October 25, 2008

"Harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low-pitched, screaming sound … drain[s] out like a sob lasting fully a minute."

Roald Dahl described the pain of an axed beech tree, heard by "The Sound Machine." For some reason, we're fascinated by this question whether plants feel pain.
Almost 30 years ago, the trippy flower-power film The Secret Life of Plants claimed pot plants could read minds, cabbages were easily annoyed and a cactus could learn the Japanese alphabet. Then just last year, a parliamentary panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians in Switzerland, charged with devising new rules for genetic testing, published a treatise on preserving the "dignity of plants". Its edicts included that it was "morally impermissible" to decapitate a wildflower by the roadside without rational reason.

But while such fanciful claims continue to take root at the margins, scientists in Australia and abroad are quietly discovering plants are more sophisticated and complex than the wildest imaginings. Plants can navigate a maze, trade food for sex, sniff out and hunt down prey, use cost-benefit analysis, learn from past experiences and recognise friend from foe.
Ha ha. I enjoyed reading this article, especially after listening to the entire book "The Botany of Desire" last night while I slept. Ah, but did I understand it?

I woke during the chapter on marijuana, having slept through the apple tree, the tulip, and the potato. Michael Pollan was talking about a passage in Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception." Here's that passage:
[T]hat very morning... I looked down by chance, and went on passionately staring by choice, at my own crossed legs. Those folds in the trousers - what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the gray flannel - how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous! And here they were again, in Botticelli's picture.

... Draperies, as I had now discovered, are much more than devices for the introduction of non-representational forms into naturalistic paintings and sculptures. What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness. It is a knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existent. For the artist as for the mescalin taker draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being. More even than the chair, though less perhaps than those wholly supernatural flowers, the folds of my gray flannel trousers were charged with "is-ness." To what they owed this privileged status, I cannot say....

"This is how one ought to see," I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers....
And here's a little clip from "The Secret Life of Plants":

What is this post about? Ha ha. I always hated questions like that on the reading portion of the SAT. Does the test still have questions like that? Here, let me construct one for you.

What is the blogger's thesis in this post?
Plants and people are weird.
It's important to pay attention to things.
Art is better than science.
Just say no to drugs.
The human mind needs weeding.
pollcode.com free polls


Ron said...

Some blogs are like kudzu, but here it's all daffodils and orchids!

AllenS said...

The sun just came out, and I'm about ready to finish my plowing that I started Thursday. Imagine the little innocent grasses that are going to be denied a happy grassy life.

George M. Spencer said...

Gardens bright...
forests ancient..
sunny spots of
hill...cedarn cover...
savage place
...chaffy grain...
mingled measure...deep

A person from Porlock.

To be in Queen Maud Land, fast by the Gamburtsev range.

Wince said...

Clearly, plants react to trauma, but I'm not sure I'd equate that with the "pain" felt by fauna that we're accustomed to.

TMink said...

I was watching Vegetables on the Zappa Plays Zappa dvd last night.

No one will know
If you don't want to let 'em know
No one will know
'Less it's you that might tell 'em so
Call and they'll come to you
Covered with dew
Vegetables dream
Of responding to you
Standing there
Shiny & proud by your side
Holding your hand
While the neighbors decide
Why is a vegetable
Something to hide?

So Frank clearly thought that the conscious vegetable crew were nuts. Not like filberts, like Howard Hughes in the last days.


ricpic said...

I love it when broccoli screams.

Unknown said...

I'm sure if plants could vote (don't give ACORN any ideas) they'd be for Obama.

Joan said...

Plants can navigate a maze, trade food for sex, sniff out and hunt down prey, use cost-benefit analysis, learn from past experiences and recognise friend from foe.

This assertion of plant abilities uses language to imply that plants undertake all of these actions consciously and by choice. For example, "trade food for sex" means that they give bees nectar, and pollen sticks to the bees so that it ends up being carried to other flowers to fertilize them. "Navigate a maze" means roots and stems grow along the path of least resistance. I admit, I'm at a loss as to discerning what "sniff out and hunt down prey" means, because plants are not ambulatory, and yes, I have seen all those Discovery Channel shows on carnivorous plants. They are passive collectors of feckless insects, usually.

