THE DARING DANDELION DISCOVERY
YOU know how it is. You believe you have discovered something marvelous, something that will change the world, but for some trivial reason you do nothing about it. Perhaps it's laziness, lack of time, or even because of some childhood experience, an unintentional put down by a parent or relative that has left you with a hang-up about sharing secrets.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was the latter that was responsible for me keeping the dandelion affair to myself, and it was Mr. Cox, my school teacher, who was responsible.
I was in Primary Six, and Mr. Cox was taking us for handcraft. We were decorating the covers of books. I liked Mr. Cox; he had selected me for the school's under-11s football team -- the first time I had been selected for anything -- and I would have followed him to the end of the earth. So when I thought I had hit upon a good way of persuading the marbling coat to lift off the surface of the water onto the cover of my book, my hand shot up with the eagerness of a budding Caxton.
''Yes, Terence?'' he said.
''I think I know a good way to do this, sir.'' I said.
He lifted his hand to quiet the class.
''Everybody listen to what Terence has to say.''
I explained my method, and as I went on the class began to titter. I stopped. Mr. Cox was looking at me sternly.
''And now, Master Leigh,'' he said, ''perhaps you would like to explain what you were doing while I was telling the rest of the class exactly what you have just told me?''
I don't blame him for what he did, but for the rest of my school career and beyond, I have been the last to put up my hand for any reason at all. Not that the world has been seriously the poorer, except perhaps in the matter of the dandelion. Which is why, 35 years after the event and at dire risk of the world's ridicule, I am writing this now.
It all started when I was sweeping our farmyard at Craigieburn one day early in the summer of 1960. It was hot, and I was tired and spending more time than I should resting on the broom. It was in this somnolent position that I found myself looking into the face of a lone dandelion growing near the byre door.
Initially, nothing registered with me. Dandelions are a common enough sight. Indeed, when we had moved into Craigieburn two years earlier, there were dozens of them in the yard. It was cobbled then -- age-smoothed stones that glistened like burnished pewter after every shower, a perfect foil for dandelion flowers and better still for their silver seed heads.
But things changed with our arrival. Cobbles were fine for horses and dandelions, but we had a tractor and it didn't like cobbles at all. It's rough-tread tires loosened the stones as if they were old teeth and spat them all over the place, which is why we were obliged to concrete the area.
The concreting of the yard had little significance at the time, but now, as I rested on the broom and stared at the dandelion, something about it bothered me. It shouldn't really be there. The yard was concrete. Yet a dandelion was growing.... A dandelion was growing out of four inches of solid concrete?
I am used to being amazed by nature. It is amazing that a swallow can fly the first time out of its nest and that a salmon can find its way 2,500 miles back to its place of birth. But for a dandelion to battle through concrete was almost impossible to believe.
I sank down to take a closer look at this phenomenon. There was no mistake, it wasn't a freak seedling rooted on the surface that would fall victim to the first drought; it was a perfectly healthy dandelion with all the indications of an established root system. Somehow, the seed had germinated beneath the concrete, and its soft shoot tip had forced a passage through to the world above.
My initial incredulity was followed by a glow of exaltation, similar, I imagine, to James Watt's when the implications of the kettle lid dancing on its cushion of steam seeped into his mind or to Newton's when he discovered what wonderful things happened to light when it was passed through a prism.
I had the indisputable feeling that I was looking at something quite mind-boggling, an energy source that could change the world.
I don't remember whether I finished sweeping the yard, but I do remember that from that moment on, I have observed endless examples of the latent power of plants: molehill-like domes in the tarmac of neglected byways mushroom lazily as grasses and wildflowers heave their backs; rocks beside the burn split asunder by the gentle, irresistible explosion of life that occurs when moisture detonates a rowan seed. The patient persistence of the clematis on the front porch of our house that has forced the down pipe from the wall and lifted the slates on the roof. Everywhere, nature's muscles quietly exercise themselves, yearning for discovery.
Now, I don't know just how this energy can be harnessed -- that is best left to the scientists. My function is simply to sweep yards, look at dandelions, and report what I see.
Whether I should go as far as suggesting that man may have been blinded by the indispensable nature of his energy needs and looked for more complex solutions when the friendliest, cheapest, cleanest, most infinitely renewable energy source has been staring us in the face -- it wouldn't be the first time -- is up to others to decide.
Anyhow, I have put up my hand and said my piece. Now I shall have to wait to see whether indeed dandelion power is what the world has been waiting for, or whether I am heading for another humiliation to match the epic of 1947, somebody else having already discovered my ''discovery'' when I wasn't paying attention.