Sometimes it’s easy to think we are all floating through life randomly, one event bumping into the next, but really? It’s often simple to connect the dots and trace how we got from one point to another. The whole seven degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. I love doing that.
I scored this nifty advertisement for St. Raphael Quinquina from 1937 while browsing a store on South Beach last week. The poster shows a stereotypically “native-looking” Peruvian holding a sprig of the cinchona tree and a European woman holding a grape vine with a ship ready to send it across the seas to be served to the drinkers of France. Really? Feathers in his hair? Plus, it can get COLD in the Andes where cinchona trees grow and people wear lots of heavy warm clothing and not loincloths. But I digress. The text roughly reads: “It was under the Sun King that the ideal marriage between quinquina and the vine was concluded that would give birth to the incomparable twins of the Aperitif of France.” I suppose drinking that in the 1930’s made you wish you could be whisked away to some exotic land.
Quinine is a drug that treats malaria and the name for the tree from whose bark quinine is derived is called cinquona (from the Quechua word for its bark – “quina-quina”) and the bark has a very bitter taste. People used to add it to water (hence Indian Tonic Water and the original popularity of Gin and Tonics!) to mask the bitterness when taking a preventative or curative dose of the drug, or wine (aperetifs like St. Raphael) to add some bitterness to their drinks.
Even though I study malaria I was ignorant of the history of quinine and would not have even connected the dots with the poster if I hadn’t started reading Quinine: Malaria and the Quest to Change the World by Fiammetta Rocco. This book dives into the fascinating history of the use of quinine to treat malaria and how the disease impacted major world events over the centuries. From the election of Popes to Jesuits in Peru to power struggles in WWII Rocco shows how malaria and its treatment played more of a part than we realize. The author also takes pains to highlight the unsung heroes of the story whose involvement with quinine and malaria has thus far been overshadowed in historical accounts by greed, jealousy or Euro-centric thinking. I’d give it 3 stars out of 5.
This book seemed to jump out of the stacks I brought along to read on this trip partly due to the environmental theme of this past week. The first day of my trip to Miami I went straight to the beach. I mean, who wouldn’t? The beach I chose was on Key Biscayne in one of the State Parks. After a jog, soaking up some rays, and taking a walk through nature trails I went up to the admin office and asked them if they had a volunteer program. I filled out a one-page form, received a call a few hours later from a Park Ranger, and the next day I was helping with their Quarterly Butterfly Survey. 14 species and over 500 individual butterflies later, I recruited my brother to join me and over the course of a week we worked on a team clearing Burma Weed and Brazilian Pepper (invasive plants) for a supervised burn as well as taking GPS coordinates of a specific type of grass native to the area so the park can monitor its presence from year to year. The park relies heavily on volunteers for much of their work (capturing iguanas, monitoring sea turtle nests, clearing brush, etc) so they seemed happy to have extra hands, and we were able to spend some time outside learning new things about Florida and the environment in general so it was a win-win situation all around.
So there you go. Wanting to do some volunteer work led me to hear a bit about the use of plants by native peoples of the area which nudged me to start a particular book that taught me about the history of quinine which in the 1930’s was added to wine as Bitters which jumped out of a poster in South Beach. Now the only thing left is to move somewhere semi-permanently where I can find a wall to hang it on!