Telluride Daily Planet, Thursday, November 5, 2009
One day, during the beta version of my jaded years (13-15), my father arrived at breakfast and — over his Mayo Clinic grapefruit and soft-boiled egg — announced that plants had brains. Not just nervous systems, he said, but brains. “They are not given enough credit for their complexity,” he added, scooping out the sections my mother had pre-cut and pre-sugared. “This can be seen in how they all turn their heads in search of the sun.”
It was most likely his use of the word “heads” that got our attention. We were, after all, talking about a retired army colonel engineer, someone who would typically wake his sleeping children on weekends by barking through bedroom doors at the crack of dawn, task list in hand: “Workers of the world,” he’d call out. “Rise and shine!” In other words, a man more Robinson Crusoe in nature than Henry David Thoreau.
Well, to be fair, this was also a man who had built a plant convalescent center in the basement, 20 square feet of nutrient-pumping asylum-in-a-box, where plants, removed from the threat of weeds, animals, and, worst of all, humans, could relax, spread their wing-like leaves up to the Gro-Lux god, and quietly gather their forces again. This was someone whose dream was to have an apple orchard, to graft fruit, to astonish the world with the biggest apples grown on the smallest trees.
Now, however, he’d gone beyond the simpler contradictions of wanting plants to wildly flourish so that he could tame them again. Now, they had brains in their heads, and who knew, possibly good heads on their shoulders as well. My mother and I wondered if, weak from the grapefruit diet, he’d begun having the sorts of visions associated with starvation.
During the month of November, however, none of his ideas seem so farfetched to me. The decapitation of pumpkins reminds us that not only do plants have heads but that we may have become too fond of cutting them off, carving them out, and then letting them rot on front porches. We throw them at walls and off cliffs, kick them across streets and schoolyards, and then casually toss them in dumpsters, as if their intrinsic value had long ago been forgotten. As if pumpkins had nothing to do with the stuff in cans.
Many speak up for the rights animals, but who speaks up for plants? There’s no society protecting pumpkins, no group dedicated to fighting their annual slaughter. Not yet anyway. My mother belonged to a group in Seattle called Plant Amnesty, whose chief grievance was against the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs (especially pruning, as viewable at their Shear Madness Gallery). But what about the rest of the kingdom — the vegetables and fruits, flowers, grains, fungus, mosses, algae and blades of grass?
Last year, Switzerland’s Parliament (advised by a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians) ruled by constitutional amendment that plants had intrinsic value and that it was immoral to arbitrarily harm them by, for instance, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.” Also last year, Ecuador ruled that, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the inalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve.” Of course, these kinds of rulings incensed and continue to incense religious and political leaders who fear that by respecting all forms of life, the value of man shall somehow be debased. That by giving in to frivolous philosophizing, we will lose our economic edge and lordship over nature and the planet. This, in turn, incenses me.
So I go back to my father, a conservative military man, an empiricist and someone with whom I did not see eye-to-eye, and I am grateful for the observations he made 35 years ago. I pick up the midget pie pumpkins I paid too little for and wonder if they can still be used now that they’ve frozen outside. They can. There is enough pumpkin for pumpkin butter, muffins, and maybe a pie. There are enough roasted seeds for three people and one episode of Anthony Bourdain, “No Reservations.”
So maybe next year, when we are buying our bite-sized Twix and Milk Duds and wandering around dressed up as archetypes, alter egos and clever commentaries, we can remember that pumpkins, which are helpless, have value, practically, historically, and symbolically. That they mean more than their plastic counterparts.
Pumpkins have never done anything to hurt you. On the contrary, they are beautiful, eminently edible, and provide us with piles of beta-carotene, a gift to the immune system during flu season. Why should we carefully grow them, expending energy, water, and fuel so that the harvest can so carelessly be left to rot?
If my father was right, we should be grateful, too, that plants with brains also seem to have merciful hearts.