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According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna. The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath. When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place. The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.
Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster. After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.
But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics. First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club. Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout. With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast. But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either: Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature. Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head. With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius. Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall. Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.
Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists. Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially. The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations. Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving. Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father). In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.
I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team. In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:
The question of what makes living things unique from each other is a subtle one. Is a bee hive one colony organism, or is it a thriving city with fifty thousand hard-working, like-minded souls? Is a siphonophore an individual or a group? What about a blood cell or a sponge cell (which can form a whole new sponge)?
As another example of this question (and in keeping with this site’s recent tree theme) consider the quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides. This lovely slender tree is native to cooler regions of North America south of the permafrost. The aspen has glossy bright green leaves and pale smooth bark with occasional black score marks and scars. Along with the poplar, cottonwood, and other aspens, P. tremuloides is a member of the willow family (Salicaceae). It is a plant frequently used by landscapers for its winsome beauty.
So what is remarkable about this tree (aside from its hardiness and prettiness)? Quaking aspens colonies are among the most successful clonal colonies on Earth. Indeed, the largest living organism currently known is a quaking aspen colony in Utah known as “Pando” (which means “I spread” in Latin). Spread over more than 100 acres, Pando masses more than 6000 tons and consists of over 47,000 individual trunks (these clone trees are properly called ramets). Such a colony should be thought of as an immense root network as much as it is thought of as constituent trees. It spreads and propagates by underground suckering. Even if forest fire destroys all of the ramets, the colony can swiftly regenerate from its hidden, protected roots. This ability to survive forest fires and other cataclysms is one of the reasons quaking aspens out-compete hardier (but slower growing) conifers.
As Pando’s ramets wear out and die they are replaced, but the colony itself stays alive. Most botanists estimate Pando to be 80,000 years old, but it could plausibly be a million years old or older (it could also be younger or could have split into multiple colonies—there are uncertainties dealing with something so huge, strange, and ancient). I suppose I should say “he” rather than “it” since Pando is a male (although the poor fellow probably hasn’t flowered in 10,000 years). Many aspens no longer reproduce sexually—possibly because the environment has changed since the ice ages but also because they are—or were—so successful at spreading asexually. Across the west and in parts of Canada, clonal colonies of Aspen are now beginning to die out. Scientists are unsure whether this is because of fire restriction policies of the twentieth century (which were slowly giving an edge to pine trees), further climate change, or because of some wholly unknown factor. Whatever the case, people love quaking aspens, and are planting them everywhere. There was one in front of the stucco row-house in the suburbs where I lived during junior high. Perhaps some of these landscaped specimens will grow into immense clonal colonies themselves over the millennia.