Joe Pitkin ~ The Mount Meager Expedition

From The Autobiography of St. Morris Roger Lindenford-Fitzroy, Lord Chadwick

Chapter LXVII: The Mount Meager Expedition

My service as His Majesty’s Secretary of State for War coincided neatly with the end of the War on Poverty and the beginning of the First Balkan War, a seven-year period during which our country also fought wars against Illiteracy and the Khedivate of Egypt, as well as suppressed insurgencies in British Honduras, Algebra, Southern Rhodesia, and the Marianas Trench. Given our daunting expenditure of blood and treasure over all corners of the Empire, therefore, the gentle reader may imagine my dismay when the Prime Minister requested that The War Office prepare a dossier investigating the feasibility of a war against lupines.

I had grown up believing the lupine a particularly glorious summer flower, so far as I knew entirely peaceable and not at all contentious. Indeed, in my boyhood my mother had led me to believe that lupines are the most God-fearing of legumes, if not of the entire Kingdom of Plants. However, the Secretary serves at the pleasure of His Majesty and the Prime Minister, and I would not allow my personal misgivings to intrude upon a matter of such weighty import for The Empire. There would come, I knew, a time when I might give voice to my conscience regarding another war, but certainly not before The War Office had investigated the matter and laid out the costs and benefits for all to consider.

The facts, as I was led to understand them, were the following. While vacationing in British Columbia, His Majesty’s youngest son, The Duke of Clarence, picnicked on the beautiful southern flank of Mount Meager in a field dominated by broadleaf lupine, Lupinus latifolius. In the late August warmth, several mature lupine seed pods opened quite explosively (a process with which I had been unfamiliar theretofore, which natural historians term dehiscence). A volley of pellet-sized seed sprayed His Royal Highness’ face, as well as injured the left eye of his consort, The Duchess of Clarence. Furthermore, when the Duke sprang to his feet in alarm the cutlass of his Royal Fusiliers dress uniform swung about and gravely injured His Royal Highness’ manservant, Aubrey.

Naturally, such an affront to a royal personage would serve as casus belli against the nation in which the affront occurred. This was in point of fact the principle under which the Empire had gone to war with The Republic of Venice in the days of King George III, when His Majesty had been sickened by a tainted radicchio salad that had been served in the Venetian ambassador’s residence. However, Canada being an Imperial Dominion, The British Empire could scarcely declare war on itself, and so the Foreign Office determined that the proper course of action, diplomatically speaking, was to treat the outrageous organisms as a native insurgency in much the same way that the United States of America had regarded its hostile aboriginals in the last century.

I have related already my deep misgivings about the entire enterprise, for reasons both moral and practical. I attempted to convey these concerns through the composition of our dossier on the looming conflict: the lupines’ utter lack of a cohesive military apparatus, to say nothing of their rudimentary language and political culture, ensured that a thoroughly asymmetrical conflict would follow from any action against these flowers. However, I also kept in mind the dictum of my father, the Right Honorable Admiral Clement Lindenford-Fitzhugh: when ordered to array the South Africa squadron against a flotilla of Antarctic icebergs, he is said to have responded: “we don’t always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared, or most inclined.” I therefore laid out the costs of an anti-lupine expeditionary force as scrupulously as I could, noting that the Mark I tanks which British engineers had developed at such great expense would be far more powerful than necessary for such an action. In the interests of compromise I suggested a simple force of two light infantry brigades armed with scythes or other mowing equipment, supported by a heavy artillery battery, a field ambulance corps, a Royal Engineers Signal company, and a Royal Trowel and Hoe Brigade.

The Prime Minister’s office rejected this proposal outright, with the grave consequences well known to the gentle reader: two tank brigades, four heavy infantry brigades, two heavy artillery batteries, and two battalions of Royal Garden Cavalry established a bridgehead at Vancouver, British Columbia on 3 May of 1908 in hopes that so early in the season the lupines would be nearly defenceless if not entirely so, seed production in the lupine being confined to the summer months.

The ensuing tragedy, however, was not long in coming. Aside from the obvious difficulties in maintaining a supply train from the sleepy logging village of Vancouver to the remotest wilds of Mount Meager, it soon became evident how scanty is the British Infantryman’s training in botany. Within days of landing in British Columbia, the Grenadier Guards regiment led an offensive action against a large subalpine contingent of lupine in the western foothills of the mountain; it was only after weeks of shelling, and the awful deaths of 104 grenadiers in the accidental explosion of a field magazine, that Lieutenant Colonel Sir Giles Makepeace Pemberton arrived at the conclusion that the lupines under attack were not the offending Lupinus latifolius, but rather the broadleaf lupines’ smaller cousin, Lupinus lepidus, a species formerly uninvolved in hostilities and against which no diplomatic offence could be imputed. Worse still, unusually rapid glacial motion on the western flank had separated the Grenadier Guards from the main British force by an intraversible sheet of ice during the Guards’ action; the logistical obstacles occasioned by the mountain’s glacial counterattack proved insurmountable for the duration of the conflict.

