Plant-talk

I am by no means New Age -even if there isn’t one anymore- and I do not own a tambourine; I suppose my hair is kind of long, but I hide no piercings nor do I flaunt now-wrinkled skin scarifications.

Okay, I suppose I still have some Alan Watts books around the house, and yes, I did pay $200 for Transcendental Meditation lessons back in the 70ies, but I’ve never disclosed my secret mantra and I’ve been very careful not to whisper near plants, especially if there are any people around.

And yet, I just knew something was going on. Every time I walked past the areca palm I keep in the kitchen, I felt guilty. It was like it was trying to tell me something important, but short of taking it for walks, I had tried everything I could think of to understand what it wanted. And yet nothing, not even rearranging its dirt, seemed to calm it down. Not alternating it from shade to sun, parching it, drenching it, turning down the volume when I listened to CBC news, or even smiling at it was of any help.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was disappointed in my Magisterium, or something. It must be hard to be a plant, though -treated like you’re a vegetable, or worse, have your leaves disparaged, your blossoms demeaned, or to paraphrase Shakespeare’s MacDuff, have them ‘from their mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

I find it interesting that there seems to be a grudging respect for those life-forms that possess a nervous system -as if that allows comparisons to ourselves, and hence the club- but less so for something that merely shows up in a field waving chloroplasts. The fact that they don’t require jobs or steak dinners to survive bothers us, I guess.

But what would it take to make us change our minds about plants? The fact that they routinely signal us with such things as colour changes, turgor, and smell seems a banal observation -after all, even garbage does the same if left sitting around. Let’s face it, a plant does little to signal us intellectually, and what little it does certainly couldn’t persuade me to sign a petition to open a plant shelter.

And yet, what if one of them whispered to you as you passed -or not just whispered, screamed? Would that get your attention? Think about it; if it said something to you, mumbled something in plant language, would you reach for the shears before you tried to understand what it was saying, or just wonder if you’d left the radio on after the news?

I have to confess that I have always had an affinity for plants -although admittedly for the aging giants of the forest rather than the stuff that begs at their feet. And I have followed the investigations that have revealed their secret social lives -such as the fungi that connect their root systems underground like telephone cables, or the chemical signals they emit to warn their friends that hungry religious zealots are knocking on doors in the neighbourhood. So, I figured it was just a matter of time before they’d want to brag about it to us.

The problem, though, was getting us to listen. And anyway, plants are usually hesitant to engage in interspecies -or, rather, inter-kingdom– conversation… even though they’ve done it with fungi for years. I’m not sure why they haven’t pressed harder on the envelope, although I suppose it’s understandable that you might hesitate to talk to aliens that have a history of eating, or chopping you up.

But now, finally, they have been outed. I came across a report from our kingdom of someone who crossed over to the other side -trespassed, as it were. It was in a fascinating article in the Smithsonian magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-record-stressed-out-plants-emitting-ultrasonic-squeals-180973716/

‘If a drought-parched plant lets out a scream, but it’s at a frequency too high to hear, does it count as a cry of distress?’ This was the first sentence of the article and since it reminded me of the old philosophical question about whether an apocryphal tree falling in a forest with no one around actually makes a noise, I was immediately curious.

‘The study… adds another dimension to scientists’ growing understanding of how plants detect and interact with their surroundings—despite lacking many of the sensory organs their faunal counterparts deploy… in recent years, it’s become abundantly clear that plants are far more sensitive than researchers once gave them credit for. They respond when touched by insects, turn toward sources of light, and some even sniff out other plants. Others are even sensitive to anesthetics, suggesting that they’re capable of experiencing something akin to “pain.”’

So, undeterred by concerns about cruelty, ‘a team led by Itzhak Khait, a plant scientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, placed microphones capable of detecting ultrasonic frequencies four inches from tomato and tobacco plants, then either stopped watering them or snipped their stems… the researchers found that even happy, healthy plants made the occasional noise. But when cut, tobacco plants emitted an average of 15 sounds within an hour of being cut, while tomato plants produced 25 sounds. Stress from drought—brought on by up to ten days without water—elicited about 11 squeals per hour from the tobacco plants, and about 35 from the tomato plants… All this stress-induced “screaming” wasn’t in a range detectable by human ears. But organisms that can hear ultrasonic frequencies—like mice, bats or perhaps other plants—could hear the plants’ cries from as far as 15 feet away.’

I don’t know about you, but I think this is all beginning to merit the need for ethical review before any more of these obviously cruel experiments go any further. Maybe it’s even time to end plant slavery. Sure, we can rationalize the fact that plants have no ‘central’ nervous systems so they couldn’t possibly know we’re abusing them; we can explain away the screams by quoting studies that have found that ‘plants exposed to drought stress have been shown to experience cavitation -a process where air bubbles form, expand and explode in the xylem, causing vibrations’ and leave it at that -or, we can pay attention to the ever-increasing evidence of purposive communication. I mean, if SETI heard the same noise, they’d be going nuts.

Me? I’ve decided I’m going to stop weeding the garden. But, uhmm, I still like tomatoes on my salad, though…

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