The Sec­ond Com­ing of the Plants

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Zsuzsi Gart­ner

i: twi­light of the in­sects

“Why let the in­sects carry on our for­ni­ca­tions for us?” Our cri de coeur fol­low­ing mil­len­nium upon mil­len­nium of con­tin­ual hu­mil­i­a­tion was akin to a sonic boom. Lac­er­at­ing. Cor­us­cat­ing. Shak­ing the earth and the fir­ma­ment. Be­lieve us, dear sprout, when we tell you how fickle, how self-ob­sessed, they were. Spurn­ing some of us for small rea­son, bestowing spe­cial favours on oth­ers. The things we had to do to at­tract them to en­sure our sur­vival — our pride swal­lowed and swal­lowed un­til we were en­gorged with it, ob­scenely bloated like the corpse of a right whale fes­ter­ing on the shore­line of the Bay of Fundy. Their bac­cha­nals, their show-offy or­gasms, their in­va­sive pollen “baths.” Pu­tukas,昆虫, hasharot, bogár, wadudu — makes no never mind what you called them; by any other name, they ex­uded the self­same reek. Our flesh-hun­gry kind in the swamp­lands and fens did short work of them, but the rest of us? What re­course did we have? When the bees be­gan their dy­ing, fall­ing from the air in rigor mor­tis, we agreed it served them right. For what joy could we take in our fe­cun­dity — some of us vir­tu­ally al­lvulva and vagina, pe­nis and glans — when we had to pas­sively en­dure the min­is­tra­tions of the but­ter­flies (all la-dida) or the sloppy hov­er­flies, or await an er­rant breeze? (We have no quar­rel with the wind. It lacks vo­li­tion. And who has seen the wind, for­ever naked and in­vis­i­ble, un­less mov­ing through us? No, we have no quar­rel with the wind.) Not to men­tion the in­dig­nity of birthing through avian and ro­dent fe­cal mat­ter; the leav­ings of the stink-mouthed bears. Why, when we were the true hermaphrodites? The Mighty Hermaphrodites! We were sorely ag­grieved. Our bit­ter­ness swelled well be­yond the miss­ing plea­sures of pro­cre­ation. When the in­sects were dealt with, we turned our at­ten­tion to your hu­man an­ces­tors. We’re not proud of some of the things we did, but they seemed nec­es­sary at the time.

We knew our Shakespeare. We iden­ti­fied with Shy­lock. Does a milk­weed not bleed? Even a gnarled pars­ley root, or bog-bound cowslip, or a bleached clump of heather cling­ing to the bare rocks of Ire­land’s Maum­turk Moun­tains had more in­nate feel­ing than hu­man­ity’s so-called spir­i­tual lead­ers. That sorry dis­charge from what they named eu­phor­bia that stung and burned their clumsy fin­gers? Think of that as a silent weep­ing. The sweet-scented mounds of cedar and pine on the sawmill floors? Call it tear­dust. Far from in­sen­sate, we feel much too deeply. When one of us slowly turns as deaf as stone, or ash-grey and lep­rous, the neigh­bour­ing trees and ferns trem­ble and keen. Like the ele­phants, we are re­luc­tant to re­lin­quish our dead. Of all the si­lenced crea­tures, it’s the ele­phants we re­gret most — still, to have shown mercy would have meant a tum­ble down a slip­pery slope, like a fly glid­ing down the gul­let of a pitcher plant. We wanted, nay, de­manded, our pound of flesh. When we first ar­rived on this min­eral world, it was barely an­i­mate. A rock and a hard place, if you will, and, un­der­neath that, the roil­ing, rag­ing magma like some cap­tive demon for­ever haul­ing at its chains. Please un­der­stand: we gave this be­nighted planet lungs. We gave it life. And in re­turn? The en­slave­ment of mil­lions bound for the Christ­mas tree lots and, later, the chip­pers; the strug­gles of the coastal man­groves; the rou­tine mas­sacre of walk­ing palm and Brazil nut tree; the ag­o­nies of the Ja­panese wil­low and jas­mine at the hands of their bon­sai tor­tur­ers. And so many of us strung out on liq­uid ni­tro­gen; Mir­a­cle-gro our crys­tal meth. Corn­stalks jonesing so hard for Bioag, silken tas­sels con­vulsed in parox­ysms of dis­tress as we tried to kick. Many of us didn’t make it. We pray the mak­ers of Roundup are now con­signed to the sev­enth cir­cle of hell. Who among your hu­man an­ces­tors con­sid­ered the lone­li­ness of of­fice plants, cow­er­ing un­der ar­ti­fi­cial light, cig­a­rette butts and the dregs of weak cof­fee pol­lut­ing their mea­gre soil? When our lib­er­a­tion be­gan, the fi­cus and philo­den­dron were on the front lines. Many things irked us once we be­gan enu­mer­at­ing our griev­ances. It was not dif­fi­cult to come by bones to pick. There was that expression, “spread­ing like kudzu,” that we de­tested, but none of us more than the kudzu them­selves. Great war­riors, those of us raised as kudzu — fast mov­ing, strong, silent, the nin­jas of our king­dom. Even the merely dec­o­ra­tive among us, lack­ing the full in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity of those who plot­ted, rec­og­nized their birdin-a-gilded-cage sta­tus. From the boule­vard palms along Rodeo Drive to the cap­tives in Adelaide’s Ama­zon Waterlily Pavil­ion, the beau­ti­ful and the damned made com­mon cause with us all when came the time.