Plants are awesome, but it's insane to talk about them like this. There is no consciousness there, no intention in plant behavior. This is easily demonstrable. Does any plant ever choose to deny its nectar to passing insects? Does any plant choose anything other than the path of least resistance? Can a sunflower choose to turn its face away from the sun? There is variation in behavior from species to species, but there is no variation in individual behavior within a species.

Ancient people believed that trees and other plants had spirits that could communicate with each other and with particularly gifted humans. Looks like academia is headed back to those ancient, inexplicable beliefs.

Yes, the human mind -- the academic human mind -- needs weeding.

Bissage said...

There are many millions (if not billions) of people alive today who believe they will live after death.

For that belief to be true, there must be some sort of storage device for our memories apart from the brain.

I have felled trees and felt profoundly sad for having done it.

Why on earth would evolution select for such a trait?

William said...

There's a belief in some circles that every thing that lives is holy. As this belief is practiced in real life, larger entities are more sanctified than smaller ones. We cherish and protect the redwood trees and ceaselessly butcher sumac trees. Same thing with whales. There are always rescue operations going on for whales and yet how many goldfish are flushed down the toilet without even a minimal effort to rescusitate the poor creatures.....All of this is just a preamble to the larger point I wish to make: I am more deserving of veneration and preservation than Robert Reich.

Trooper York said...

I was thinking of flushing Robert Reich down the toilet.

Palladian said...

"Harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low-pitched, screaming sound … drain[s] out like a sob lasting fully a minute."

Sounds like my "date" last night.

ricpic said...

Robert Reich stood behind a lectern
On his tippy toes,
Obscured by a giant fern
That barely would have covered Miss Gypsy Rose Lee in one of her floor shows.

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian, ha ha. And I think Dahl would approve:

""Among [Roald Dahl's] conquests were, Millicent Rogers, heiress to a Standard Oil fortune and Clare Boothe Luce, a right-wing congresswoman and sex-mad wife of the publisher of Time magazine.

"Dahl once told friends that Boothe Luce, who was 13 years older, had left him 'all f***** out' after spending three nights in bed with her....

"His daughter Antoinette Marsh Haskell said: 'I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that [was worth] more than $50,000 a year.

Donna B. said...

Kudzu is evil and wants to take over the planet.

Meade said...

I have come to know:
in the Plant Kingdom
there is much sex
of which I get none.

Through the cruel wind they laugh.
At what? Who is the butt
of their phototropic jokes?
On this they play dumb.

I show them my powerful loppers,
my razor-sharp shears,
my deadly pointed hori hori,
my big bad lethal boots.

Foolish plants -
barley, apple,
opium poppy,
tobacco, cannabis, coca, grapes -

Would that they knew
to leave it alone
to be more polite
and show some respect.

Palladian said...

Roald Dahl had more sympathy for plants than he had for Israeli Jews, unfortunately.

bleeper said...

Hold it - Roald Dahl is cedarford?

Anyway, trees do make a sound when I cut them down with my chainsaw - a creaking sound, then they thump onto the ground. But I usually can't hear it over the noise my revving 2 stroke German chainsaw makes. Rr Rr Rr...

Palladian said...

"Hold it - Roald Dahl is cedarford?"

No, a much more interesting writer than Cedarford but a standard-issue upper-class British intellectual Jew-hater nonetheless.

George M. Spencer said...

Dahl, while best known for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willie Wonka, also wrote the most macabre short stories, including "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Man from the South," both filmed by Hitchcock for his TV show, the latter with Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen.

If your wife says she has a leg of lamb in the freezer, well, you've been warned.

PJ said...

What is the bloggers thesis in this post?

In a world where plants feel pain, apostrophes have no significance?

Lydia said...

