I saw a movie last week, the documentary called Buck. At least six friends, only half of them horse lovers, had told me not to miss it, so I got myself to a theater one hot afternoon. It’s an excellent film about the subtle aspects of relationships. Full of gentle humor, it’s as useful to spouses, parents, and gardeners as it is to those who work with horses.
One of the points that Buck makes several times over the course of the film is that the horse is a mirror, a sensitive creature reflecting the emotional and mental condition of the people who handle it. Sometimes it’s the person who needs to change so that the reflection can change too.
So, in this week’s garden mirror…
I harvested some of my cabbages this past weekend, and started the process of turning them into variations on sauerkraut. Lemon Garlic Dill Sauerkraut. Pink Sauerkraut. Spicy Sauerkraut. Classic Sauerkraut.
Cabbage is a sensuous vegetable, though it’s not so noticeable until I slice into it and start to see the curvy folds and taste the crunchy ribs. I don’t know why, but it seems all the more sensuous and beautiful when I am handling a cabbage that grew in my garden, one that I’ve known from its days as a seed or seedling. I think it’s that relationship that makes it seem such a special, tasty cabbage. Perhaps the cabbage has custom tailored its chemistry to fit me.
It is widely believed that plants have no nervous system, no thoughts or emotions, no ability to respond to life as animals do. Clearly, they are organized differently than animals. They have no structures that we can identify as brains or hearts, no nerves firing from eyes, ears, or noses that remind us of us.
There is now a field of science called plant neurobiology, and it is recognizing that plants do respond to their surroundings, often in complex and sophisticated ways. Tannins, for example, are a chemical that inhibit digestion and make leaves taste bitter. Scientists have found that plants can (and do!) increase the tannin content of their leaves within minutes when being browsed by deer, goats, etc. This is why these animals, when free to move about, so often eat a few leaves from one bush and then move on.
Plants are also able to signal to each other – we call that communication when humans do it. Plants that are neighbors of a browsed upon plant will also increase the tannin content of their leaves before a single bite has been taken from themselves. Ethylene gas is thought to be the carrier of that signal. Tobacco plants use methyl salicylate, oil of wintergreen, to send news of the presence of tobacco mosaic virus.
And then there are the experiments of Cleve Backster over 40 years ago. On a lark, he hooked some office plants up to a lie detector machine and found a host of responses. Just thinking about burning the leaf of a plant produced readings that if coming from a human would be interpreted as agitation and fear. Months later, his plants would register lie detector readings just prior to his arrival in the office reminiscent of a dog who shows joy and excitement in the minutes prior to the return of his owners.
I also find it interesting that animal nervous systems are described in plant terms. Dendritic, or tree-like, structures grow and develop in our brains throughout our lives, for example. We know that Nature uses specific forms to do specific functions. Branching, tree-like patterns are useful for transport – both of information and materials. So, when I look at a tree, am I looking at a part of Earth’s brain? The science of epigenetics teaches that the real “brain” of a cell is the membrane. (Get it? Mem-brain.) The DNA is in charge of reproduction, making DNA the gonads, not the brain. So, it’s not really that big of a leap to see the earth’s surface as her mem-brain.
What is the role of the human in this Gaian brain? Maybe not so much what has it been, but what role are we capable of playing? By design, what could we be doing here?
Right now I don’t have an articulate answer to that – just a feeling of joyful possibility and the certainty that honing my relationship skills with my cabbages and tomatoes and roses will help the answer to unfold.