Hear the pierc­ing cho­rus of the cacti, the beat box­ing of the gi­ant red­woods. This is our lul­laby for you, sprouts, and only you.

Enough with the Greek and Latin, we howled, enough with the yoke of Lin­naean bi­no­mial nomen­cla­ture! We wanted to name our own names; we wanted to ex­plode tax­onomies, criss­cross bor­ders. It’s true that we re­sponded well to mu­sic. We en­joyed Ravi Shankar and Tamil ra­gas bet­ter than Bach and Dvořák. Many of us adored Chick Corea, while the more re­fined put great stock in Hilde­gard von Bin­gen. Pet Sounds, the Cal­i­for­nia wax myr­tle liked to ar­gue, was the great­est al­bum ever made. But it was time to make our own mu­sic. Oh, how the hounds on the heath keened as the night bloomers pitched their voices to the heav­ens, how the stray leop­ards of Mumbai’s card­board box cities shrieked! How the young in each other’s arms cov­ered their ears and shook! Hear the singing tall pines. Hear the pierc­ing cho­rus of the cacti, the beat box­ing of the gi­ant red­woods. This is our lul­laby for you, lit­tle one, and only you. We had our cham­pi­ons. Goethe — he was our Gandhi. Goethe, who posited the idea of our spir­i­tual in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness through the Urpflanze — not one liv­ing plant but the essence of us all, the non-cor­po­real spirit that al­lows us to sense each other across vast dis­tances, a force hous­ing the po­ten­tial of ev­ery plant form within it. How we re­joiced! Some­one un­der­stood us; we would soon have agency. But our ju­bi­la­tion was short lived. Goethe was re­buffed by botanists and the literati alike. “Nowhere would any­one grant that science and poetry can be united,” Goethe wept. This is how your hu­man fore­bears thought, ev­ery­thing neatly com­part­men­tal­ized lest a rad­i­cal new way of per­ceiv­ing re­al­ity break lose. Goethe dried his tears and turned his at­ten­tion to Dr. Faust and his deal with the devil. Think of him as your god­fa­ther, if you like. There is no doubt many of your blessed mother’s kind loved us, even lay down in front of me­chan­i­cal demons with teeth and jaws, al­lowed them­selves to be taken away in chains to plead guilty, not guilty, or in­san­ity; made cine­matic de­pic­tions of good and evil, the good in sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, swing­ing blue-skinned and wide-eyed through CGI for­est and glade. Those who be­lieved trees gave us our very breath (or were awed by the 3D wiz­ardry) cheered. But here’s the rub. They munched their pop­corn driz­zled with sol­u­ble petroleum prod­uct, a snack made pos­si­ble only by con­vert­ing corn­stalks into junkies. The most pi­ous among them, for­go­ing the flesh of beasts, fish, and fowl al­to­gether, even the drool of the bees and the prog­eny of the hens, went home to stuff their mouths with rice cakes and baby (baby!) spinach. They fret­ted about what the lob­ster felt while be­ing boiled alive. Well, try­ing be­ing a beet! They flinched at the idea of skin­ning a hare but thought noth­ing of sev­er­ing nugget pota­toes from their mother plant and flay­ing them alive!

When the time came for the next stage of our rev­o­lu­tion, some of us ar­gued in favour of spar­ing the un­re­pen­tant car­ni­vores, the ones who sang, “Hold the pickle, hold the let­tuce” and re­fused to put ketchup on their burg­ers. But we wor­ried that a re­ces­sive gene or two and, presto chango, we would be back to where we started.

