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N: friendship and activism

October 26, 2011

If I had never made friends with a tree, I probably wouldn’t be committed to using recycled and tree-free paper products whenever possible. I do my best to minimize using wood for anything — can I use bamboo, or metal, or even (occasionally) plastic? Once I found out Tencel rayon was made from trees, I got rid of everything I owned made of that fabric, and have never bought anything new made of it. I also refuse to buy Tencel yarn, even though both the fabric and yarn take dyes beautifully, and drape like silk. Spouse and I haven’t gotten a live Christmas tree in years. My parents prided themselves on always having live Christmas trees – whom I always talked to. It took me years, though, to see the cognitive dissonance involved.

When my mother pruned trees or bushes in my parents’ yard, I remember asking her if it hurt the trees to lose limbs. She said it didn’t, that it was like clipping their toenails. But I never believed her; it seemed like it had to be more like having an arm chopped off. I have one houseplant that occasionally needs pruning so it doesn’t outgrow its pot, which is already too heavy for me to lift (I drag it along the carpet).  I procrastinate as long as possible. When I finally prune, I apologize to the plant the whole time. Repotting any of them is a total nightmare, because of the disruption, and the fear I’ll damage their roots. I’m always a nervous wreck doing it, so, more apologizing.

The only regular childhood chore that I actually enjoyed was working in my mother’s garden. Weeding was satisfying for multiple reasons: tangible results; being outside, with plants; having no human companionship, but not being alone; and pleasing my mother — because I was very good at weeding. I had a lot of patience, and I talked to everybody nonhuman.

Again, only gradually did I start wondering why weeds were so bad. If I pull them out of the ground, and put them on the sidewalk next to me, they bake in the sun all day — surely enough to kill them! And yet if I’m not careful gathering them up at the end, some of them might sneak back into the garden bed and re-root somehow. But as a gardener, I was supposed to deplore that behavior. Instead, I was secretly impressed. It wasn’t until I was at Purdue many years later that I learned about C-4 plants, like crabgrass, and wondered all over again, why do humans hate plants that are well adapted to their environment? And why do we seek to replace them with plants that can’t live without us, and need constant care? I guess people who don’t ask those questions, but ‘like working with plants’ (or maybe just being outside) become gardeners, landscapers, horticulturists, etc.

I love being outside, and I love plants (and animals, fungi, microbes, rocks, …), but I don’t have any desire to push everyone around, and make them do what I want. So I’ve never had a garden, and I’ve never ‘landscaped’.

I keep plants, mostly inside, but seasonally out on our balcony too. I’ve occasionally referred to them as ‘pets’, but to show that I think of them as sentient beings that I’m very fond of, rather than, say, decorations that happen to be alive.

I’ve rescued plants that were casually thrown away, something I find truly incomprehensible.

Whenever I go someplace new, especially if social anxiety is involved, I start looking around for greenery. If there are potted plants, and they look well cared for, I immediately relax at least a little. As I walk by a potted plant, I usually reach out to touch leaves, and say hello. Sometimes I take their picture, and talk to them. I remember a business trip I took almost 6 years ago where I sat in the same room every day to eat my lunch because there were lots of potted trees. Sometimes other humans would show up (invading my space), but I would ignore them by closing my eyes and pretending I was just another tree. I didn’t make any new human friends on that trip, but I do remember all the trees I met.

Who your friends are changes you.

Some scientists now say human beings are not individual organisms, but ecosystems (sometimes referred to as the human microbiome), because of the wide variety of microbes that live upon and inside of us. These other cells outnumber human cells 10 to 1. And yet we humans assume that we’re in charge, and that we have the right to eradicate some of our microbes, or make their lives a lot harder. But what if we tried to cooperate with them? What if we sought ways to make their lives easier? Or come up with a mutually beneficial partnership? Joan Slonczewski, a microbiology professor turned science-fiction author, explored various configurations of that premise in her Elysium Cycle books.

I want to go in a somewhat different direction than she did, and explore different questions.

What if humans found a different paradigm for dealing with nonhumans? No longer slavery, endless war, and genocide. But cooperation, collaboration, and maybe even friendship. That’s why my novel will be science fiction — because so far we don’t have particularly reliable ways of communicating with nonhumans. And we certainly have very little practice listening to what they want to tell us. But if we could work together, in a way that everyone was more or less happy with, what might become possible that we can scarcely imagine today?

Have you hugged a microbe today?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Chad permalink
    October 26, 2011 18:03

    Random thoughts:
    – If you had to choose: would you be a carnivore or an herbivore?
    – Also, I’m excited about/interested in your book!
    – And now I’m going to have to acquire some Joan Slonczewski.

    • October 26, 2011 22:49

      Part of me wants to immediately say, “herbivore, of course!” but I think “omnivore” is a better fit, albeit one who is mostly a plant-eater. Like a black bear, or a squirrel.

      Thanks for the interest in my book-to-be. It’s my first stab at fiction, so who knows how good it might be. (That’s what revisions and editors are for!)

      Joan Slonczewski is wonderful – lots of hard science, and big ideas, but also amazing worlds and memorable characters, many of whom are not human. I hoped to be as good a writer as she is someday.

  2. Sixwing permalink
    October 29, 2011 23:10

    This fascinates me.
    I also treat my beloved houseplants according to their personalities – for instance, asking the parsley if it wanted to be brought in or if it would rather brave the oncoming frost. And I don’t talk much about houseplants having personalities! (But they totally do, ha.)

    I love the idea of communicating with the internal/external flora and fauna that depend on us, and upon which we depend.

    You’ve given me some thoughts. I am off to play with them. Thanks!

    • October 30, 2011 10:34

      I knew I couldn’t be the only one. Yes, plants really do have personalities – why wouldn’t they?

      If you come up with amazing insights, do share!

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