An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of April 27, 2003
issued from  the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

PRIMITIVE MAGNOLIAS

This week the Tulip Poplar's wonderful flowers got me thinking about the relationship, if any, between their special beauty and the fact that, according to the fossil record, analysis of floral structure, and gene sequencing, the Magnolia Family to which the Tulip Poplar belongs has long been regarded as home to particularly "primitive" flowering plants. There were magnolias during dinosaur times about 130 million years ago.

Botanists point to many "primitive characters" exhibited by Magnolia Family members -- for example their woodiness, their simple and alternate leaves, and their showy flowers with long floral axes, poorly developed styles and stigmas, leaf-like stamens, spiral arrangement of parts, and their pistils being separate from one another. ("Modern" families include the sycamores, walnuts, oaks and dogwoods.)

Since there's a current in our society's thinking supposing that things of primitive nature normally are prettier than modern things, the question arises: Is there a connection between the beauty of species in the Magnolia Family, and their primitiveness?

About three years ago a shrub called Amborella, found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, suddenly became famous. Of all living flowering plants on Earth, it was revealed to be the most closely related to the very first flowering plants. Amborella is not in the Magnolia Family, nor are its flowers particularly large and showy. In habit it's a normal shrub with medium- size, rather unspectacular, cream-colored blossoms and uninteresting-looking leaves.

So, the magnolias are primitive, but apparently their great beauty isn't closely tied to their primitiveness. I have no regrets about learning this, for the unspoken, unwelcome corollary of the "primitive = beautiful" equation is this: That inevitable evolution perpetually nudges us all toward what is more efficient, but gray; toward what is more productive, but mediocre, and; toward what is more promiscuous, but less vital.

Now that I think about, when I look into the skies at night, or ruminate on the matter of subatomic particles, I find no paradigms in those worlds to support the notion that "primitive = beautiful," and I have to wonder wherever I got that idea. On the other hand, the facts that great things can arise from plain beginnings, and that special beauty can appear anyplace unexpectedly, do fit paradigms glimpsed in the cosmos and in the mathematics of the inner world.

Before, the Magnolia Family's beauty was to me like the beauty of Gauguin's Tahiti paintings. Magnolias seemed to support the idea that being unsophisticated, rustic, elemental -- in and of itself -- was reason enough to explain their beauty. But now I see this: Gauguin's paintings are wonderful not because the Polynesians were simple folk, but because Gauguin was a great artist. Likewise, being primitive doesn't make Earthly things beautiful. What does is the craftsmanship of the Universal Creative Force that produced them.

Step by step old prejudices and assumptions fall away, and new ideas and insights appear and evolve. This week it was the flowering Tulip Poplars who guided me. Facebook Icon.