Yaw (Plant)

Yaw or yaw root is an oily tuber cultivated widely in the Middleland. It is the staple food of the Middlelanders, who domesticated it tens of thousands of years prior to the events of Goda’s Slave. Unlike most tubers, yaw root contains a significant amount of fat, in which many of the plant’s defensive chemicals are suspended.

The cultivation and consumption of yaw root affects almost every aspect of Middlelander life, from their reproductive cycle to their sleep cycle. It makes up 60 – 70% of the diet of fertile male and female Middlelanders, while making up 80 – 90% of the diet of robust (infertile) females. Since it is nutritionally complete to Middlelanders, some Middlelanders can and do subsist solely on yaw root.

Resistant to spoilage due to its antimicrobial properties and easy to cultivate year-round, the tuber has served as security against famine and is partly responsible for the persistence of the Middlelander culture. Yaw was originally a highly toxic plant with many defense mechanisms against animal consumption (the plant is inedible to most animals and also contains chemicals that disrupt the reproduction processes of populations that prey upon it), but the Middlelanders developed special adaptations as they domesticated it.

Because yaw root is generally unpalatable, poorly digested, and even poison to the people of neighboring cultures, adapting to this abundant food source has offered the Middlelanders a major competitive advantage that eventually led to their fast industrialization.

Plant Description

Yaw is a tuber with brown skin and a white-violet flesh. The longer the root is exposed to light and air, the more the inner flesh takes on a violet tint. This allows Middlelanders to tell whether the plant is still edible. Uncooked yaw can become toxic quickly upon exposure to sunlight, and can also turn bitter if the skin is removed prior to cooking and the naked flesh is exposed to fresh air for too long. The stems, leaves, and fruit of the plant are always inedible.

The yaw plant strongly prefers Middlelanders as its primary pollinator, and indeed after millennia of domestication (of both yaw by the Middlelanders and of the Middlelanders by yaw itself), no other animals serve as major pollinators.

Four times per year, the plant sprouts flowers and then signals to Middlelanders with a special pheromone (which is undetectable to people of other cultures) that it wants to be cross-pollinated. The smell is very strong to Middleland people and does not dissipate until the plant has been satisfied and begins to produce fruit. This fruit is toxic and is generally used only for its seeds.

Being a tuber, yaw can also reproduce asexually (Middlelanders can exhume and replant parts of the root itself to regrow), but sexual reproduction is preferred by farmers, since cutting the root can lead to bruising, which risks increasing the root’s toxicity. The yaw plant itself also prefers sexual reproduction over cloning, since this improves the robustness of its gene pool.

Connection With Middlelander Reproductive Cycle

Having evolved a symbiotic relationship over the eons, both the yaw plant and the Middlelanders rely on each other in order to reproduce. Domesticated yaw cannot bear new seeds without hand pollination by Middlelanders, and Middlelanders cannot bear children without the phytoestrogens and other hormone mimics provided by the root of the plant. After millennia of adaptation and tolerance, Middlelanders cannot derive adequate sex hormone levels from their own body processes alone and they must eat yaw to stay healthy.

This relationship had profound ripple effects on society and on the biological evolution of the Middlelanders. Ultimately because of their adaptation to yaw’s reproductive side-effects, Middlelanders have a vastly different mating strategy than that of other cultures, have a higher incidence of multiple birth, an unusual dimorphism among the genders (the women are larger and more aggressive than the men), and an unusual conception of gender designation altogether.

Poison to Foreigners

Though Middlelanders are very adapted to yaw, the root tastes bitter to most foreigners and is not easily digestible by non-Middlelanders. Uncooked yaw can keep for years in the right conditions, in part because its flesh has antimicrobial properties that deter bacteria and yeasts from propagating, but this same antibiotic chemical is mildly toxic to non-Middlelanders. (It also prevents yaw from easily fermenting into alcohol.)

In addition, large amounts of yaw (especially not fully cooked) can cause severe digestion problems in foreigners because it will act as an antibiotic against their natural gut bacteria, and so a foreigner who is fed nothing but yaw can starve to death over months or years. Middlelanders have gut bacteria that is highly resistant to the antibiotics in yaw.

Another long-term issue is that yaw will interrupt the reproductive processes of non-Middlelanders due to the hormones in the plant. Yaw root is actually used in traditional Outerlander folk medicine as a birth control method, though its side-effects can be unpredictable and it is not generally well-tolerated by Outerlanders.

Effect on Middlelander Sleep Cycle

Middlelanders have a polyphasic sleep cycle because of the special needs of the yaw plant. The edible root is light-sensitive and must be harvested and stored in the dark (or in artificial light) because sun (UV) rays will cause a chemical reaction that greatly increases the plant’s toxicity.

As a result, the external parts of the plant are tended during the day, while the roots must be tended at night. Yaw also has a day/night fertility cycle, where the female parts of the plant are only open at night, and so hand pollination must occur during this time.

Until recent history and the advent of the Middlelander industrial revolution, most Middlelander families were farming households, and so they evolved a sleep-wake cycle to accommodate these features of the yaw plant.

While Outerlanders and Upperlanders sleep in one long stretch at night, Middlelanders traditionally sleep for two-hour stretches—a pair of stretches (four total hours) at night with one waking hour in between, then another stretch (two more hours) of sleep at midday, for a total of about six hours per day. These stretches are called “blocks” or “sleeps.”

The start of the waking hour that happens between the two nightly “sleeps” is called “midnight” on Middlelander clocks, though it is actually three hours before sunrise and not literally the middle of the night. This hour is often used for socializing and sexual activity.

Middlelanders traditionally do not go to bed until roughly 5 hours before daybreak, and are thus awake throughout most of the night. Though most Middlelanders are no longer farmers, this artifact of their cultural roots remains both in their behavior and in their time-keeping.

Effect on Middlelander Relationship to Non-Human Animals

Meat does not make up a significant part of the Middlelander diet. This is not only because yaw is nutritionally complete to them (and so eating meat is unnecessary), but because Middlelanders do not traditionally farm mammals on a large scale. The toxicity and ubiquity of yaw in the Middleland can make the keeping of plant-eating animals a challenge in particular, since care must be taken to separate them from yaw. An animal who is intolerant to yaw (most animals) will have problems breeding upon regular ingestion. They will also tend to bioaccumulate the toxins, affecting the quality of the meat.

Thus, when Middlelanders do eat meat, it is usually bushmeat or imported farm meat bought from foreigners, and it is seen as a small luxury that one serves to guests. Some of those who live close to the border of the Outerland will also eat dairy products (where goat’s milk is readily available), though a large percentage of Middlelanders are lactose intolerant, especially to bovine milk. More often, Middlelanders will trade for non-edible parts of the animal, especially hide in the form of leather, since it is water-resistant.

Most farm work is performed by human labor rather than beasts of burden for similar reasons. The keeping of pets, with the exception of water fowl, is also not a major part of the culture. A minority of Middlelanders even view the large-scale domestication of animals by foreigners to be barbaric and a form of slavery, ironically enough (as Middlelanders do enslave humans whom they deem undesirable).

In Goda’s Slave

Kanna Rava tastes yaw root for the first time in Chapter 6 of Goda’s Slave, when Jaya Hadd offers it to her for dinner—and she promptly spits it out. Jaya, a Middlelander, is ignorant of its bad taste and toxicity to foreigners, in part because her own foreign wife pretended to like her cooking.