Tag Archives: Plant

The Honeysuckle

“What are you looking at?” The honeysuckle is loosely pending from a tree in front of me. Its gentle rocking in the wind just now has suddenly stopped.
“I was appreciating the scent of your flower”
“Staring and appreciating my smell? You haven’t even asked! Nor did you introduce yourself. What if I don’t want to be smelled? Did that ever cross your mind?”
“Errr… no. It didn’t occur to me that…”
“That what? That honeysuckles may appreciate some private space? Well of course it hasn’t. You were probably already considering picking my flower, weren’t you?” Its static demeanour is replaced by wild gestures of its many branches at once.
“Well?”
“I wasn’t, but now that you say so, actually that’s not a bad idea.”
“Not a bad idea? Not a bad idea? May I be so blunt as to ask you what makes you think it’s a good idea to rip my branch off and leave it to perish slowly without my consent? Who’s the creepy one here?”
“Well, you know, when I was a kid, I had a honeysuckle bush in front of my window. On a warm night, the scent would enter my room. It was calming. Your flower would remind me of that for a while.”
“Are you comparing me to some punk grandpa-suckle from thirty years ago? This just keeps getting worse. I’m a twenty first century cosmopolitan suckle. My scent is unique to me, and I’m proud of it!” Its branches now twisting savagely. “And back off a little”. You’re not socially distancing.
“I’m sorry?”
“You heard me! Two meters! I don’t want your germs. You’re not even wearing a face mask for Yggdrasil’s sake.”
“You’re a plant…”
“So? Do you think that just because I’m green and twirly, you have the right to infect me? You humans are all the same.”
“You don’t even have lungs!”
“No lungs, he says. And what happened to ‘Plants are the lungs of the planet’? Well? Or does that only apply when it suits you? When you can use it to convince your leaders to make a nice little park for yourself? When you need the oxygen?”
Slightly confused, I take a step back.
“But you won’t get sick of it…” I stammer.
“Assumptions! For months, you people have been going on about how many unknowns there are with this virus, and how you shouldn’t take any risks. And now that someone asks you to step back, there’s no threat anymore? Haven’t you seen some of my leaves? They’re brown! I’m in the risk group.” The plants’ branches are now dangling, some draped over the park floor.
“Honeysu…”
“Don’t you honey me, mister! I’m not your honey.”
“Suckle”
“Don’t even dare.”
“I didn’t notice your brown leaves. Sorry.”
“See? That’s what I mean. You’re all over my looks and my great smell, but when it’s about my hurts, no regard. I just serve your purpose.”
“We’re in a city park. Everything serves a purpose here. We keep the city going. Without you, this would be some apartment block. That’s the bitter truth.”
“These trees and the grass over there have a purpose. Not me. I’m just hanging around because a bird once dropped my branch and I shot roots. I’m a survivor.”
“But you aren’t weeded out. Because people enjoy you.”
“And I feed your butterflies. But do you see any butterflies? You lot keep chasing them away. With your smelly nose hairs. Scaring off my only chance to procreate. Thanks, man.”
“Is that why you’re strangling that tree?”
“I’m holding on to it. The other day, some kids ripped two thirds of my body away and fed it to their dog. I need to take care of myself. If this tree is too weak for a tiny plant like me, it doesn’t belong in this world.”
“You know they’ll cut you away if you keep winding around that tree, don’t you?”
“Are you threatening me now?”
“Just warning.”
“So. If I let go, I get killed by kids. But if I hold on, I get killed by park maintenance. Are you even listening to yourself? Why aren’t you stepping up against that? How can you live with it? Is that how you lot treat each other as well?”
“If your purpose cannot be explained, then yes. People get shunned to disappearance. That’s fairly normal human behaviour.”
“Bleak… I don’t want to be treated that way. I just want to hang around.”
“I mean, not everyone is like that. Many people try their best to help others. And a lot of us lead a reasonable life, even if our need and qualities aren’t always fully appreciated. It’s not that hard to ascribe yourself some purpose these days. And some of us are woke.”