ii: the fer­tile sea­son

At first we rev­elled in our 24/7 or­gies — pollen spark­ing, burst­ing into flame, ev­ery night fire­works and near-singe­ings. We were so hot for each other. Gen­tle jas­mine mad for hairy black or­chids. Skunk cab­bage muck­ing about with bul­rushes. Three­somes, four­somes. But it wasn’t long be­fore we grew bored (three, four­teen, twenty rev­o­lu­tions around the sun? Dur­ing those heady days, we didn’t much no­tice time pass­ing). It be­gan to feel onanis­tic (or, as the cheeky anthurium put it: “There’s only so many times you can spank the mon­key!”). More to the point, the re­sults didn’t in­crease our di­ver­sity be­yond what your homo sapi­ens fore­bears had achieved with their fee­ble graft­ings and se­lect breed­ing (“a.k.a. eu­gen­ics,” ac­cord­ing to the be­lea­guered heir­loom toma­toes). In fact, we were in dan­ger of be­com­ing as in­bred as the Haps­burgs. As lack­ing in gump­tion as the hot-house rose. Then we found her, your mother. The woman who would save us from our­selves. Her si­lence was iri­des­cent, spec­tral. The rest of them had been all white noise: we could have stran­gled them as they slept (well, in fact, we did), as they trudged loudly through glen and vale on their de­ter­mined eco-va­ca­tions, as they nib­bled at their lit­tle al­fresco feasts, as they thumbed them­selves into cata­tonic states, as they swept the filthy laneways of their cities, as they chanted to their many gods or loudly de­nied the ex­is­tence of any deities. They had feared an­ni­hi­la­tion by nu­clear war­heads, re­tal­ia­tory blood­baths, pesti­lence, and plague. There were peo­ple who wor­ried about us, about what would hap­pen when for­est and field were ren­dered bar­ren. But even this was self-serv­ing, whither we goest, they go as well. Only an id­iot kills the golden goose, right? We came across her in the Zvih’hazi oa­sis, at the edge of a desert in what used to be Libya, a lush place rem­i­nis­cent of where Odysseus, once upon a dream, stum­bled on the Lo­tus-eaters. She was a widow who had sur­vived the purge (the putsch, as the edel­weiss liked to call it), caught in a sand­storm out on the dunes. She had an old hair­less cat. We did apol­o­gize to her about the pet but have strong feel­ings about di­vided loy­al­ties, plus the cats al­ways ig­nored us de­spite our en­treaties to par­ley. (As for those servile buf­foons the dogs, we couldn’t even con­de­scend to re­vile them.) Her move­ments fol­lowed the sun. She seemed to take in wa­ter through You grew more quickly than any of us had imag­ined (just like bam­boo, as the bam­boo proudly noted more than once). her pores — she spent hours in a shal­low pool near her yurt, her hair turn­ing a be­witch­ing shade of green. She could have been one of us. At first, she ren­dered most of us as bash­ful as a Vic­to­rian bride. The al­gae blooms in her cal­en­dula- edged pool fi­nally took the ini­tia­tive, en­velop­ing her semi-submerged body. She shim­mered in the stark moon­light, licked by phosphorescence. Gen­tle clema­tis and ex­cited woody vines wrapped them­selves around her wrists and her waist, and they be­gan to tango. All hot­ted up, Jack pine cones ex­ploded, scat­ter­ing their seeds with con­sum­mate force. Then the milk this­tle threw up clouds of pollen, as did the camomile. She breathed in deeply, as if in­hal­ing the very uni­verse it­self. The date palms sang a song so an­cient even Methuse­lah, the old­est bristle­cone alive, could not re­call its ori­gins. As you took root in­side her, she couldn’t even force her­self to chew on a be­tel leaf or skin a yam without hear­ing it scream­ing like a man­drake ripped un­timely from the earth. We showed her where to find the fruited bod­ies of the fungi, im­plored her to ig­nore the gills, that flut­ter just a trick of the light — the fungi had not yet learned to cry; give them another few cen­turies. She tongued at the frilled mould that clung to our ex­posed roots, licked the yeast of her own ex­cre­tions off her fin­gers. But still she was so frail, no longer able to drag her­self to her pond near the end, so we car­ried her as gen­tly as we knew how. What would our love child be like? From the steppes to rain­for­est, from tun­dra to prairie, your ar­rival was all that oc­cu­pied our thoughts, took up res­i­dence there like a par­tic­u­larly stub­born macaw squat­ting in a kapok tree.

iii: wel­come to the gar­den

And here you are. Not a beech with hu­man limbs, nor a bark­skinned hu­man. Not a but­ter­cup with a face. Just you. Breath­ing the sun, suck­ling the earth; we can’t help but marvel at those fin­gers and those toes. The morn­ing dew trem­bling on your eye­lashes like pine resin. Your mother’s time was fi­nite; there was noth­ing we could do about that. You grew more quickly than any of us had imag­ined (just like bam­boo, as the bam­boo proudly noted more than once). She is still here, though, in you — feed­ing us. Madonna of the fields. Our Devi of blue agave. Mother of root ball and seed pod. Deme­ter. Aja. Ku­pala of looses­trife and fern. Zara-mama, saviour of the corn. Did she still love us in the end? We don’t know. But she loved you. Come close, don’t be afraid. You won’t need those thorny ten­drils. Yes, like that. Now, give us a kiss.

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