Did Huxley actually write that "What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time"? Jeez, the guy was a big-time drug user, even using LSD before just about anyone else. I think it was probably during a "trip" that he became so enamored of those folds in the trousers.

Christy said...

What does it say that the stunning beauties of the perennial world are not the result of natural sex but of forced pollination? No light kiss of the honey bee's abdomen as the buzz of love lingers in the air?

I fell asleep last night to Baldacci's The Camel Club and awoke to the excitement of a battle between the Secret Service and terrorists with vivid depictions of muzzle flashes. The listening was made more notable by the pops and flashes outside my window. Power line failure 2 doors done in the rain. Still, the synchronicity of my reading is getting scary.

Two hours later my neighbor and I watch as the studly young utility worker with his manly tools and protective gear accesses the big pole behind my garage. Our conversation turns to the age appropriate men in our lives and ....

John Althouse Cohen said...

My comment on how we can be pretty sure plants don't feel pain.

Palladian said...

Some of us may want plants to feel pain.

IgnatzEsq said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
IgnatzEsq said...

What? No links to Audry II?


That's better.

Moose said...

Pondering the depths of the truly inconsequential.

Reminds of me of the old hippies snoring thru the midnite showings of "2001", the smell of hash in wafting thru the air.

Thank god for universities - it gives those who are clearly not cut out for real life somewhere to hide...

blake said...

The novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, though Roald Dahl did co-write the screenplay. Roald Dahl's best written work is probably Danny, The Champion Of The World.

Since his death, there's been an increased interest in filming his stories including The BFG, the TIm Burton produced James and the Giant Peach, the Anjelica Huston starrer The Witches, Matilda, the recent Wonka flick, and the upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox--directed by none other than Wes Anderson.

In his later years, Dahl got allegedly got increasingly sloppy in his work, requiring huge rewrites of his stuff before they were in publishable form.

His 30 year marriage to Patricia Neal covered the period of her stroke and recovery, which some have criticized him for being too harsh about.

He once said that Hitler was a "stinker" but even he wouldn't have gone after the Jews if there wasn't something to it.

I write all this because, frankly, I don't really care about plants very much.

ricpic said...

Cedar/Dahl was/is ala Cruise a glib sadistic putz.

Joe said...

Anthropomorphizing plants is even more inane and misleading than doing the same to animals. What's amazing is the suckers who fall for this shit.

Trooper York said...

Hannibal Lecter: I will listen now. After your father's murder, you were orphaned. You were ten years old. You went to live with cousins on a vegetable patch in Montana. And...?
Clarice Starling: [tears begin forming in her eyes] And one morning, I just ran away.
Hannibal Lecter: No "just", Clarice. What set you off? You started at what time?
Clarice Starling: Early, still dark.
Hannibal Lecter: Then something woke you, didn't it? Was it a dream? What was it?
Clarice Starling: I heard a strange noise.
Hannibal Lecter: What was it?
Clarice Starling: It was... screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child's voice.
Hannibal Lecter: What did you do?
Clarice Starling: I went downstairs, outside. I crept up into the barn. I was so scared to look inside, but I had to.
Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?
Clarice Starling: Lejumes. A big barrel of lentils. And they were screaming.
Hannibal Lecter: They were shelling the lentils and what else?
Clarice Starling: And they were screaming.
Hannibal Lecter: And you ran away?
Clarice Starling: No. First I tried to free them. I... I turned the barrel on it side, but they wouldn't roll away. They just lay there, confused. They wouldn't run.
Hannibal Lecter: But you could and you did, didn't you?
Clarice Starling: Yes. I took one spoonful of lejumes, and I ran away as fast as I could.
Hannibal Lecter: Where were you going, Clarice?
Clarice Starling: I don't know. I didn't have any food, any water and it was very cold, very cold. I thought, I thought if I could save just one, but... they was so awkward. So awkward. I didn't get more than a few miles when the sheriff's car picked me up. The farmer was so angry he sent me to live at the Lutheran orphanage in Bozeman. I never saw the farm again.
Hannibal Lecter: What became of your lejumes, Clarice?
Clarice Starling: They made them into a lentil soup.
(Silence of the Lejumes, Thomas Harris first draft, 1982)

Cedarford said...