“What’s woke?”
“I’m not sure. It’s like some heightened awareness of the struggles of minorities.”
“Good! You guys could use some more of that. With all of your pride.” “But don’t we all have a bit of struggle from time to time? What’s your name, actually?”
“Emperor Zork.”
“Emperor Zork…”
“Just call me Zorky. Anyway, if I see you all happily crossing the park, I find it hard to believe you have struggles. You can go anywhere you want! Have you ever seen how big this park is? I can only dream about growing to the other side without being shredded to pulp. But if you tell me you treat each other the same way…”
“What about that time you arrived here? Wasn’t that a nice journey?”
“That wasn’t my choice! That was a blackbird’s. It pulled me out of my old home and dropped me here. I almost died! Now I need to grow here.”
“Would you like to go back?”
“Sometimes. But then I wonder what that would solve. Us honeysuckles are known for idealizing their original roots. Life in the forest was great, but it wasn’t perfect there either. We had lice outbreaks and trees falling on top of us. I’ve seen many close relatives slowly get eaten alive. At least here they spray you with some toxic if you don’t manage to repel them by yourself.”
“And those brown leaves?”
“They’re not that bad. I could easily shed them, if I needed to.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Hmm… Good question. They don’t really bother me, I guess. I like them, actually. They’re a part of me. And sooner or later, they’ll fall by themselves.”
“O. Is that like Wu wei or something?”
“Whu what?”
“This Chinese philosophy. Action by inaction.”
“Never heard of it. I don’t think us honeysuckles do anything like that. It’s more like an internal thing. Drop or don’t drop. A matter of preference.”
“I think Wu wei was inspired by plants, actually.”
“And there it is again. You see us do something, and then try to copy it. Our ways don’t belong to you. Find your own ways to act or not act.”
“Or maybe you’ve just infected our thoughts with your great way of being natural.”
“Don’t call me natural. I’m far from it.”
“The what’s natural?”
There’s a silence in which Zorky’s branches hang still, then make some sudden movements, then hang still again. Then they orient themselves in a different direction, then they hang still once more. All at once, they sink back to the ground.
“Honestly, man, I don’t really know anymore. I’ve grown distant from it. This whole combination of brains with opposable thumbs has turned everything upside down for us. If I see those joggers sprint through the park with their bright yellow headbands, I do wonder, sometimes. What are they trying to attain? I mean, truly. They could have just gone hunting for a deer, then they’d have all the exercise and the food they need. But when I then think about the lice in my youth, I kind of understand it, you know?”
The branches move a bit again. “I guess nature isn’t much more than a state of surrender towards death and suffering. Culture postpones death. Hides from it, perhaps. Gives it a place, at best. Even rushes it sometimes. Nature embraces death and moves on.”
“Do you think the two are opposites?”
“What’s an opposite?”
“Ehm…” This time it’s me who struggles for a bit. Zorky would probably be able to describe my gestures better. “Mutually exclusive, but still sharing some core identity.”
“What? I mean, how can that be?”
“It’s like being on the other side of the same road.”
“Can opposites hear each other?”
“Possibly. I don’t see why not.”
“Well, I think it depends on which direction you go on that road.”
“Say… To the future.”
“Then yes, I think they’re on the same road. For now at least.”
One of the branches moves upward in my direction.
“Here, take this flower.”
“Thanks” I pick it. “That means a lot.”
“Put it on your ear or something. It’ll help you cover your smell. A hedgehog once told me you’re supposed to suck on it. But we don’t do that.”
“Good tip.”
“You should go now.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
A few meters above us, a butterfly messily pushes its brittle wings off against the breeze entering with the night.
“Pardon” it announces. In a deep, resonant voice.

