations…. I do still think he would have looked great running from a Triffid. Now there’s hard science for you.”
He looks at me.
“Why am I famous, John?”
“You’re outspoken, Alex… you write books… popularizing science….”
“Before that… four days after the vote, landscapers arrived at Senator Maxwell’s DC home. They spent most of the afternoon on the modest grounds. Before they left they watered several new vines they had planted.
Senator Maxwell arrived home late that night from a weekend junket. He staggered inside and fell into bed. The next morning, when he opened his front door, the doorway was filled with vines. He blinked and went back inside. A few minutes later he opened the door again. This time he stared and realized that the vines were growing as he watched. Slowly, new leaves budded and uncurled, new branches developed… the mass of foliage outside the door getting ever thicker… in a sudden panic, the senator leapt through the doorway, screaming in terror as the vines and leaves closed in.”
It comes back to me. There was an investigation. Suspects were named but there was not enough evidence. He had more hair then and it was longer, but now I can summon up the mental picture, a younger and defensive scientist challenging the prosecutors. Yes, the claim, but the media wasn’t fooled. A lab broken into, samples stolen, and used against the very senator who had criticized the lab.
But neither did the media miss the larger point: despite the senator’s complaints, the modifications to the kudzu worked. It covered the senator’s house, but spread no further. In ten short years, the super-kudzu had become so integrated into the food and energy sectors that we could forget it was even there. Three days after the hearings ended, the kudzu on the Senator’s home began to wither, and in a week, only shriveled vines remained.
And Senator Maxwell, he who had sat on his new kudzu lawn, breathing oxygen carried in the ambulance called by his neighbors, saw his political career end. Aged, he looked clown-like. The Post’s picture of him descended into sheer mockery with the headline “Day of the Triffids”.
Word was he retired from government and moved to Canada, where he spent the rest of his life… breeding orchids.
“You remember, don’t you? You know where my first fame came from? All were mocked.”
“Did you do it, Alex?”
“Doesn’t matter. They said I did, so – yes, I did. But it was the Times that buried me.”
He had slid into his sleeping bag.
“Rubisco: Dr. Christy, You Make Good Kudzu”
He rolled over, contented and tired, and as he fell asleep he said, “Yes, I certainly do.” *
About the author: William Suboski was born a Hoosier, been a Buckeye awhile, with time as a Canuck. He likes to read and write.
About the artist: Romeo Esparrago draws pictures like kudzu.