Plants are so familiar to us that we don’t see them very well. We perceive them according to how we use them, for food and for beauty. To try to sharpen our perspective a little, I’ll try to describe plants as if they were strangers from another planet, as plant-aliens. Making them weirder may make them more vivid.
Incidentally, imagining aliens that are radically different from earthly animals is not so easy. Most Hollywood aliens have eyes, brains, four appendages, mouths. The alien in “Aliens” even has maternal instincts. You can’t say that about any plant.
- Plant-aliens don’t eat anything. They make their own food and for that purpose they anchor themselves to a water source and grow their own solar panels.
- Plant-aliens, especially their seeds, travel in order to take over new territory. They grow along the ground and they use the wind, fur, skin and digestive systems of passing animals to spread seeds.
- Plant-aliens follow a clock geared only to the sun light and the seasons. Small plants, for example, push out leaves and flowers quickly in early spring so they can catch maximum sunlight before the slower growing leaves on trees plunge them into the shade.
- Unlike the many animals that cooperate so they can secure food, plant-alien food makers have no reason to be social. They are competitive egomaniacs. They don’t react to other plants except to get around them if necessary to get to the sun.
- Many plant-aliens are giants. They tower over all animals. Tree-aliens pull water up long distances without a pump. Animals, on the other hand, all require small pumps just to keep fluids moving inside their bodies.
- Plant-aliens survive sub-freezing temperatures that last for weeks or months. They get as cold as the frozen earth around them. Animals can’t do that; hibernating animals maintain a slow metabolism to keep them above freezing.
- One process that plant-aliens do share with animals is sexual reproduction. Their equipment for doing so, however, is kinky. An individual plant-alien may contain flowers with structures that are male or female or both or changing from one to the other.
- Plant-aliens breathe in carbon. They exhale oxygen, most of which comes not from the tall trees but from the tiny alien algae that populate the oceans.
- In sum, plants-aliens have successfully colonized the earth. They occupy the coldest and hottest zones, they outnumber animals and they are larger and smaller than we are. And we animals are at their mercy for our food and oxygen.*
Imagining plants as alien in relation to humans works the other way around as well, with the same awareness-raising effects. In “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” Ursula Le Guin offers a plant’s-eye view of human aliens. A survey crew lands on a remote planet covered only by plants and trees. The crew’s first observations: “Nobody here ate anybody else. All life-forms were photosynthesizing or saprophagous, living off light or death, not life. Plants: infinite plants, not one species known to the visitors from the house of Man.…Only the wind moved…flowerless forests where no foot had ever walked, no eye had ever looked. A warm, sad world, sad and serene.”
But the crew all begin to feel a puzzling anxiety, although there are no indications of any animal life at all. Then one crew member is found lying bleeding between two large tree roots. Back on the ship, he and the others conclude that their fear is coming from the plants, a reaction generated by their countless root connections. One crew member explains:
They are all inter-connected, both by the root-node linkage and by your green epiphytes in the branches. A linkage of incredible complexity and physical extent. Why, even the prairie grass-forms have those root-connectors, don’t they? I know that sentience or intelligence isn’t a thing, you can’t find it in, or analyze it out from, the cells of a brain. It’s a function of the connected cells. It is, in a sense, the connection: the connectedness….If such a function existed, it would not be capable of conceiving of a self-moving, material entity, or responding to one.… To a forest, we might appear as forest fires. Hurricanes. Dangers. What moves quickly is dangerous, to a plant. The rootless would be alien, terrible. No wonder it was afraid.
The injured crew member decides to remain on the planet, another is overwhelmed by the fear and dies, and the others eventually sense a “brooding calm” from the greenery as they complete their survey and return home.
By conjuring the possibility of root systems that react like connected nerves, Le Guin highlights the vulnerability of plants and the threat presented by “self-moving” animals. But we don’t need to travel to space to grasp this tension. Here on Earth, where plants and animals diverged from a common ancestor about 1.5 billion years ago, we are surrounded by their vulnerability together with our irreducible dependence on them.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
*With appreciation for David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995)