Opening Pandora’s Fridge

Eating has become a political act. Food has turned into a religion. When I’m in the supermarket today, I have the feeling people’s judgmental attention creeps in on my articles. Close friends and family radically change their eating habits, talk about just that, and leave me wondering. All over the internet you can find discussions, sometimes violent ones, on what we should or should not eat. Society is dividing into food camps. Yet I wish to stay neutral.

For a while now, I have been wanting  to push the judges and preachers back. For a while, I have been wanting to remind everybody that eating is for nourishment. I did not. Why? The topic is sensitive, people will be offended. And more importantly, there are so many facades to this discussion that, knowing myself, I will diffuse the readers’ overview. Yet here I stand, surrendering to my desire, ready to enter the arena of a fight that is lost for anyone who takes part in it.

Let’s start with Foie Gras. It’s made by force feeding geese, murdering them then ripping their livers out and serving it on a plate. Seen the videos of the poor industrial fellas? Imagine a tube in the back of your throat filling up your stomach with huge quantities of food, untill you get sick and your liver swells up to enormous size. Then, try Foie Gras for yourself. It’s one of those things that graciously melts over your tongue, having you believe the angels themselves have brought it to you on a silk pillow. It’s a deeply rooted aspect of French culture, therefore unlikely to be banned in Europe for the coming decades. Should we hate the French?

Wait a minute, there are more sides to it. In some cases geese may actually get used to this type of feeding. Before the winter migration, for example, it’s quite natural for them to eat far more than usual. The force feeding, if not industrial, may happen in more respectful ways than known by activists. Then again, who came up with this information? Those who earn from it perhaps? Or are we forgetting to show true empathy for the animals we so forcefully protect? Are we projecting our discomfort on them?

But let’s shift this discussion to plants. Take broccoli. Naturally, it won’t grow as a single stem with flowers. It grows that way because we bind its branches together, giving them far less space than they would have. We suffocate them. Not sad? Asparagus is a shoot. It is put under a thick layer of soil. All it does during its lifetime, is to search for light. When, after a few weeks of growth, it finally reaches the surface, on the moment it can truly start expanding, it is taken out and eaten up. Totally ok? Do you know what you eat if you eat a strawberry? Plant babies. No problem? Every nut you ever ate could have become a tree, yet nobody advocates for nuts’ rights. Or bananas’.  We believe that vegetables don’t have feelings, thus we can do with them what we want. Yet the attitude behind it is no different from that enabling us to eat Foie Gras. We use nature in the way that benefits us.

I’m skipping the topic of the ecological impact for now (that could take a few pages), but would like to briefly discuss the other sudden western obsession: health. Fifteen years ago, if I would eat a slice of bread with cheese, that would be a healthy act. If I do that today, I practically poison myself. What started with the amount of sugar cubes in my soda, has escalated into some raw supervegamania. I personally find it hard to digest. Let’s not forget that us westerners have never in known history become older than we become now. There must be at least a little bit of influence of our feeding habits there, am I wrong?

I have always considered myself a healthy and environmentally friendly person. Nothing changed (in fact I’m probably doing more effort now than when I was younger), yet recently food evangelists frame my eating habits as criminal to myself and the environment. As long as they don’t live of light alone, I don’t take those words for granted. Humans alter things. What matters is not the fact that we do that, but the way we do that. The respect we have for the beings we interact with makes a world of difference.

As I said, I cannot win this debate, nor do I wish to. No one can. We are in the luxurious position that we can afford to enter it. Lucky that we can choose what we eat. Please, let’s keep discussing our differences, but let’s not stick to arguments that justify telling each other that what we do is wrong. No human will alter the fact that to survive, we need to eat, and eating is a deadly act. As we’re here, we may as well enjoy that.

Friendhopping – Part II: The Botanist

The holidays are nearing and it seems that there is some hitch hiking in store for me. In memory of my past trips, I decided to work through my old travellers’ blogs, take the mistakes out, change the names where necessary and post them here piece by piece, on Wednesdays. I’m starting with the final trip I took so far, written just after I finished my studies. The series contains a storyline about love and friendship. It has six parts. This is part two.

July 28th 2011
The Tatra mountains are not so high, but their peaks are everything you expect from a mountain: sharp, rocky and silent. Z., H. and I are sitting on one of the ridges, eating our well deserved and delicious Slovak lunch. We can see Poland rise above the clouds. Our guide is a 60-year-old energetic female botanist, also called Z.

