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The invisible beauty of energy

“The one thing of which we are certain, in an uncertain universe, is that energy is never lost. It is transformed, but it never disappears.”

— The Professor in Beverley Nichols’ “Down the Garden Path,” 1932

One of the more welcomed visitors to Beverley Nichols’ garden in the English countryside was the Professor, who walked around posing mysterious interrogatives such as, “I wonder what a bunch of grapes means?” and “Why should you admire jasmine any more than you admire a beetroot, or a bruise?”

To the latter question, directed at his host, the Professor hastily supplied his own answer: “Because you’re a savage.”

Nichols might have been offended by this remark, but the Professor admitted rather morosely that he, too was a savage, having been, just the day before, admiring the beauty of a butterfly. He lamented, “The sight of any beauty reminds me that I am a savage with clumsy senses … blind to a thousand things I should be able to see, deaf to a thousand things I should be able to hear.”

According to the Professor, energy is the most beautiful thing in the world, although humans, savages that we are, can only appreciate the beauty of energy in certain configurations. For example, a fire with dancing yellow flames is beautiful, but once its energy has transformed into gray ashes or colorless gas, our dimwitted minds perceive the beauty has vanished as surely as the once crackling logs.

Here was the Professor’s conundrum: “I shall come along and see the ashes, and I shan’t get any sense of beauty, though all around me, in the universe, are the elements which are disporting themselves, so prettily, at this moment. … It’s all here, yet I can’t see it.”

I confess my own savagery in not heretofore giving the beauty of energy its deserved consideration. Yes, I admire a colorful salad, but often fail to be duly grateful for the energy that was captured from sunlight by the vegetable plants during photosynthesis and then transported and stored into my body, mostly as carbohydrates, so I might use that energy to plant more salad greens in my garden.

The oversight is truly barbaric; however, I offer the same weak excuse the Professor did: It’s all here, yet I can’t see it. At least not without a microscope.

Thank goodness for YouTube! I watched a four-minute video (set to inspiring music) that shows photosynthesis in action under a microscope (www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5nAg31efbk), and my answer to “Kash 45” who asked “Anyone else find cells adorable?” is “Oh, yes!”

Gardeners, I recommend that everyone watch a plant leaf converting sunlight into energy. After all, growing healthy plants that photosynthesize their hearts out is our fundamental gardening purpose. It’s also the foundation of the food web on which our species relies for survival. Besides, we must watch photosynthesis happening for the Professor, who fervently wished he could observe energy “disporting so prettily” in the moment.

The quote at the beginning of this column is how the Professor defended one of Nichols’ climbing roses, R. Moyseii, against what Nichols claimed was using excessive energy to produce a thousand seeds in one pretty, bottle-shaped rosehip. The Prof was referring to the conservation of energy law that says energy is neither created nor destroyed, but continually changes from one form to another.

Although most of the tiny rose seeds would never germinate, he argued that once the seeds were dispersed, the energy contained within the endosperm just beneath the seed coat would support the function of any number of ecological services in Nichol’s garden and beyond. He further told his slightly dumbfounded host that he should never pull up weeds because they were a symbol of energy and, therefore, had a grand purpose. He begged Nichols not to cut him a farewell bouquet of roses because removing the flowers’ stores of energy might trigger some unseen and unsuspected consequence in the plant or the garden’s ecosystem.

Truly a man ahead of his time, he was somewhat perplexing to Nichols, who adored cut flowers for his cottage and had special tools just for uprooting dandelions and docks with optimal efficiency. Yet, we would do well to follow the Professor’s careful consideration of energy in our garden. Like air and water, we tend to take energy for granted until we don’t have it anymore. The Prof got me pondering energy in the following five ways:

1. How much energy do I have to spend in my garden?

2. How can I optimize my energy while I’m in the garden?

3. How much food energy can/will I grow in my garden given its growing conditions?

4. How can my garden not only use energy efficiently, but also produce, store and regenerate energy?

5. How can I maximize the use of renewable energy, and minimize the use of nonrenewable energy, in my garden and home?

It turns out the Professor was not one of Nichols’ imaginary characters, but a real scientist and inventor named Archibald Montgomery Low (1888-1956). Low has been called “the father of radio guidance systems,” and he developed the first powered drone aircraft. In 1914, Low demonstrated his invention called the TeleVista, which almost two decades later became the television.

Ironically, Low’s TeleVista was scrapped because the apparatus could not convert light energy into electrical energy fast enough. It seems the Professor never did successfully capture the “pretty disportment” of energy, at least in visual images. He died in 1956 without ever returning to Nichols’ garden and roses.

But Nichols’ recalled the Professor’s last visit: “’They’re all here … all your roses,’ he told me, and he tapped his forehead. And that was the last I saw of him, smiling at me, his head full of roses.” I bet the Prof was also wondering about the beautiful energy embodied within them.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.