A Gaucho Throws the I Ching
March 23, 2020
“Would you care to explain?
Who is the gaucho, ‘migo?-Gaucho, Steely Dan
Why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho
With the studs that match your eyes?
Such as your friend will never be welcome here”
You find a memory card on the shuttle bus to your employment. Curious, you bring it home and search through some old card readers to determine the contents. Several aerial images of regions in the southern section of the Canadian states with heat maps, and a single text file labeled Pierre_Aoun_Bio. The text is mostly in Arabic, but fortunately your translation software is still working. Here is a direct translation of that file:
They say that if you have bedding infested with lice, seal it in a large airtight bag. After a week the lice cannibalize themselves to death. It is this way with scientific ideas in many cases. The young knew more about visa restrictions than Descartes. In my youth, when searching for advancement or applying for an award, I needed letters of support from supervisors and colleagues. The more authoritative the figure, the more likely I was asked to write my own letter. Thus, I had to write a letter of recommendation on my own behalf from the perspective of all my colleagues; I built towers of self-praise from behind the nom de plume of more well-known figures in my field. One professor simply sent me his signature in an attached image file. This is common practice; the successful among us have built a complicated network of deception and co-conspirators. But these letters were always recognized as pedestrian paperwork, as long as the science was sound.
At a conference a Russian pharmacologist named Dmitry Petrosian peeled another layer of the onion for me when he described his conflict with his superior over the action of a certain senolytic compound he was developing. After vehement rounds of disagreement between him and his Professor, Dmitry produced a manuscript to be reviewed by anonymous peers. The compound was an endocannabinoid and Dmitry had found key words that would flag the document. He hoped that the editor would send it to Dmitry’s confederate in Amsterdam named Alexei Spassky.
Alexei, who was supposed to remain anonymous, had then written to Dmitry through back channels.
“These results do not line up with the conclusions at all, Dmitry, what are you driving at?”
Dmitry replied, “Thanks for reaching out Alexei. Yes I’m at odds with Herr Professor and he’s forcing his pet theory on me”
Alexei then asked Dmitry to write the peer review for his own manuscript. Dmitry, under the guise of the anonymous peer reviewer, provides a direct and authoritative rebuttal to his own supervisor, who relented and rewrote the manuscript to the specifications of Dmitry and the peer reviewer (also Dmitry). In this context, can another Louis Pasteur arise, a Gregor Mendel, or even a Fr. Georges LemaÎtre?
And although I am a natural product chemist by training, I am a flâneur by nature it was through my socialization with various ex-pats that I became acquainted with a neurobiologist named Alessandro Benedetti, the descendent of gauchos from Montevideo and was working in a renowned laboratory in the midwest. Does it matter if the lab was in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis? Only historians will note these details. On a winter evening, in a jog through his college campus, Alessandro saw a light shining out of his laboratory. It was a demure graduate student named Xi who shared the lab with Alessandro. In a puffy coat and a ponytail, Xi was using her phone light to read key articles Alessandro had printed out for his research project, a promising nootropic for enhancing memory. No doubt she would pitch his idea as her own.
This act of espionage stirred the blood of the gaucho within Alessandro. He chose not to confront the interloper directly. What good could come from confronting a woman in private? Instead he chose a more intricate method of subterfuge. Despite his preference for reading printouts of technical papers, he adopted the habit of reading all documents on his screen. At the same time, he printed volumes about the possibilities of learning in plants, from phototropisms, nitrogen-seeking-tropisms within the roots, and magnetotropisms in plant life. He interspersed this with a study in, say, the reaction time of venus fly traps, or an unrelated paper highlighting random passages about prion-like activity of Abeta plaque formations. Over the course of the weekend he created an entirely incoherent line of inquiry; insertion of NMDA receptors, recurrent circuitry and synapses, actin-myosin pumps, subtle formation of petals that can vibrate at high frequencies so that other sensitive petals could sense these vibrations; simplistic nodes of information processing using gap junctions between walled cells to communicate with each other; genetically programming recursive machine learning algorithms optimizing trophic responses; social networks, hierarchy, and competition between plant species for sunlight and water; CRISPR-mediated formation of teeth, small projectiles with poisoned tipped barbs that latch onto mammals and develop into roots.
