Flowers are slow and weeds make haste

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 pollinationNot 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.

An accident of birth

For years now, I have picked through the garden of my life -sometimes for pleasure, and sometimes for utility. I weed, of course -the privilege of growing in my aging plot is largely contingent on my having planted it in the first place. Contingent on the purpose for which it was intended. Things that arrive unannounced might be tolerated at times, but the recent discovery of a flower tucked in amongst the lettuce plants instead of growing where I’d planted others of its kind, spoke more of my neglect than serendipity.

And now that I’ve been retired long enough to ponder these things, it occurred to me that the peripatetic guest may not have the same value in its new home. It’s still a flower to be sure -it’s still beautiful, and still proffers its petals as seductively to passing bees- but is it really the same flower as one that was the product of my labour? Does the intent flavour the result?

For some, I suspect it’s a trivial question: surely a daisy, say, is a daisy, no matter whether it arrived accidentally or was planted in the spot. It is a gift, they might say -something for which gratitude not deliberation is appropriate. In a sense, of course, they are correct. And yet, is all the work I may have expended -choosing its pedigree and colour,  calculating a location that might offer it the best chance to thrive, and then watering and weeding- do these not affect the appreciation of the resulting flower? And was appreciation not a large part of the original incentive that led to its planting?

For that matter, does a gift share an equal merit as the same item obtained through work and planning? Does it even possess the same meaning?

It occurred to me that maybe I simply have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired, and I tried to shelve the thought along with all those books I have been meaning to read once the opportunity presented itself. But the question continued to poke annoyingly at my brain in the evenings whenever my eyes tired of reading. I just could not understand what it was about the problem that was continuing to disturb me; and more, was I the only one who even thought there might be something to it?

I can’t say I actively sought an answer -quite frankly, I couldn’t even think of a way to phrase the question- but I did stumble upon a short philosophical enquiry written by Jonny Robinson, a tutor and ‘casual lecturer’ in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University in Australia: https://aeon.co/ideas/would-you-rather-have-a-fish-or-know-how-to-fish

It touched on a theme that seemed eerily similar: how there may be a difference in the quality of the knowledge of Truth, depending upon how it was acquired. ‘Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out.’

Each type is in possession of the same Truth, presumably, although in one case it is a gift and in the other, has required an effort to obtain it. It seems to me there is a difference, though: ‘the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.’

So, to my question about the itinerant daisy: does it possess the same intrinsic worth as one that has been purposely planted and nourished? Robinson, for his essay, puts the question slightly differently: ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ Both seem labyrinthine, and unanswerable -trivial, perhaps- largely because they are both perspectival.

So he rephrases the question in the form of a thought-experiment: ‘Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish?’ If having a fish is the result of knowing how to catch it, that is different from having to wait for someone who knows how to fish, and hoping she will actually give the one she caught to you.

Robinson feels it is the same with knowledge. An isolated fact (knowledge) may be valuable, but if you have learned how to acquire more knowledge, you are not limited to that one fact. It is, in fact, a type of synergism: knowledge plus the ability to add to it turns out to be better than the mere fact of knowledge on its own.

That accidental daisy growing by itself amongst the lettuce is still beautiful, but if it truly was an accident, that may or may not be the end of the line for it -especially if I don’t know how to care for it. It is, in that case, on its own. In fact, given its location, I may even think of it as an undesirable -a weed- and pull it out.

It does seem to suggest that it has a different value, a different essence, from a bed of cherished Gerbera Daisies planted and growing contentedly, in their assigned place. In a sense, it is no longer a flower -or, at any rate, not one that I treasure.

One question, though, inevitably leads to another: what is growing alongside the lettuce then…?

Sweet Flowers are Slow

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me what unfettered minds can discover. Sometimes I wonder how they do it. How they set out 180 degrees from the target and still end up hitting it. Of course, the world is full of answers scattered like flowers in a field, in plain sight for anybody who has learned to see them. It’s not the answers that are hidden, just the appropriate questions. But maybe that’s the point –questions are often like detours pointing away from where you think you want to go, and yet arrive you do, having learned unexpected things along the way –Frost’s Road not Taken.

