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What A Plant Knows

abstract:Each summer my reading interests turn to books encapsulating aspects of nature since I pack up my urban life and relocate to our farm in the boonies for the months of May through September. I've got three books on my just read list that might interest you. Ever wonder about the sentient capacity of plants? Plunked down in the middle of a few hundred acres of field growing a mix of alfalfa and dry land grasses, with the added close observational experience of tending a farmhouse garden, I think a lot about plants in the summer. (In the city my plant experience consists of a few low-maintenance orchid houseplants and an overgrown shade garden that fails to stimulate my juices.) But when you till the soil, handle clods of dirt in your hands, sew from seed, watch the primary aplets form and the tendrils of peas twine around poles; essentially doing all the things necessary to coax life in plants "from scratch" - you tend to get rather contemplative and philosophic about the relationship, indeed, the biology we share with plants. You begin asking questions like: "How do plants know up from down; when to open their flowers and close them at night and in the day with coming rain; who is touching their stamens and pistols in a friendly way, or burrowing into their stem and munching on their leaves that triggers an exudation of pheromones to warn a sister plant down the row to produce its own repellant toxin?"

More than just fodder for food, plants seem to behave as though they're aware of more than we give them credit for. No surprise that great minds

article:

July 15, 2013
— through the ages were also enamoured by plants and studied their behaviour. Charles Darwin after his treatise, The Evolution of Species spent the latter part of his life closely observing and recording the behaviour of plants. He posited theories that have been proven today, like which part a plant "sees" the sun and determines its growth attributes; how all plants "sense their surroundings" and move in circling dances of differing speed and revolution, how gravity plays a role in why stems grow up and roots grown down. The last bit was "proven" finally in two experiments in space. In fact the first experiment conducted in space by astronauts was on a plant!

The whole vast topic is eloquently handled in a clever book by Daniel Chanovitz titled, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. Chanovitz uses the analogies between humans, animals and plants to show similarities of biology and how the senses we attribute to ourselves and animals such as seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, knowing and remembering are in fact, attributes that plants share in their own particular way. For starters, remember that many plants have more complex DNA's than animals! The corn genome has some 32,000 genes crammed into 10 chromosomes, while humans have 20,000 genes contained in 23 chromosomes.

The second book I've been enjoying relates to the fact that out here in "the wilderness" we have the capacity to view the night sky with such unobstructed relish. You are outside much more, gardening by day, putting the chickens and ducks to bed at dusk and sitting by a campfire watching the moon and the stars. By luck I had picked up an obscure book in the book store of the British Museum earlier in the summer when visiting the Salgado Photographic exhibit (described here). James Attlee's Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight (Penguin, nonfiction 2011) The author lives in Oxford. His book is an evocative treatise on how the moon affects us "as a nocturnal travelogue". He examines the moon's role in the creation and mood of art by writers and painters, the rhythms and motions dictated by the phases of the moon, the celestial clockwork of the moon influencing our planting of crops, our wooing of lovers, our harvest and "the unearthly phosphoresce bathing our planet" over eons. John Carey reviewed Nocturne for the Sunday Times and said, "Fascinating, thoughtful, erudite, unpretentious, slightly batty and entirely captivating."

The third book of delight was obtained closer to home. Canadian master naturalist writer (indeed a Brit turned British Columbian, and the lifelong magistrate of Campbell River) literary icon, Roderick Haig-Brown's post humus collection of short stories edited by his daughter Valerie Haig-Brown upon her father's passing, simply titled:Woods and River Tales (McClelland and Stewart, 1980). I've supplied the image for another book of his worthwhile reading, his latter autobiography which makes a nice companion to this latter collection of short stories. To read Haig-Brown is to be osmotically transported into the natural world - BC's rivers, lakes, forests and coast. From entomology to the curious behaviour of humans populating the lumber and fishing towns and remote places in between.

I first saw a piece of art with a quote from RHB titling the piece that was posted on the dining room wall of the Corbet Lake Lodge, a fishing destination on a small interior eponymous BC lake located within the former Douglas Lake Cattle Company ranch district. It's a wonderful destination for flyfishermen and women. There are several small one room log cabins for rent with rustic kitchenettes, wood burning stoves, and it's a short trip to the lodge for spectacular dinners or down to the dock where flat bottomed row boats await the early dawn and dusk anglers. The days are hot, and the rolling grassland hills are dotted with (cows - haha) and aspen groves that turn a spectacular golden in fall. RHB is both a priest and prophet to fishermen. I learned the names and how to tie some of the best flys from his book on the subject, but had never delved into his short stories.

What I discovered in Woods and River Tales harkens back to an earlier age of BC when the settlers and miners and woodsmen populated the province and lived out frontier justice. Eccentric characters abound, hardship and endurance were a given, and people lived by an unwritten code. The first story "The Cabin" is about a woodsman who discovers an alluvial deposit of gold, stores boxes of the nuggets under his cabin floorboards, travels back to civilization to get help bringing it out and perishes in an accident, with the location of the shack untold. A perseverant chap decides he'll sleuth about the country to test the now "fabled story" and finds the remote cabin and its stash, only to see it buried in a freak landslide of mud and timber one rainy night. In Haig's stories, you might find what you're looking for, but a twist of fate takes a hand in the result.

There are other stories about the early days of forest work and lumbering. Hulking men, stronger than oxes who could bury the head of an axe into a tree with one swing. The language used alone is rated on the extinction list of frontier vocab: whistle punks and riggers, chokers, chasers and lever men, donkeys that aren't animals and on and on. If you're hankering for a bit of BC's nostalgic past (the history of which is similar all up and down the West Coast above and below the 49th parallel.. then delve into some Roderick Haig-Brown!.

 

 

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