29 January, 2007

Thinking About Plants

As I write this, I am in the throes of preparing a lesson for a botany course I’ll teach at a local school of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Yo San University, http://yosan.edu/). My students are all aspiring acupuncturists and herbs form their pharmacopoeia. They are learning a holistic medicine so it is my place to teach them about plants – to give them a holistic consciousness about their prescriptions. I don’t know about the medicinal value of plants, that’s not my field, but I “know” plants and I endeavor to transfer to them some of this knowledge.

Our culture sees plants selectively – usually as something that is “in the way,” or the “green thing I pass on my way to the car.” The first hurdle to overcome is to actually simply see that this “thing” is a plant. I think of my academic assignment as being similar to being a music appreciation teacher. You hope at the end of the term some of your students will go into a store and, upon hearing the music, at least one will think, “Ah, that’s Mozart!” I hope that my students will be able to observe that there are plants lining the walk to school, or the store or in the parking lot. Take this simple test: how many plants have you interacted with since you got up this morning? Most folks will give a range of 10 to 15, off the top of their head. But is that really all?

Let’s see: Breakfast with coffee or tea, of any kind, (1), toast (2) with jelly (3), orange juice (4) – if you had cereal, oatmeal or otherwise (derived from the Roman goddess of the harvest, “Ceres,” the word “cereal” refers to the seeds of some grasses) add one more, granola knocks you towards the top of the plant consumption Richter scale – any sugar or one of the natural substitutes, add another. And then there was lunch – sandwich with lettuce and tomato (that would be three more to bring us to seven or so), unless it was a PBJ, which would bring us to 8 or more; if you had a cola, better count at least two, just being conservative (look at the ingrediant label for the facts on this - I don't drink colas and I'm afraid I only KNOW that corn sweetener is an ingredient, but I'll bet there are many, many more) . And now you’re reading this. If not electronically, better add one more for the paper it’s on – oh, and another for the ink which is soy based.

But wait (there's more!)! What’s that I see you wearing, a cotton shirt? Jeans? Or a linen skirt or shirt? Add two more. Hmmm. Are you sitting on a wooden chair? Add another. Hard wood floor or a wooden door (our word for door comes from the Celtic word for oak, “doerr”)? Add another. If you picked up a guitar or other stringed instrument, you better add another to your tally.

Back this buggy up – did you sleep in cotton sheets? I hoped you brushed your teeth and used some soap in the shower, washed and rinsed your hair – maybe chewed some mint gum along the way? Aftershave? Perfume? Had a chocolate candy bar (with nuts?)? And if you’re breathing – most of us are – that oxygen is a by product of photosynthesis, part of the reason the air always seems more refreshing once you get out of the city (fewer peoples; more plants). Plants can get along without us (they did for several million years before we evolved), but we cannot get along without plants.

You get the picture – plants play an integral part of our lives today, no matter how much our society pushes plants and their care towards the outer fringe. They are an inherent part of the web of life that under girds the ability of human beings to simply persist on this planet. The woof and warp of human existence is tied up with plants (yes, that string was most likely from a plant). Ignorance doesn’t divorce us from that reality.

Even pre-historic humans placed flowers in the graves of their dead and bouquets at weddings have been a part of weddings before the recording of history began even before those expensive rings. Why have plants always been such important guests at all the major events in the lives of humans? This is especially true of those traditions that have been a part of our social customs for hundreds of years – the older the tradition, the more prominent the place of plants.

We eat, wear, sleep in and walk on plants (fore!). We drink them, we make instruments out of them, and they are the original source of all our medicines. We smoke them, burn them for scents, perfume ourselves with them and use them to tie things up. Even petroleum is thousands of year old plants that have metamorphosed into that black stuff which we distill into gasoline and other petroleum products (which is why it’s not so far fetched to think that one day we may well be distilling gasoline from sustainably harvested plants – although, whether or not that’s a viable solution is a whole ‘nuther column). They grace our lives in real and tangible ways – any real estate agent will tell you that, all other things being equal, the house with an attractive garden sells faster than the one without – and houses placed along greenspaces (parks, reserves etc) have higher resale values than those without. And a street lined with one tree species has that “neighborhood” feel. Just drive down one of those streets to test that theory.

Yet in this horticultural Shangri La, most Angelenos spend many days without even thinking about plants. Most of the homes and buildings in LA, were planted with some sort of yard/garden when constructred, and using the same logic that puts our children into the care of the lowest bidder, we pay as little as possible for someone to care for it. The result is not usually very appealing. In fact, home for home, Los Angeles has some of the worst plantings in all of the US.

It seems to me, we have missed an important part of being human: nature isn't just nice - it's essential.

More anon.


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