The main British force, however, fared scarcely better and may be argued to have fared far worse. Just as I had feared would be the case, the Mark I tank proved thoroughly unequal to the steep inclines presented by Mt. Meager’s angle of repose, to say nothing of its glaciated terrain. In the Duke of Cambridge’s Hussars alone, Fourteen Mark I tanks broke down, eight of them catastrophically, in the first day of the offensive. Further, the carrier pigeons which each tank maintained for communications rarely survived more than a minute or so in flight; Army planners had failed to account for the fantastic number of hawks, harriers, osprey, falcons, eagles, buzzards, and Africanized carnivorous herons which make their nests around Mt. Meager and which found the army pigeons appetizing. Indeed, picnickers on Mt. Meager today may still find fragments of yellowed Royal Army stationery among the desiccated castings of so many predatory birds.

To be sure, it must be remarked, although it goes without saying, that the army performed its duties with all of the puissance and élan which the world has rightly come to expect of British soldiery. Within two weeks’ time, British infantry had mowed down a lupinal force which we may estimate conservatively to have comprised more than a million flowering plants. Indeed, by the end of the first week of the offensive, the headquarters of lieutenant-general Sir Egdon Heath had begun preparations to accept the unconditional surrender of the lupines, before it was noted that the lupines had made no overtures of surrender and, more crucially, before it was admitted that no one on the general staff knew how one might recognize a lupine’s overture of surrender or even a request to parley.

It was only after the first two weeks of the offensive, however, that field doctors began to notice a strange malady among the troops. The first known sufferer, a private Terence Hearsay, presented himself to army surgeons with an anomalous gray-greenish discharge around the eyes, nose, and ears. Within a day the emission had taken on an alarming volume, and within two days private Hearsay had succumbed to dehydration. By that time, though, fully a quarter of the British counterinsurgency force had developed similar symptoms.

Careful consultation of a botanical field guide revealed that the mysterious discharge was not, in point of fact, a discharge at all, but rather an infestation of lupine aphid, known to natural historians as Macrosiphum albifrons. This diminutive insect, characterized principally by its sucking mouthparts and its phenomenally rapid, sexless method of reproduction, had responded to the loss of its traditional host by attacking the nearest alternative source of nutriment, to wit, the twenty thousand soldiers attacking the flanks of Mt. Meager. The event remains the only documented instance of any species of plant lice attacking and killing a human host.

Transporting sufficient supplies of insecticidal soap from Hong Kong or Singapore to the front lines would require several weeks of procurement and shipping, and during this dreadful delay soldiers were reduced to treating the infestation with frequent dousings of water and to sleeping with ladybird beetles emplaced upon their tear ducts. The reader may well imagine the loss of morale and combat readiness among troops suffering an infestation so suggestive of a biblical plague. Yet, notwithstanding the assaults of nature upon our army, the torments that would have laid Pharaoh low, the British offensive continued apace. By the first of August, in less than three months’ time, His Majesty’s soldiers appeared to have eradicated the broadleaf lupine from Mt. Meager.

It remains a curiosity of political history, so suggestive of the Divine Providence that shapes our affairs, that on the following day, August the second, unbeknownst to the British government, a Croatian anarchist was to pummel to death the Habsburg Marquess Charles Rudolph in Zagreb with a bouquet of bearded irises, setting in motion the first of the many horrific Balkan wars of that period. Scarcely had the last tank slid down the glaciers of Mt. Meager, scarcely had the last grenade dehisced its deadly cargo, when the drumbeat of war called to us out of the Balkan Peninsula.

It is more painful still to relate that the lupine was not, as the War Office was later to learn, eradicated: modern walkers may visit Mt. Meager on any day of summer and find the fields bedecked with the marvelous blue of broadleaf and alpine lupine blossoms. The cause of this renascence, so soon after the utter waste of that mountain, was explained to me by a veteran of the campaign, Adjutant Captain-Botanical Algernon Gower, who further recounted his observations in a letter to the Royal Society titled “On the Existence of a Seed Bank for Broadleaf Lupine Killed in Defence of The Meagre Mountain.” As Captain Gower related to me personally, the lupines of the mountain had deposited their seed into the soil roundabout for millennia; all manner of snuffling creatures had buried many such seeds; the slow decay of grasses and leaves had blanketed the seed with new soil. British shelling had had the effect of ploughing the earth and bringing to light and rain seeds which might have gone interred for centuries. In short, the broadleaf lupine would have persisted in sprouting on the flanks of Mt. Meager even if British troops had gone on shelling the mountain for a hundred years.

The loss of so many brave young men, the flower of British youth, weighs on my conscience more heavily than any decision I made or failed to make as His Majesty’s Secretary of State for War. I know of no veterans of any other conflict, modern or historical, so shabbily forgotten by their countrymen as those veterans of the Canada Lupine Campaign. Sent without reason, lost without reason, and forgotten among the claxons and trumpets of the Balkan Wars, to memorialize them as they deserve would require a far greater eulogy than mine. But this is the eulogy I offer them, before we turn our eyes to the next sorry chapter of this bellicose period.


Joe Pitkin began his writing career as a poet, where his work has appeared in North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Since his debut as a speculative fiction writer, his stories have appeared in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, Cosmos, Podcastle, Drabblecast, and other fine publications. He teaches at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. Bienvenue au Danse, Joe!


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on The Subway Test and commented:
    I’ve had my longest dry spell in publication in many, many months. But the curse broke this week with the publication of my little story “The Mt. Meager Expedition” in the lovely journal Danse Macabre. I’m very grateful to Adam Henry Carrière, Danse Macabre’s editor, for taking on this odd little absurdity of a story–extra points to any readers who can find a quote from David Petraeus hiding here!

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