Vegetative Musings

Contrary to what non-academics think, those of the professorial persuasion rarely have the summers off in any but the most mundane sense of the term.  Being off from teaching generally means that this is your one chance to a) recover from semester burn-out, b) breathe, c) do research or other scholarly work so that you can keep your brain alive and keep your job, d) read about and think about interesting stuff.  The 9-to-5-ers of the world may not understand that those of my ilk cannot draw a clear boundary between work and non-work. 

So I’ve been reading, among other things.  What I’m reading could affect what and how I teach next semester, the essays and other non-fiction I write, and of course my fiction.  No real distinction between work and play for me.  Not being one of those whose life can be divided into neat, waterproof compartments, I rejoice in leaping over divisions, boundaries and walls.

Apparently, so do plants.

Not necessarily literally, although I’ve known plants to do those things.  But the naive view we have of plants — exemplified for instance by a child’s drawing of a stem, leaves, a flower or two, a living thing that cannot move, feel or think, moored to its surroundings, isolated in a physical form that can only sense light and air and water in the soil — that view may be about to change. 

We use perjorative plant-related terms to describe, for instance, a person in a coma (vegetative state), lazing in front of the TV (vegging out), a dumb, peasant of a person (cabbage head and variations thereof).  But what is a vegetative state, really?  When I was a child I learned that plants don’t have a nervous system.  But long before my time a scientist and polymath, Jagdish Chandra Bose, began to suspect that in fact plants had some kind of equivalent of the nervous system of an animal. 

Jagdish Chandra Bose beat Marconi to the wireless, and made some important discoveries about plants, but he was forgotten by history (although not by us in India) for a long time.  It is only recently that the record has been corrected and long-overdue recognition been given to a man who was not only a brilliant multidisciplinary scientist but a human being of rare principle who rejected, among other things, caste and class differences, British colonial racist policies, and the patent system.  Working in poor conditions with grudging or no assistance from the British-run Presidency College in Calcutta, he came up with some delicate and elegant inventions, such as the crescograph, for measuring plant growth.  He came up with an alternative theory of how plants draw water up from the roots (via electromagnetic impulses in cells), performed experiments that led him to deduce that conduction of stimuli was electrical in nature, and ultimately to hypothesize a kind of ‘nervous system’ in plants analogous to that in animals.  Some of his ideas might seem outlandish to us (such as his belief that plants responded to affection) but the conceptual audacity of his beliefs is refreshing in an age where scientists are culturally proscribed from thinking outside the box. 

As it turns out, some recent discoveries about plants are enabling us to at last revise the passive, inaccurate conception that most people have about them.  Plants communicate, not just within themselves, but with each other.  They may not be able to solve calculus problems or meditate on the nature of reality but they apparently respond ‘intelligently’ to stimuli and are aware of their surroundings in various ways.  Some recent experiments by Stanislaw Karpinski in Warsaw reveal that plants can store information from light and use it (for instance to shore up their immunity).  Another recent report from Ren Sen Zeng and others at South China Agricultural University brings to light a possible way that plants in a forest, for instance, might communicate with each other through a fungal network in the soil.  These exhilarating possibilities underline once more that the passive, mechanistic view of the world where the forces of inorganic nature and the will of humankind are the only real actors — that this view is at best simplistic and very likely simply wrong. 

Sometimes when I am out for a walk and very much aware of sunlight pouring down, of the breeze disturbing the trees, of sounds as varied and textured as cars passing by, leaves swishing, bird calls, it seems to me that the universe is indulging in an endless conversation to which we are mostly deaf and blind, like purely-English speakers in the tower of Babel.  If we open our senses to this constant storytelling that goes on around us, who knows what we might see and hear?

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4 Responses to “Vegetative Musings”

  1. Shalini Says:

    Good to see updates on your blog again 🙂

  2. Josh Says:

    Plus “non-academics” may not realize how many people cannot afford to take the summer off teaching. Or geez, how much energy over break goes into just planning the damn courses for next term. It can be really scary. And now you’ve got me worried about inflicting pain on celery too.

  3. Rimi B. Chatterjee Says:

    Very true. As a longtime keeper of dogs I am convinced that they have ‘social senses’ just like humans. The big difference between them and us is we have hands and can redesign our surroundings (and put choke collars on them). Not that we have larger or more complex brains.
    To a society of sentient plants, a peaceful vegan bunch of humans would be scary vampires. We need to invent personal photosynthesis: then we can all leave our jobs and live happily ever after. Yay!
    Grading papers too 🙂

  4. vsinghsblog Says:

    Good to hear from you, Rimi! I’m all for personal photosynthesis, although a samosa every once in a while would be good. 🙂

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