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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 26th October 2011

I must confess to quite a high degree of trepidation as I start typing today’s blog and, when you learn the cause of it, you may find you are amused that I should have any concern at all.

Obviously, there is quite a high dose of ego, some would say self-esteem and others might, with justification, prefer arrogance involved in creating and maintaining a large website like this that largely represents my distillation of what is important in the whole body of information about poisonous plants.

Cover of 'Is That Cat Dead?'

And, just as obviously, that cranks up a notch or two when it comes to standing in front of a live audience and talking for forty-five minutes to an hour about some aspects of these plants and their facts, fiction and folklore.

But, when it comes to creating a book and hoping that people will put their hands in their pockets in order to be able to read what you have written you’d have to assume that an obscene amount of shamelessness is required and that no aspect of self-promotion would be a barrier.

And yet. I have a problem when it comes to promoting the book. My publisher keeps telling me I mustn’t be shy about telling people about it and I mustn’t rush to give it away, even to good friends. So, I thought, since it is now less than two months to Christmas, I should blog about all the reasons you should turn to ‘Is That Cat Dead? – and other questions about poison plants’ to solve your Christmas present buying problems. Or, for that matter, your present receiving problems. If you can’t bring yourself to buy the book for granddad or that difficult auntie, you could, at least, put it on your ‘want’ list to help your friends and family have a little less stress this year.

One of the first comments I received about it was from someone who thoroughly enjoyed it (do you think I’d tell you if someone slagged it off?) but said they thought it might have been more helpful with identification. I realised from that that not everyone views different types of media as I do.

When the World Wide Web started to become popular there were plenty of people saying it would bring about the end of books but I think that misses the point that the two have different strengths. This website offers an easy way to provide A to Z information that people can dip in and out of as required. Websites also make it easy to display images of plants at all different stages of their growth and allows those images to be enlarged making identification much simpler than a single fixed size picture on the page of a book.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

But websites are not that well suited to longer articles. It may just be me but, when I start reading a webpage and find that the little block on the right-hand side has barely moved even though I seem to have been reading for ages, I’m quite likely to skip to the end or just give up. I think people expect web pages to be short and punchy and that’s why the plants pages on this site are in sections and give only brief details of incidents or folklore.

‘Is That Cat Dead?’ isn’t a continuous narrative that must be read from start to finish but each chapter is, I think, a coherent whole taking, as it does, one of the questions most often asked by people about poisonous plants and a poison garden.

And it is neither universally funny nor universally serious. Obviously, when dealing with plants that have caused deaths and, especially with the likes of Nicotiana, tobacco, still do in large numbers you can’t be completely flippant but, equally, some of the things people have believed about plants for thousands of years do lend themselves to a more light-hearted approach.

I know, from the reactions I get to my talks, that people find a lot of the stories about the way human beings have used and misused these substances amusing. I’ve got a talk tomorrow evening and I’m pretty sure where the laughs will come, though I’m still, sometimes, surprised when someone sees humour where I’ve missed it.

I’ll be taking along a supply of books and my publisher’s urgings will be ringing in my ears as I try and force myself to actively sell the book instead of just hoping people see it in my bag. Perhaps this blatant plug for the book that offers a perfect solution to your Christmas present needs can be forgiven as a rehearsal for Thursday.