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Hemlock
Michael Ellis looks at a common weed that was the undoing of Socrates.

By Michael Ellis

On a recent walk I smelled the distinctive odor of poison hemlock. It smells like corn chips -- yes, Fritos -- and it got me thinking about ancient Greece.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the three prominent thinkers whose philosophical works underpin much of Western culture. Socrates came first: he was the original hippie. Born in 470 B.C., Socrates chose a life of poverty and voluntary simplicity. He refused to accept money for his work. He felt his independence would be compromised. He wore the same coat in winter and summer. He spent most of his time in the marketplace and out on the streets, teaching and holding class whenever his followers gathered. His well-known admonishment was "know thyself." He considered that task the greatest challenge a man could have.

Socrates encouraged his mostly young students to criticize the Athenian democracy and its authorities. The "establishment" could finally take it no longer, and as an old man Socrates was indicted for "corruption of the youth." It was a pretty fuzzy charge. His real sin was being outspoken and critical of the power brokers.

At his trial, the prosecution gave him every opportunity to plea bargain. Socrates refused to go into exile, the usual sentence for dissidents. In fact Socrates rejected all compromises and the judges were forced to condemn him to death. By drinking a cup of poison hemlock tea, he immortalized himself and the plant in one swallow.

Right now, poison hemlock is in full flower throughout California. Nearly every roadside ditch, disturbed field and urban lot below 5,000 feet sports this Mediterranean weed. Hemlock resembles a giant carrot. It even has a long taproot. The stems are hollow and covered with purple spots. All parts of the plant are poisonous but the young leaves and the roots contain the greatest concentration. One mouthful of the root can kill an adult.

I have noticed that the older I get, the more unsettled I am by new ideas and ways of thinking. And I know myself well enough that given the choice of being exiled to North Dakota or drinking poison hemlock... well, Fargo here I come.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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