Fueled by endless rounds of yerba mate and seething rage, Alessandro assembled a diabolical project, which he had no intention of pursuing. In truth, he doubted it was coherent. Having set the bait, he maintained cordial relations with Xi at all times, to allay any suspicion. His efforts at countersurveillance, a glance at her search history on her laptop, revealed she spent considerable time reading Arthur Machen short stories and perusing handbags from Salvatore Ferragamo. She dreamed big despite the fact her salary was roughly half of his, her polka dot skirt was threadbare on close inspection. Born of a millenia of test-takers and a card-carrying communists, she had still succumbed to the land of the perpetually embarrassed millionaires.
Thereafter, Alessandro returned to his primary research, and thought little of Xi and her theft. On a jog that spring, he once again saw Xi along with a second senior scientist from a neighboring lab. At first, Alessandro laughed to himself: ‘they even devour my table scraps.” But upon contemplation, he found himself with a lingering dread, and he decided that his precautions to prevent theft of nootropic research were not enough. He began keeping all of his data in password-protected drives in his home, and declined to make any of his resources available through the cloud, even with himself.
Within a month Xi and her colleague left the lab and the school abruptly. Alessandro was relieved. He considered them to be like ants, easily replaced by more workers from the ant pile, and to this he attributed their common belief in reincarnation.
Alessandro told me all of this, of his espionage and paranoia, late one summer after many caipirinhas. Thereafter, he and I would laugh over “news of the weird” articles about mutant sunflowers, venus flytraps that fed on flesh, or impossibly large pitcher plants. I would text him, “Chinese scientists are implementing your plan.”
The following spring, my laughter became concern. The pollen that year was dense. Students would trace out aphorisms on the hoods of their car. “Friends and acquaintances are the surest passports to fortune” I remember reading fondly. In hindsight, it was my allergies that spared me, as every spring my sinuses were assaulted. Consider what pollen is, isn’t it designed to attack and mutate, modify its target? It is a full-frontal attack on humanity, an assault of the senses, my eyes and face would swell. I would see what looks like yellow chalk covering the roads, streaming down the drain. Over the years of fighting this pollen I prepared for March as my ancestors may have prepared for war, armed with antihistamines, quercetin, eye drops with mast cell destabilizers, N95 masks and goggles.
By necessity I had become a keen observer of the season, and at that time I felt a growing awareness that something was different. The pollen itself seemed thicker, grittier than before. It started as a joke, but I joined a social media group that discussed some of the recent advances in plant research, when a friend posted a story about a small southern town with an influx of senior citizens, even as young as 60, showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
In my professional life I have built a considerable network of chemistry researchers: one dives off the coast of Hida-Takayama for esoteric jellyfish, and another hunts caterpillars in the Alps in search of the next “lizard spit” or unicorn product for treating erectile dysfunction or sickle cell anemia. And so, I followed a hunch and wrote to several of my colleagues around the world, although I did not reveal my intuitons to them. I only asked for local pollen samples pollen from various flora in their research. Within a week I had samples of birch, ragweed, and grass from Sao Paulo, Beirut, Paris, Beijing, most of which confirmed my guess.
I invited Dmitry and Alessandro to my flat for coffee, and they noticed my boxes of contraband N95 masks. “You may be needing this,” I told them.
“Alessandro I suspect they’ve weaponized the pollen. I don’t know who exactly, but it’s loaded with Alzheimer’s plaques.”
He smiled his gaucho smile, as if he had killed a calf with a stray bullet. “Who knew my table scraps would come back to haunt us all Pierre. But really how do you know?”
“I checked under the microscope, followed up with Mass spec, PCR. Under the microscope the pollen had attached to it folded abeta sheets, the same misfolded proteins that degenerate the brain. Enough of this gets in the bloodstream and it acts like a prion to recruit other proteins.”
“But how did it get into the trees, was it an attack on America?” asked Dmitry.
