When a curled, dried leaf hits the street, it doesn’t stay. Wind scrapes it to the wall of a gutter where it gets matted by rain runoff. It’s not going anywhere, but it’s not alone. All its partners on the tree above are shed, too, then raked up together and stuffed into black plastic bags. The time spend sewn to a tree where the stem meets the branch is a flash compared to the harvested, dark state. Separation is always painful.
The first time I heard the theory plants feel pain, I was a child. It was a ludicrous, laughable idea. We were visiting my grandmother. She kept a radio on her back porch permanently tuned to NPR. One of the stories claimed research demonstrated grass cries out in pain when mowed. I don’t recall any of the science behind the theory, probably because I thought about all the times I’d stand in the garage with my dad after he mowed our lawn. Our garage refrigerator was stocked with orange Gatorade. After mowing, he’d take a swig from a glass bottle and offer some to me while Charlie Rich crackled on his wheezy old AM radio. Did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? Meanwhile, agony outside.
The lawn, freshly mowed, bled green juice that left deepening stains on his canvas shoes. Was she crying? Tell her I need my baby… My dad twisted the cap back onto the bottles, week after week through summers I remember mostly through photos and songs I seek out.
Years later, I mowed my grandmother’s lawn with her old-fashioned push mower. It was Easter Sunday and I was old enough to wear high heels. They punctured the ground, aerating roots with Payless Shoe Source beige leatherette spikes. She asked and I couldn’t say no to my dear grandmother. When the spinning blades spit back the juicy grass onto my feet, I thought it was funny and odd. After Easter dinner, I drove back to my dorm in the city 30 miles away and she had a groomed expanse of lawn to admire for a week. I cleaned my shoes.
There is a field of study called “plant neurobiology.” While everyone had a chuckle over screaming grass, serious scientists investigated sophisticated chemical processes that occur in plants. It’s obvious—even to a grateful, swilling child in a dirty garage—plants react to sun, water, heat, and damage. I watched my parents grow tomatoes and large bushes of mint. They’d pluck fat caterpillars off the tomatoes and I’d pluck mint leaves and chew them when the mood struck. An article in The New Yorker entitled “The Intelligent Plant”, explored plant neurobiology. One of the boldest statements was this: “Its proponents believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects—the mute, immobile furniture of our world—and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature.” The article points out nobody believes plants feel emotions or have even a rudimentary brain. But they have the sophistication of being fated to live an entire life in one immutable space, save for people in floppy hats with spades and ceramic pots:
“Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The “sessile life style,” as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place.”
The tree in our front yard can’t lift its brown skirt and amble to the the other side of the street where it would get more sun. It has a certain latitude in certain soil on a certain street in a certain city. The only thing that’s not certain are the people in the house. They decide life, death, and all the trimmings.
Recently, researchers at the University of Missouri have discovered plants can hear themselves being devoured by herbivores. The plant they studied is in the mustard family. It produces oils that are toxic to pests when consumed in high quantities. The plant only releases these oils when it “hears” the vibrations produced by chewing. Wind vibrations didn’t cause the same release of the toxic oils. Somehow, the plant is able to differentiate between a dangerous vibration and a neutral vibration. I’m no plant expert, but this would only seem to happen while it was still rooted. Once harvested, a plant wouldn’t have the network of veins running through stems down into roots. It’s safe to say when a salad is Caesar, there is no assassination. Et tu, hungry lady?
The researchers are hoping if plants can hear, a whole world of possibilities could open. One of the researchers, Rex Cocroft, was quoted saying, “Could sound be played out to plants in a field causing them to respond in a beneficial way? Sure, it’s very speculative, but it’s also something that could happen in the future,” he adds.
Maybe plants could grow bigger and heartier with the right stimuli. What if growth didn’t have to depend on fertilizers and chemicals, the whims of clouds and the sun? What if the wheeze of a song or the soft words exchanged between people were enough to inspire growth in something bound by roots, living la vida sessile?
I grew. I’m no tender shoot or craggy weed, but in my own way I’m bound to a place and time, too. I’ve been planted here and now and feel tugs on my soul, sometimes painful. I like to think I can tell the difference between a simple, stroking wind and the bite of something bound to devour me, feeling vibrations deep, deep down. I launch defenses. I let things drop.
They spin down, but they don’t matter. They scrape the street and then, silence.
The fruit I bear? That’s a different story. The best chance I have to bear good fruit is listen to a song that started long before there was light.