The collapse of the Dutch tulip market in February 1637 has become a metaphor used extensively by economists ever since to describe financial bubbles, when asset prices diverge from intrinsic value to such an extent that the entire system disintegrates. At the speculative apex of “Tulip Mania” a single Augustus Semper tulip bulb was traded at ten times the annual salary of a master craftsman. The social impetus for the mania and the resulting consequences to the Dutch psyche have been well documented, although not widely discussed is the incredible creature responsible for the distinctive petal coloration of the previously prized flower.
Between 1920 and 1960 scientists carrying out experiments on tulip bulbs finally confirmed that the unusual coloration was due to a virus which entered the pant via the tiny jaws of aphids. An insect familiar to agriculture the world over, the Aphid is an evolutionary expert. Amazingly most Aphid communities are composed of almost entirely female individuals. In the spring the hatching aphids emerge and reproduce parthenogenetically (without a sexual partner) and then give live birth to other females which are clones of their mother. The cycle continues throughout the summer until sensing the changing conditions the females give live birth to both males and females. The males are born without wings or even mouths, reproduce sexually with the females who then lay eggs which are able to endure winter conditions to begin the cycle again in the spring.
But the most amazing insight into the Aphid world is their ability to produce telescopic generations; a female can develop live clones inside of her that are in turn also developing live clones inside of their own bodies. The result is a kind of insect speculative-grade bond, one hungry ladybug comes along and all three generations are wiped out, but if successful the evolutionary efficiency of the original aphid is rewarded with twice the typical genetic material reproduced.
When my plane landed in Brussels I had two things in mind. First, I wanted to sample some Belgian chocolate and second, I wanted to spend the afternoon at the musical instruments museum. After the evening of sleep-free contemplation in the Dublin airport, my first step was to locate a hostel, bathe and nap. Probably due to the lack of rest, it took me longer than usual to navigate my way to the hostel I had chosen on the plane and my pack seemed to manifest a magnetic pull against every step. Ultimately I successfully used the shower, slept an hour, changed and found my way back to the incredible window display of a chocolate shop I had passed earlier. Sacrificing my budget for lunch that day, I chose a select few pieces and left the shop with my treasure. I love chocolate, so with something akin to a spiritual reverence I ate the tiny gems. Slightly levitating on a cloud of endorphins, I entered the graceful arch of Art Nouveau embellished doorway to the museum. For many years to follow it would be one of my favorite museum experiences. The headphones each visitor is given as they enter react to sensors in the exhibits in such a way that I could hear the sound of the instrument being played as I examined the display. Handcrafted instruments from every continent filled several floors of the open, light-filled building. I left the museum reeling with inspiration and an overwhelming sense of the limitless-ness of human imagination.
After Brussels I took the train to Amsterdam. Upon exiting the trains station a wave of hostel cowboys wrangled the crowd of started travelers. Each offering a better price than the last and pushing flyers and coupons in front of me and trying to grab a hold of my arm or pack or elbow, what ever they could clutch and pull. Shaking them off I was approached calmly by a pair offering a room on a houseboat. I hadn’t thought of staying on a boat, but I was assured by the calmness with which the hostel was described and that it was very nearby. I followed them to a side street leading behind the station and climbed onto the oscillating wraparound deck. I was led down a hallway so narrow both sides of my pack drug along the walls. The room I was given was equally claustrophobic but had a private lock to the door and place to store my things, I took it and immediately leaving to begin my explorations.
Amsterdam was very close to a perfect city, a balance of seedy rebellion and healthy intellectual living. People with baskets full of produce glided around the tree-lined canals and bridges led into what seemed to be an endless array of markets – used books, clothing, tulips, furniture and food. The morning spent browsing and walking, I decided to try out an infamous cafe experience. Choosing one that had an appealing layout opening onto the canal outside I approached the counter. As if I were ordering a late or fruit smoothie, the attendant asked what I had in mind and began flipping through pages in the extensive menu. Not sure exactly what it was I should request, I explained that I was headed to the Van Gogh museum and then to a Jimmy Cliff concert later that night. After consulting the inventory, she returned with a small bag filled with intricately crystallized buds and a pack of rolling papers. Next, she led me to one of their sun-drenched eggplant colored velvet chairs.
About an hour later I was walking again, this time through what seemed like a medieval stone tunnel leading to the museum. I was appreciating the cool darkness of the passageway when I heard it. Somewhere between a string instrument and human tone, the sound echoed blending and mixing together to produce the most amazing harmony. After a few mysterious minutes I came upon a trio of Mongolian throat singers. I had never heard Mongolian throat singing and in fact at the time did not know that was what they were performing. Mesmerized, I enjoyed their performance for nearly half an hour, bought their CD and continued on my way.
Van Gogh was an art obsession of mine growing up; as a teenager I was enthralled by his madness, his psychotic amorous obsession with a prostitute and of course the tragic removal of one of his ear lobes. During my early teen years I interpreted his madness as passion, the kind that drives you to do great things and I admired it in a strange way. Over the years I read more about Van Gogh and while I still delight at his dreamlike brush work and the intensity his work emits, I have come to understand the madness as madness. Perhaps he was not so different from the Dutch speculators; feverish and obsessive 200 years before. Much the same way the Dutch incinerated the resources of generations in the pursuit of one broken tulip, Van Gogh’s scrambling after light and landscape consumed everything in his life – including huge sums of his brother’s money. Was a flower worth investing a lifetime of work? Was a painting worth investing the sanity of the painter’s mind? Passing a beautifully arranged plot of tulips outside the museum, I stopped to look at them. The tall flowers shifted in the breeze and I realized both the tulips and the paintings were more like aphids than I had originally understood.