“I did some further analysis it seemed that a CRIPR-Cas9 vector introduced the mutation into multiple sites throughout the world.”
Alessandro asked, “Some kind of weaponized bee fertilizing and mutating trees to
“I assume so,” I said. “But it wasn’t only in America, every continent showed the same pattern, even if it were the Chinese, somehow the vector escaped their control.”
“Only tree pollen?” Alessandro asked.
“Ragweed, tree pollen, the major players….”
Alessandro turned to Dmitry, “What are the chances this crosses the blood brain barrier?”
Dmitry replied “If it is in the soluble state it has a reasonable chance.”
“It is soluble. I have checked, please look at the slides.” I showed the photo of the pollen under the electron microscope, it was clear as a talking dog.
Alessandro and Dmitry were silent. I was confident in my findings, I did not need their opinions on the data, but as friends, I wondered, what to do next. The prospect of sounding the alarm to aid the Americans or Chinese did not whet our appetites. We each had our resentments to the US. Also it seemed like rearranging chairs on the Titanic. The mutations had already spread worldwide.
“Can we ride it out?” Alessandro offered, always the gaucho.
“People will start to catch on, and the pollen count will catch up to us, every spring will get worse and worse. After a year or two we will have trouble navigating to work” I replied.
“In Florida and Brazil they burn the crops, if we can follow a burn zone and stay there the pollen count will be low, we can reseed the crops.”
“Ok Don Quixote”, said Dmitry. “I like this idea but it is infeasible.”
“What about Phoenix?” I said.
Dmitry shook his head, “In the spring the desert plants are still a nightmare for pollen. In Russia we have a saying: when you are attacked, embrace the winter. The spring season is very short there and we can always retreat to Siberia for the heavy pollen season. In fact, many of my countrymen would be well prepared for such a venture.”
Being of mediterranean blood, I winced at the prospect. Dmitry smiled but kept quiet.
“For me there is always Patagonia,” said Alessandro. “Arid, dry, isolated but I expect that could change with this news.”
“Yes but for me, I have no home… Paris, Beirut, this will be devastating for them. Maybe I will go to Juneau.”
After long discussion of the arrangements we agreed that it would be best for us to branch out cold and arid conditions separately. I excused myself to the restroom and took a long look at a picture I had bought as a part of my “vision board” exercises. It was a picture I had chosen, really without much forethought, of Hegel and Napoleon in Jena. Underneath was the caption:
I saw the Emperor—this world-soul [Weltseele]—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.
At this point I decided it was time to do more than survive this storm…
“This will leave most of America, China, Europe, everything near the equator, addled and dumb. This will contaminate our food supplies as well.”
“We will need to grow our own own food, and we’ll need to keep it from cross-pollinating with infected crops.” said Alessandro.
I said, “We will need to bring source seeds to start greenhouses. we can all become rich if we have the untainted varieties of staple crops.”
“But if bugs are the vector we will have to pollinate them ourselves.” said Dmitry.
“There are fully automated Greenhouses now.” I said. “Alessandro, your last time throwing the I Ching was out tragic, but, maybe if we put our heads together, we can come up with a winning combination?”
Thereafter we developed a plan to store enough unmutated seed to start our global enterprise. We would propose to build a large greenhouse facility in Juneau under the guise of developing nootropics derived from platns, which we would maintain, at least until civilization below the 45 th parallel went completely off the rails. I would head up the natural product section as a method of screening out candidate compounds. Dmitry would search for targets of senescence in the brain, and Alessandro would generate derivatives and analogues based off the natural product screens.
We had to keep working until we could make our big departure from the Midwest and we had devised a protocol to protect us. I had access to a 3-D printer, so we printed up some polycarbonate panchos. Alessandro had provided spare neckerchiefs that could be washed daily. And thus we were prepared for battle.
Do Phoenicians Dream of Fesengen Sleep?
