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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 22nd August 2011

It is over four years since I first began thinking about how to structure a website about poisonous plants and three years since the site went live. And, yet, today is the first time I’ve mentioned Christopher McCandless. There has been a huge amount written, in print and on the Internet, about this young man and the most famous book about him was made into a Hollywood film.

But, if you’ve never heard of him, here’s my one sentence summary of the story. Chris McCandless ‘dropped out’ and spent his time wandering the remoter parts of the USA, living off the land and what he could scrounge before dying of starvation in 1992. Now that doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing that could spark a book, a film, a long-running controversy and a number of websites entirely devoted to it.

What brought the story to prominence was that McCandless left a detailed journal of his travels that fired the pioneer spirit of many Americans. Jon Krakauer, a journalist who wrote about the outdoors, wrote a lengthy article about him and, later, expanded that into a book, which, itself, was made into a 2007 film.

The controversy rages over the explanation for the death given by Krakauer, Hollywood’s fictionalisation of that explanation and Krakauer’s subsequent attempts to justify his theory in the face of detailed criticism of it.

Krakauer claimed that McCandless mistook a poisonous plant for an edible one and that this poisoning resulted in McCandless being unable to look after himself and dying of starvation. The attacks on this theory started by pointing out that the journal shows that McCandless had been eating the non-poisonous plant for some weeks so he was unlikely to suddenly fail to identify it. But, further work has shown that the supposedly poisonous plant he ate by mistake is not, in fact, toxic.

Krakauer has revised his hypothesis a number of times and now says that seeds that McCandless harvested went mouldy and grew a toxic fungus. This has, also, been extensively challenged.

I’ve already written more about McCandless than I set out to do but it is hard to condense a very convoluted story into a few sentences. I’m not interested in the McCandless story, as such, but rather in why such stories persist.

You would think, it would just be a case of someone saying ‘Perhaps he was poisoned’ and someone else saying ‘No, he wasn’t because the plant you say poisoned him isn’t poisonous’ and that would be the end of the matter.

However, it persists and the reasons for that seem, to me, to say a lot about the much broader topic of what people believe about poisonous plants and why they continue to believe so much that is simply untrue.  

The McCandless story came to my attention as a result from today’s Google alert on poisonous plants and the story in that alert led me to the website of someone who I supposed you could call a professional forager. Samuel Thayer was brought up in rural Wisconsin and would gather wild food on his three mile walk to school. He now writes and talks about foraging and has won awards for his books. On this page of his website,  he gives a detailed analysis of the McCandless case but makes the more general, and more controversial, assertion that false beliefs about poisonous plants are part of the way societies are kept in control.

It seems to me an interesting assertion and one that is worth further considering. I’m not for a moment suggesting that there is some secret committee that meets regularly to decide what lies should be spread to keep the population under control but it’s hard not to conclude that those lies do exist and do have the effect of determining the behaviour of the majority.

It may be that we just like lying to ourselves because it helps to give us a rationale for the world around us. But, there can be no doubt that lies about poisonous plants do persist in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail because, who knows, there could be enough examples to make a second book. I’ll just mention a few including some that have occurred in previous blogs and will arise again.

Obviously, the false beliefs about ricin are a good starter and give quite a bit of credence to Thayer’s notion of false information being used to exert control. Then there’s the continuing belief that thousands of horses every year are dying from ragwort. The notion that cannabis is extremely harmful is thought to have arisen when Henry J Anslinger wanted to build an empire for himself rather than from scientific evidence and the continuing irrational belief in homeopathy keeps a substantial industry going.

But, I think, the best example of a harmful plant story that has absolutely no scientific basis but still influences the lives of many millions of people has to be the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.