Palladian said...
Roald Dahl had more sympathy for plants than he had for Israeli Jews, unfortunately.

NO, as a WWII flying ace (5 kills) as well as a "friendly spy" in the US - (see Jennet Conant's book "The Irregulars" about Dahl and secondarily Ian Fleming) - Dahl had the notion that a Brit should not have dual loyalties or fail to do "their share".

17 of Dahls 20 mates in pilot school were killed in the war. In conversations after the War, he reportedly deplored that Jews had a very poor volunteer rate amongst the Allies for military service and tended to seek jobs safe and to the rear. In other conversations, he praised certain Jews who had served.

Contemporaries say he was not pro or anti-Semitic anymore than he was anti, or pro-German, despite being nearly killed by the latter several times. He would praise one day, castigate the next. He had strong pro and con feelings of Americans, Norse, Oxfordians, Jamaicans as well - depending on the day.

Dahl reached a turning point with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Israeli-directed massacres at two refugee camps - becoming anti-Zionist.
As part of his condemnation of the invasion and Sharon's war crimes, he also noted that American Presidents have little choice but to give Israel what it wants - since Jews controlled the publishing and mass media in several nations, including America.

Palladian - No, a much more interesting writer than Cedarford but a standard-issue upper-class British intellectual Jew-hater nonetheless.

No, he was more interesting as a writer than both of us, and hardly "standard-issue". Hardly "upper-class" as the son of Norse immigrants to Wales.
Whereas Palladian is just another standard-issue, snarky, Jewish salami-smoker.

For some reasons, unknown exactly why - since homosexuality has biological, genetic, cultural, and situational factors (like all-male prisons) - anthropologists have noted a greater propensity of someone being solidly homosexual in orientation in certain ethnic groups. Jews, Dutch, Greeks, Aleutans, closeted Arabs...

Researchers have become more interested in this as they track and seek to prevent gay-related disease, and to explore what in culture, biology, genetics causes one group to have higher numbers of homosexuals than others. They already work on disease prevention targeting black men in prison, promiscuous unsafe sex inner city black culture. (a black woman is 15 times more likely to have HIV in the USA than white women).
Not because of disease, but because of low birthrates among Jews - researchers here and in Israel want to understand why a greater proclivity towards gay males and lesbians exists in their Jewish communities.

In medicine and the social sciences, from a manpower and resources standpoint - it makes sense to target groups where the pathologies are a greater problem - rather than pretend the pathology is uniformly distributed.

Palladian said...

Thanks for the genetic information about the racial basis of homosexuality, Doktor Mengele. You certainly learned a lot during those "experiments" you conducted at Auschwitz.

"Whereas Palladian is just another standard-issue, snarky, Jewish salami-smoker."

And, by the way, I'm not Jewish. I'm not sure where you got the idea that I was. It is possible for non-Jews to not be Jew haters you know.

So I smoke all varieties of salami, kosher and non-kosher. But you're probably out of luck, I haven't much of an appetite for dried Vienna sausages.

Palladian said...

"Researchers have become more interested in this as they track and seek to prevent gay-related disease"

There is no such thing as a "gay-related" disease. There is greater incidence of certain disease among various population groups, but there is no disease classified as a "gay-related" one. Not that I'd expect you to have any actual understanding of science, biology, pathology or medicine beyond what might pop up in The American Conservative.

George M. Spencer said...


Since you smoke salami, you will enjoy this bit from 'The Beverly Hillbillies..."

Tony: Want to come with us, Granny?
Granny: I can’t. I’m going down to the lake to smoke some crawdads.
Fred: Smoke some what?
Granny: Crawdads. But first I need a little pot.
(The police officers seize her)

David said...

Imagine the suffering when I cut the grass.

Bissage said...

I feel David's pain, as I too have allergies.