Daily Archives: August 23, 2012

academia, macadamia

Mmm, academia. I’m nuts about it. Abstract things from their natural contexts and give them names and analyze them and share them around. Its many excursions have both expanded and shrunk the world – there is so much more known, but it is all so much closer together – and joined together disparate things for delectation and nutrition of the mind. And for intellectual snack food too. And to pave the road to sealing one’s reputation.

Every area of inquiry is at inception an unknown continent – unknown to the inquirers, anyway, even if well known to others. (Quoth the ichthyologist: “That’s a coelecanth! They’re supposed to have been extinct for millions of years!” Quoth the fisherman: “Those ugly things? They’re no good for food. We just throw them back.”) In the 19th century, Australia was certainly one such supposed terra incognita. It had been populated ab origine by the Aborigines, but it had not been subjected to analysis by European academe, those “sons of Adam” bringing their knowledge of good and evil.

Well, academy comes from the name of the grove where Plato taught philosophy, named after its purported original owner, who, when Helen was in hiding, betrayed her location to Castor and Pollux, allowing these interlopers to discover the famous beauty. The grove of an unveiler of beauty – a suitable name for something, academia, that has long sent men into groves to unveil and betray and hand over beauty.

It sent Ferdinand von Müller, for instance. He was a German who moved to Australia and made his mark exploring much of the continent and describing and classifying much of its botany. He named various plants after friends and colleagues. It seems he didn’t learn an Aboriginal language or two and ask the speakers what the plants were called and what else they could tell him about them. I suppose that might be harder for an invader to do – why would they want to tell him? – but I don’t know how hard he tried. Europeans have long had a narrative of “discovering” things that they actually walked in and simply took from others. Sort of like young children “discovering” playgrounds and other people’s rhubarb patches and so on.

One of the people von Müller named a plant after was his colleague John Macadam, a Scotsman who had moved to Australia to teach in Melbourne and study the botany thereabouts. (Macadam means “son of Adam”; another variant on it is McAdam, and sometimes they’re interchanged, as with macadam, a means of paving and sealing a road, invented by a John McAdam.) Müller and Macadam were both on the organizing committee of (as it seems always to be called in full) “the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition”, an expedition to transect the interior of Australian south to north and back, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which resulted in the death of its leaders and a few others due to misjudgement and bad luck (Müller and Macadam did not actually go on the expedition). Macadam himself went the way of all sons of Adam – he died – in a shipboard accident after a mere decade in Australia.

But before that, before the expedition, only a brace of years after his arrival on the continent, Macadam had a broad-leaf evergreen (called variously gyndl, jindilli, and boombera by Aboriginal peoples) named after him by von Müller: Macadamia. This tree produces nuts. Actually, there are several kinds of Macadamia trees, and only two produce nuts that are edible; the remainder are inedible or even poisonous. Obviously one needs to know which are good and which are evil. But the ones that are good are very good, and have become the only plant food native to Australia that has come to be exported in important quantities.

Not that the macadamia nuts you get now are likely to have been grown in Australia. There are several other places where they are grown now, most notably Hawai‘i. So they were indigenous to Australia, were renamed by a German after a Scotsman, were transplanted to northeastern Polynesia, and from there are exported around the world. These hidden beauties are no longer hidden; they are also no longer much associated with their place of origin. They are Macadam’s fruit of the good and evil knowledge of trees; only who, now, is the snake? Perhaps all of academia…

And yet I do still love it. Academia, I mean. And macadamia. And the word macadamia with its single hard crunch /k/ and single softer crunch /d/ and pair of yummy m’s and the four a’s for forays and always i somewhere in there. And the echoes that both words may be deemed to have… et in Arcadia ego.