There are several ways to distinguish a true botanist from the wannabes. Firstly, professional botanists drive around in 4 x 4 cars with big trunks. This helps them access awfully remote and unreachable areas and bring back significant amounts of preferably scarce types of local vegetation without any moral hesitation. Secondly, they wear camouflaging clothes – several layers -, ranging from hats and zipp-off pants to rain clothes and fleece jumpers, suitable for any weather type you can imagine. A true botanist could survive months in any place on earth on car and clothes alone. But most importantly, the real botanist can be distilled from charlatans by his remarkable skill in noting and recognizing a variety of plants species that most people would fail to see even if their face was pushed into the meadow. Z. scores high on all criteria: we have a real one.

Z. the botanist speaks some English, but she gets along far better in Slovak with our Z. For a botanist she talks a lot. Sometimes she turns to H. and me. She then explains us how the mountains have shaped the vegetation, what different plants there are and how some places are called. She also shares anecdotes. She met a bear last week.

Meeting H. in Trencin has been good. I had missed him without realising it too much. Long before H. moved into our house, we used to call him “Iron H.” because of his rock-in-the-tide way of being. I still do sometimes. He is brief, to the point and a strong worker. But he has also shown more sensitive and funny sides during the months preceding his departure to Slovakia for an internship. The last week on the Pohoda festival turned out as cool as ever.

Meeting Z. was awkward. She expecting, me distant. Staying overnight in Brno has not made things easier. And I am never the most caring person on events and festivals. In the crowded business it took two days before we took a moment together off the terrain.

One moment we´re in the sun with a breathtaking view; the next we are surrounded by clouds reducing our view to the spot we are on. We finish our food and go back down aided by metal chains tied to the rocks. I can see the abyss right under me when I hang a little to the right. The botanist takes us down to flowery meadows with big marmots. She guides us over boulders.
“I usually go straight down here” She points down a steep slope of rocks. No road to be seen.
“But we´ll take the path because I´m with you”. The is one of the steepest mountain paths around. Not much easier, but her story about the deceased minister in the Tatras convinces us we are taking the right slope. She keeps gathering plants along the way. The fog around us makes it look as if we stand on a tiny green island in a vast space of white nothingness.
“It is as if this is the only place on earth”. I have not spoken the words, or I see a sweet little forget-me-not smiling at me from the grass.

We eat the rest of our food on the rocks downhill while our botanist keeps looking for plants. Quite exhausted from the steep walks, we look around silently.
“You seem sad”. Says the botanist when she gets back
“We are”. Answers Z. She´s right.

Later this day we´ll have a final beer with H. Saris.
I´ll get the amazing idea of eating a pizza in Italy.
And I´ll break up with Z.
After that we´ll have two wonderful days together. It had never occurred to me before that the Dutch word for Vienna, Wenen, means “to cry”.

Happiness engineers

If you work at Google nowadays you eat the healthiest food, work out and take naps whenever necessary. Your bosses will avoid conflict situations for you, encourage you to meditate and do whatever else is in their capacity to keep you as an individual happy. Why? When you are happy, your products are better.

In some advanced farms, cows are being trained to choose the timing of their milking by themselves. The machines they use for this system measure milking frequency and milk quality for every cow individually, and continuously adapt the cow’s diet to make her milk as nutritious as possible. The philosophy: every cow has innate needs satisfying those results in happiness and great milk. Such farms save human labour hours because no one has to force the poor animals into milking machines.

Have you ever heard of Plant Lab? This organization advocates that plants don’t enjoy growing in nature at all. The constant combat for light and nutrients and the irregularity of the weather make them stressed and weak. After long-lasting experiments, they have concluded that plants prefer stable, controlled conditions with purple light, the perfect amount of nutrients and a warm gentle breeze . In their arrangement, plants grow faster, are more nutritious and are more resistant to bugs. In fact, their defence systems become so effective, that if you take a seedling out of Plant Lab into the field, you don’t need to add pesticides for a whole month.

These are just three examples of how the performance of living beings is being optimized with support of knowledge and technology.  By paying more attention to the individual wants and needs, providing not more than the necessary, the boss spends less and gains more. The workers are happy. That’s a win-win, right?

