Sometimes it’s obvious that we all need to cope –In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced, nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed, in the immortal words of the poet William Ernest Henley. Those words have seen me through many of Life’s crises, but each time, it seemed as if I suffered alone; each time I needed encouragement to endure.
When my own personal needs had decreased, however -when I was less consumed with my own fate- I could understand that everyone suffers at one time or another; my own suffering was far from unique. We all inhabit our own universes; each of us hides a solipsist under our clothes: my fate determines my universe -the only one I have ever experienced.
It should come as no surprise, then, that even in my own universe, other things also feel a need to survive, and when that is in doubt, they suffer. Of course I judge my own travails to be both paramount and likely more intense, but is that fair? I can feel my pain, experience my anguish, but no matter how much empathy I attempt, others are still remote from me; I cannot feel their pain -I must translate it into how I might perceive something similar: I must suffer by proxy, as it were.
Each living thing suffers, though; each living thing strives to correct the situation if it is able, or otherwise succumbs. It is simply not enough to posit that the degree of suffering varies in direct proportion to the complexity of its nervous system. How can we measure suffering? Is it fair to attribute the gasping of a freshly caught fish -no doubt desperate for oxygen when dumped onto the deck of a fishing boat- merely to some mindless reflex reaction? Or that a common housefly, seeking freedom through a closed window, and buzzing desperately at it until it eventually tires and drops to the sill, feels some proto-anguish at the imprisonment it cannot understand?
The very act of avoidance suggests a need to prevent something undesired, but I realize that I have to be careful not to push the analogy too far. Most would exclude the Plant Kingdom, if not most of the Animal Kingdom -Homo sapiens is touchy about sharing the spoils of suffering. Still, we are a little more generous about other things, other words: awarding the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity to many and sundry things -even plants.
It’s a small victory for flowers, I suppose, but I chanced upon an article in Vox about accidents in flowers that reminded me of that stanza in the poem by Henley that I quoted above. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/4/14/21208857/pandemic-plants-evolution-beauty
It describe the efforts of some flowers which have been knocked down by wind, say, that try to right both themselves and the flowers on their stalks, and to rotate back, as best they can, into a position better suited for pollination. Not just to enable them to gather more sunlight for photosynthesis, mind you, but align themselves again both to attract, as well as to enable insects to access the pollen they need to propagate.
I guess that in the larger scheme of things, this is a trivial observation, and yet think about it. How could a downed flower reorient itself and its leaves towards the sun to enable photosynthesis? Plants have no muscles -and even if they did, what would organize the response?
Scientists, of course, are curious, and not satisfied with merely a sense of wonder and awe at the determination of the little plant struggling to regain some semblance of the old order; botanists have discovered that a plant hormone –auxin– elongates the cells of the stem on the side that is farthest from the light, pushing the stem or the leaf towards the light. It’s called phototropism.
I know it’s always better to find explanations -mechanisms- for this sort of thing, but I have to confess that I am more amazed that a presumably mindless plant can act as if it had a brain striving to organize its responses. It’s one thing to explain turning towards the light with mechanical changes in cells that don’t receive enough, but another thing entirely to explain the seemingly purposive correction of the floral orientation to improve the likelihood of insect visitation and hence improve pollination. It’s not as simple as turning towards a light – first of all, the flower has to be seen by a bee, say, but the bee also has to be able to land on it properly to acquire the pollen. An upside down flower in the grass is unlikely able fulfil either of these conditions.
Somehow, the thought of a flower resisting death, and striving to correct its situation no matter the odds against it, is incredibly inspiring -touching, even. I wouldn’t want to suggest it suffers under these conditions -or at least not as we humans would envisage suffering, but I would point out that we tend to judge everything using only those rules which we have come to understand apply to us. As time and knowledge expand, however, our opinions change. There was a time, not so distant, when there was little concern about cruelty to animals -or cruelty to others of our own species, for that matter. Little thought was given to communication systems among animals, and even less to signals among plants. If they didn’t do it like us, then it wasn’t happening…
Times change, though, don’t they? Or maybe it’s not so much the times as our attitudes toward those things with which we interact. I am still thrilled at listening to a bird sing; I am soothed by the wind wandering slowly through the leaves of a tree, enchanted by the sound of water trickling over a rock in a swiftly flowing stream. I am happy for somebody else to work out the mechanisms and reduce them to mathematical modelling. For me, the experience is as important as the explanation.
I am more entranced by the sound of geese flying high above me in a mountain fog, than curious as to their destination. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran:
Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.