Socrates, although he initially disavowed the Delphic Oracle’s apocryphal pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, knew that Truth, like Wisdom, was slippery. He realized he didn’t possess all the truth and so he asked many questions, whereas others -those who never thought to investigate- were complacent about their knowledge, unpuzzled by what they experienced, content with their grasp, however tenuous.

Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught to interrogate reality, though: if A equals C, and B also equals C, then we need look no further –A, B and C are equivalent, or at least interchangeable and otherwise individually uninteresting. Perhaps it takes a Socrates to ask why that is –or at least why we are satisfied with our assessment.

An article in the BBC News about an unusual approach to decreasing the spread of malaria brought this to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40495958  While researchers are trying desperately to engineer a vaccine, there have been many interesting attempts to ameliorate the prevalence of the disease. Some are relatively high tech –like genetically altering mosquitoes to produce genes to prevent the development of the malarial parasite within themselves and therefore stop its transmission to people when they bite; some are more humble methods, more attainable in the short term -such as pyrethroid-treated mosquito netting around beds. I suppose the boundaries between discovery and invention are fluid, but even so, either of them can lead to uncharted territories. New possibilities.

Still, until we do have an effective and safe vaccine, we need to use as many other methods to decrease the ravages of the female Anopheles mosquito as possible –however indirectly they may achieve this. Sometimes you just have to try stuff. Sometimes, you have to think inside the garden.

‘Gardening could be a powerful weapon against malaria, culling mosquito populations by cutting off their food supply, say researchers.’ The idea is to starve the mosquitoes before they get a chance to pass on the malarial parasite. A pilot project in Mali, West Africa, found that ‘Removing flowers from a common shrub appeared to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Without enough nectar the “granny” mosquitoes starve, experts believe.

‘These Anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite in their salivary glands and pass it on to people when they bite and draw blood. The infected person can then infect other younger, biting, female mosquitoes – which are looking for a rich blood meal as they become fertile and make eggs – because their blood now contains the parasite. It takes about 10 days for a newly infected young female mosquito to become contagious to humans. By the time she can transmit malaria, she’s pretty old. Although she will feed on blood, she also relies on flower nectar for energy to stay alive.’

So, ‘Experts in Mali, along with researchers from the Hebrew University of Hadassah Medical School, Israel, and the University of Miami in the US, set up a horticultural experiment to see if removing the flowers from this plant might help kill off local mosquitoes. […]Villages where they removed the flowers saw mosquito numbers collected in the traps fall – the total number of mosquitoes across these villages decreased by nearly 60% after removal of the flowers.’

Admittedly, as the researchers concede, although it was an appropriate technique in a place like Mali, ‘it might not work so well in lush tropical regions where nectar-rich plants are in abundance.’

I suppose one of the reasons why this approach intrigued me so much, was that it seemed like a rather simple –albeit laborious- technique for mosquito control. Much like removing standing water that has collected in puddles or old tires where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs, it could be a community-led project that requires no additional external resources. But even more than that, as Professor Jo Lines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has observed, ‘”It appears to show that by changing the landscape, not using insecticides or drugs, we can make a difference.”’

What a thought –changing, not destroying something to achieve an aim. Being clever and asking the right questions about what was already in front of the eyes of anyone inquisitive enough to actually notice. Curious enough to ask ‘what if…?’

So, back to Socrates who, in the end, conceded that perhaps the Delphic Oracle had been right all along about him being the wisest man in Athens. He was still searching for knowledge, still questioning the completeness of what others had already decided was necessary for them to understand. He was still unprepared to pretend that he knew something he didn’t. To the end, he refused to accept that there weren’t always more questions to ask.

After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see; it’s not what you hear, so much as what you understand… The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.