Where 3 Roads Meet

One of my side activities is running trivia night on Thursdays at the local coffee house. Last night, I was stumped by a question i didn’t quite believe the answer to:

What class of tropical plants contains the flower used to produce vanilla?

The answer is, to my surprise, orchids.

When I went looking for confirmation of this trivia fact before asking the question, though, I found out a) the question was correct and b) about this person.

Thank you, Edmond Albius, for bringing us vanilla.

Born in Ste. Suzanne on the French colonial island of Reunion in 1829, at age 12 he invented a technique for pollinating vanilla plants still used today: a blade of grass in one hand is used to lift the flower out of the way, and a human thumb then pollinates the plant; Albius’s technique is still used today, and is the reason why vanilla can be cultivated at all outside its native country of Mexico. Born in slavery and not freed until France abolished slavery in 1841, Albius died in 1880 in poverty, after serving a prison term for stealing jewelry from the wife of a vanilla magnate while working as a house slave.

where three roads meet

Trivia comes from a Latin root word that means a three-way crossroads and it refers to the first three elements of the medieval liberal arts curriculum: rhetoric, grammar, and logic. Why does the story of Edmond Albius remind me of this, besides the fact that his name came up during a trivia contest?

Well, first of all, I had to figure out how to summarize his story, so you didn’t have to visit the Wikipedia article if you didn’t want to. That’s grammar.

Second, I had to notice that a certain logic underlay his story: close observation of the plants in the field revealed certain obvious realities of their reproduction to him, and so he was able to determine a simple system for pollinating them; but his socioeconomic status left him in a state of limbo.

Finally, I can notice that the man who made possible nearly all of today’s vanilla production never profited from his discovery; but rather was abused, enslaved, jailed and ruined for the sake of the profits of others.  If I then draw a comparative analogy between Edmond Albius’s actual work in the field, and the hapless plantation owner who would have been ruined — ruined, I say! — without a pollination technique, and thus unable to buy jewelry for his privileged lady; and the multimillionaires who presently have the mismanagement of the American government and economy in their hands, yet have been unable to rise to their responsibilities to the rest of us… Then that, friends, would be rhetoric.

And the results of that web of thinking, where three roads meet, is far from trivial.

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