I have always admired plants. I studied botany at university for about a year and found myself fascinated by way they function and the ingenious and diverse survival strategies they have developed. Human beings might stand at the top of the food chain on this planet, but plants will survive us; they will be here even when we are long gone.
We may see a world like the one envisioned by J.G. Ballard in his novel, The Drowned Earth, where climate change has pushed human life to the brink of extinction, where plants have begun to turn cities back into jungles, where vines creep over the surface of buildings and trees sprout from the rooftops.
Plants will survive us. Look at everything that we have done to destroy the natural world over the years, and they are still here! We might affect our own extinction through global warming, but they will remain and, as Ballard suggests, some species will thrive in the new conditions.
Plants have a will to live of sorts. It may be one driven purely by their genes, but nonetheless, they want to live and thrive, just as we do. Interestingly enough, writers like Richard Dawkins argue that human beings are not that different: for all the complexities of human thought and emotion, on our most fundamental level, we are just expressing the desire of our genes.
About 5 years ago, or more precisely, on the 4th of May 2008, I bought a strange, spiny plant called a Euphorbia Milli, commonly known as a Crown of Thorns. I know the exact date because my mother took a photo of me holding it, looking proud and perhaps a little bit embarrassed.
It was its strange combination of anatomical features that caught my eye: it has needles like a cactus but also large, bright green, waxy leaves and small pink-red flowers. The plant is a native of Madagascar, where it can grow to almost two metres in height. It has mythical significance too: as its common name suggests, it is thought to be the kind of plant used to make the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head during the Crucifixion.
Over the years, it has become my favourite plant. I have developed a deep affinity with it, a relationship even. There have been times when it has almost died due to neglect, but somehow, it has managed to survive. Most of the time, this neglect has been the result of fluctuations in my mood. If I was depressed and distracted, I might forget about it for weeks and then suddenly find it there, with its leaves falling and trunk shriveling, in a state of depression that mirrored my own.
I have nurtured it back to health on a number of occasions, and perhaps it has nurtured me: seeing this plant recovering and beginning to thrive again has been a highly therapeutic experience, and seeing it there in the garden, shimming with vitality, gives me a great deal of pleasure.
All plants are survivors. Take weeds for example. What are weeds really? Firstly, a weed is an undesirable plant because it grows where we don’t want it. Secondly, it is a plant that it is particularly hard to eliminate. For example, we say, ‘it grows like a weed’. In other words, we could say that they are nothing more than robust plants with good survival strategies and, as annoying as they can be, I admire them too.
I once lived in a rental house where a creeping vine had completely covered sections of the side fence. It was not particularly attractive, so my housemate and I decided that we would pull it out. After a lot of effort, mostly my housemates actually, we managed the task. The problem was that as we did, it dropped thousands of nodes that had grown along its runners. We had won the battle, but not the war. You might kill the plant that you can see, but you can be sure that it will have some strategy for its genes to be passed on: there will be a seed, spore, node or rhizome somewhere that we allow it to live on.
Plants experience life in a fundamentally different way to us. We may think that because we are sentient and they are not that their experience is more limited than ours, but perhaps this is not the case. The lifespan of a particular plant can be thousands of years, while we only live eighty. Furthermore, our nature as self-conscious beings means that we have an ‘egocentric’ perspective. We are attached to the consciousness through which we experience life. Plants are not. It is their continuation on the scale of generations that matters to them, not the life of each individual member of their species.
In the novel I mentioned earlier, The Drowned World, Ballard writes the following:
“The brief span of an individual’s life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our blood streams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”
A single life, he suggests, contains within it the total memory of life. It might sound mystical, but perhaps it is just a strange way of interpreting the evidence of science. Everything living thing contains a certain amount of common DNA. We even share about 15% percent of it with certain species of grass. Our perspective on life, bound as it is by self-consciousness, means that we often forget that we share this common inheritance.
I think the will to live of plants is somewhat more pure than our own. Self-consciousness means that we can enjoy living, but it also means that we can’t enjoy it all the time, that we will be caught up in our own egocentric perspective, our own very real pain and anguish. Plants, on the other hand, just want to live.
J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World, Fourth Estate, London, 1962.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, London, 1976.