Something in that construct itches me, but it’s not easy to place. Perhaps it is the fact that it emerges out of the industrial paradigm, out of the reductionist idea of beings as objects with on/off switches. By taking the experience of this being into account, by listening to it, one respects it in a different way. The reductionist paradigm meets the holistic paradigm, lifting society to an unprecedented state of enlightenment.

I haven’t convinced myself yet. Is it the idea of domineering? By giving someone precisely what he wants, one can control him entirely and use his energy at will. It increases the power of industry owners and mankind in general to a new level that can become scary if the power is in the wrong hands. Then again, if need satisfaction becomes the status quo, the owners are replaceable.

What itches me most, I think, is the fact that over my lifetime, I have learned to appreciate adventure and uncertainty. I have learned that longing for something for a while can deepen satisfaction in life. Perhaps I am afraid that if this trend continues and the emotional turbulence stabilizes, we will forget the beauty of suffering. Yet we luxuriant people have already long forgotten that.

I might just be old fashioned.

Mphathelene

She’s not big, this woman from South Africa. Yet as she stands there, giving her speech, looking down on me from the depths of her soul, she appears to grow. Even though she uses many local words, and even though her native accent is quite strong, the way she directs her story full of emotion straight to me, has an incredible impact. Her message is clear: we should connect with our ancestors. Sacred sites are places where we can contact them. Europeans as well as the younger generation of Africans should learn to reappreciate that, and respect that there are powers stronger than ourselves.

Tonight, we on opposite sides of the dinner table. She eats full of respect. “When we leave on a trip, we pray that our ancestors join us. Sometimes when you are somewhere and you feel uncomfortable, that means your ancestors are not here. Or when something breaks by accident.” She sniffs a tobacco, and shares some with me. She explains also how in dreams, your ancestors show you that you should pick up a certain plant. Then, if you do and bring it home, someone will soon come to you house who is sick. This plant will heal that person. Nothing strange about that, but we forgot to use it.

This week is our first meeting. I’m hoping more’s to come.

The Departure of Julian

The door has to stay open for the ventilation of some plants on the first floor. This dark, empty space calls out to me while I’m waiting in the hall for my girlfriend; you know how women are. I feel melancholy and sadness about what this room turns out to represent. Failure of a friend. The loss of many dreams. We all lived along and saw it happen. We tried to interfere at times, tried to help him change, but we were bound to fail. What started as joy and empathy gradually turned into irritation and later into frustration. His disappointments were ours as well.

When I approached our house, packed from a four-month stay in Peru, I was delighted to see it was surrounded by pots with plants. Julian had taken over Giels room. He collected plants that were about to be thrown away by garden centres, and sometimes he bought one. His room was full of them. It was a beautiful new start. The plants gave an impulse. Together with Felix, another new housemate, we were a dynamic trio. We gave the house a makeover, organised a house party themed Jungle, relocated the campfire to a more accessible place for visitors and we organised winter cafés. Julian attracted the people, we hosted them.

Over time, most of the plants in his room turned brown, filling it with death and abandonment. His collection of living and dead plants kept growing, and occupied more and more of our living space. His projects got postponed, and our belief in his stream of promises slowly faded away. Our bond got a bitter side taste. Very often, when we wanted to call him for dinner, we could not find him. “Where is Julian?” became the house question. We tried to help him, we asked him to respect us, he heard us, but he could not act on it. Later, he was gone for months. Unreachable. Then returned unexpectedly, stayed for months, and left again.

A few weeks ago, when I was back to visit Zuzana, he arrived with his dad. He has a girlfriend now. His announcement was plain and clear: ”I’m moving out”. It hurt my heart, but came with a relief. He stayed for a week, then left without goodbye.

The dark emptiness of his room still expresses the memories. It’ll change. Soon, Johanna will enter and bring in new personality. He will be out there, in the big wide unprotected world. Whenever he’ll return, things will seem more hopeful. His goal now, is to build an energy neutral airplane. And you know what? Some light inside me thinks that somehow he’ll succeed.