The plan renewed my self-confidence, and I was enthusiastic. Underneath my pancho I wore a powder blue button down and put away my “poverty-stricken” academic uniform. I shelved all my ancillary assignments, listened to Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” and began to formulate the proposal. After a little over an hour of progress, the dulcet velvety tones pronounced my name, “Pierre?”
I turned to meet Soraya, a Persian medical doctor in my department. We passed each other on several occasions but she never sent a glance in my direction… I was curious how she even knew my name. “Pierre, you’re good with computers, aren’t you?”
My guard went up, “There is IT for that.”
“Yes, well Jose isn’t here today, and, well, my program isn’t saving properly…. I heard you were very capable with fixing things” she replied. I remember reading that womens’ strength was their weakness but for the first time I looked deep into those feline (which is to say predatory) eyes of hers I could not resist. It was only a dead shortcut, but it opened up a bit of a conversation between us. She had been working in growing different varieties of lychee so I thought I may be able to glean something useful for our project. She leaned in, her bosom stretching the buttons of her white labcoat. “Pierre do you know how to use a soldering iron?”
Her greenhouse needed several repairs, which took me only a couple of hours. She had automatic sprinklers that were rusting in places, and she would hold the rack in a certain configuration, and I would join the metal together with solder. She complimented me heavily, “Oh Pierre, you don’t have to do this,” before jumping on to the next repair project. I was riding high on my confidence and skill, but it was time to fish or cut bait.
“Look, let’s take a break, how about we have some espresso?” I suggested. Suddenly, her itinerary became full.
“Oh Pierre but I have to do some gene transfers…look you’ve been very kind…it’s not fair for me to ask favors and give nothing in return,” she blushed. “Here, I will give you a gift for all your effort…it is a prototype so far but here, I want to show you” Soraya reached under one of her benches and pulled up an orchid.
“It’s a type of phaelaenopsis,” She said, “But smell it.”
I hesitated and she added, “I know, your allergies, but remember orchid pollen is not airborne.”
I relented and inhaled, “It smells like a perfect rose.” I told Soraya.
“I spliced in a gene for the production of rose oxide. Isn’t it delightful? It is a side project I am working on”
I mirrored her enthusiasm. “It’s like that song says, “Just by chance you crossed a diamond with a pearl and turned it on the world.”
“You have the soul of a poet,” she said. “Perhaps you can be my marketing director if this business takes off. Take my gift, Pierre and let’s meet up again. But now I have to return to work. Ciao.”
So, I went back to my office with her flower and placed it on my desk. I looked closely at the caudicle and after rubbing my chin, thought ‘just to be safe’ I gloved up and took a sample of the pollen. Under the super-resolution microscope, I didn’t find any beta-sheets. So, at least the greenhouses were still safe.
After this respite I found returning to work a chore and clicked around a bit, and in my feed popped up an advertisement for “Botanical ASMR” video and clicked on it for a chuckle. My attempts to return to the proposal were half-hearted at best. The next days I found myself drifting more and more, watching “Gaia worship videos” with cosplay models repeating “Om Nama Shivaya” endlessly in seductive poses. I began begging off the daily updates to Alessandro and Dmitry. A torpor washed over me. We think of pornography as a lustful retreat, but the result is sloth. I became self-caponized and adrift among the mantras of Shiva. Finally, it was Alessandro that aroused me from my lassitude. He caught me watching some semi-pornographic Gaia hypno, slack-jawed.
¡Qué lástima!”, He exclaimed. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook. “Pierre what has come over you, think about the plan, the big picture…and what is this orchid?” He tightened the neckerchief around his face
I told Alessandro of my meeting with Soraya, and how I checked for abeta plaques and it came up negative.
“Abeta is not my concern. She says she spliced this with rose oil who knows what else she mixed in there, get this out of here!” A spectrographic analysis revealed a spike in scopolamine, a powerful hypnotic used by prostitutes in Rio de Janeiro to fleece wealthy traveling businessmen.
The three of us met again. I acknowledged I was behind on my end of the proposal and Dmitry proposed a solution. “Step away from your computer and go to the library. Put away your phone. Your searches will be fewer but far more productive” he said. I noted that our library was like a labyrinth in that it has a single entrance and exit. I thought of the ironic reversal of Alessandro’s situation, I was prone to weaponized memes digitally and sought refuge in the tactile. We met daily over Mate and discussed my findings. After a week, I returned to my terminal at work and eschewed all contact with Soraya.
It was accepted we requisitioned several cases of seed, from staple crops to trees, to mosses, algae, and everything we would need to construct our own automated greenhouses. Dmitry began writing for a position in Vladivostok and Alessandro was traveling back and forth to Tierra del Fuego and networking with old Professors. I told him to be careful as I noticed even at that time a slight uptick in plane crashes. The idea of warning the authorities never really crossed out minds, except to warn our friends and family and sending out masks.
Thus our exercise in deceit amounted to a glacial robbery. We proposed studies but merely grew as many hothouse plants as we could fit in and began sending out feelers to prospective clients worried about “GMO” plants. We kept two sets of books.
Another of my hunches panned out, the beta plaques were in the starches as well, potatoes and corn were laden with the plaques. By the end of the year much of the global south was completely addled, there were riots and mass extermination squads. A brigade of diabetic Americans on disability scooters, affixed with “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper stickers attempted to invade Canada, easily held off by the Mounties. But, for the most part, people’s minds already worn down by the abeta millstones, largely accepted their lot. The Great American experiment ended in a whimper and the great Chinese century cut short in it’s prime. Soon the American government had too many literal and figurative fires to put out to deal with minor transgressions such as ours.
Many of my family reconnected with me in Juneau and we have created a little Phoenicia here, still by the sea but in the absence of dangerous pollen clouds our infamous cedars now produce. I fell in love with a young métis woman named Tantoo Chalifoux and we started a family. In the few weeks of summer we stay in our hermetically sealed greenhouses. Certain outposts were spared. Reykjavik, Oslo, Montreal, Christchurch. Canada was renamed Greater Montréal and soon acquired Alaska from America in order to pay off outstanding debts. As a Francophone I welcomed this transition.
My seed business thrived off of trade with other outposts and Dmitry and Alessandro and I kept in touch on logistical issues. We now have three dozen greenhouses and several cargo ships retooled for carrying seed crops. In exchange for factory equipment for making masks, I bartered non-GMO rice via drones to Beijing. At least I did before it went completely dark there. Now I just 3D print masks for sale, and I still have one of Alessandro’s kerchiefs. In Russia, Dmitry has been appointed director of Svalbard seed vault.
In the dead of winter when the pollen count is lowest, I would venture down to the US and sell my wares, non-GMO seed to some of the remaining hazmat-suited farmers to replenish their depleted stock. Big box stores and entire neighborhoods decomposed precipitously, resulting in an entire country teeming with huddled masses. Rhododendrons towering over decaying houses, Cedars exploding clouds of pollen. Most of the feral humans have a catatonic glaze now. Scouting drones send back video, often they gather around large trees and worship them. In Mount Rainer they began marching everyone over 50 to be thrown in the volcano. Some pockets of hyperborean internet service persist, but the database that began this entire crusade has long fell into disrepair.
In Patagonia, Alessandro and I have an arrangement where he supplies nootropics to North America under my distribution and I supply raw materials grown in the Pacific Northwest. I travel with a Falangist security team and troves of cubic zirconium which has become the new currency, for a few necklaces I can get a metric ton of GMO-free potatoes from Idaho. For my last visit to Hong Kong I picked up a rare tenth century copy of the I Ching, complete with the four King Wen hexagrams, in exchange for some orchids. I shipped this I Ching to Alessandro with the inscription, “Aquí hay otro lío en el que nos meterás” or roughly, “Here’s to another fine mess you will be getting us into.”
And with that, we reached the end of the file. So, now, you may be thinking, “What does it mean?” Well it turns out there are some job openings for greenhouse managers in Fairbanks, Alaska. Haven’t you noticed that things are a little crazy these days? Grounded flights, maybe….Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, they are calling it Silicon iceberg…consider!
Art by: @samartian808 on Instagram and Redbubble