Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exuberant August, 2016: Can Plants Share Emotions with Human Beings?

August 2016:
Big Bluestem bloomed prolifically
in the Creek Field. 
With humble gratitude, I think back on the month just past, the month I shall always remember as “exuberant August.”

Has there ever been an August with so much precipitation spread out so evenly into so many gentle, light warm rains?

The result in our Creek Field was Jack-and-the-beanstalk-type growth.  

The clumps of Eastern Gamagrass were ten feet wide; the Switch Grass was ten feet tall.   The Whole-leaf Rosinweeds and Sawtooth Sunflowers were even taller.   Their bright yellow flowers said good-bye to earth and reached for the sky.   

The plants had so much energy it spilled over to me.  Every time I was near them I felt exhilarated!  

Exuberance--it was an emotion inextricable from either the plants or me.  We shared it!

But plants don’t have a nervous system.  Surely they didn’t really share an emotion with me?

Let me go into some background information and then return to that question.

Since 2013, we have been working to restore a native plant community to our Creek Field, 30 acres of  bottomground along McDowell Creek.  

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
volunteered near the creek.
Some bottomland prairie species, such as Bee Balm and Spiderwort, also grow in the uplands.   But others absolutely require a low, moist site.   These are the ones made scarce in the Flint Hills by the almost universal plowing of bottomground once the settlers arrived in the 19th century.    Several of those species bloomed in our Creek Field this August.   One of them—the hauntingly beautiful Blue Vervain—had been in our seed mix.   Another was a volunteer--Cup Plant--so named for the vessel formed where its leaves merge at the stem.   This August, all of its “cups” held water!  

Moisture-loving plants such as American Germander doubled and tripled the size of their patches, while early blooming species, like Canada Milkvetch and Echinacea, set seed in July but bloomed again in August.

This profusion of plant life spilled over into an abundance of animals.   

The Creek Field filled up with hummingbirds, quail, goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and Dickcissels.   At dusk, hummingbirds were replaced by hummingbird moths, while overhead, dragonflies, barn swallows, and nighthawks filled the air.    
Euphoria sepulcralis, Dark Flower Scarab
on a Tall Thistle
in the Creek Field.  August 2016.

Some of the insects I found on August flowers were old friends, such as the drunken Euphoria Beetle, always at his pollen-bottle, deep in a thistle-flower; or the just-emerged Monarch butterflies, not a tatter in their wings, drinking deeply of August nectar.   

A Geometrid Emerald Moth,
(Family Geometrinae)
on a Tall Thistle leaf,
Creek Field, August 2016.
Thanks to Eva Zurek &
for the identification!

Others were new to me, such as the gorgeous moths I slowly came to know only through the help of cameras, computers, generous entomologists, and   
Bush Cicada (Tibicen dorsata)
Creek Field, August 2016

As night fell, coyotes and Barred Owls would begin to call but could scarcely be heard through the almost impenetrable wall of sound put up by katydids’ trills and cicadas’ screams.  Raucous August!

All of this made me feel exhilarated--but not as if the feeling came from within.   It felt as if the emotion were already in the field, and I simply went into it.  As I walked into the field, I walked into the feeling.

I know that sounds New Agey.  How can the human emotion of exuberance arise from a non-human assemblage of life?

But I don’t want to deny the experience just because it sounds wifty, or raises a question for which I have no lock-down, end-of-discussion answer.

What happens if we frame the question within a context of existing knowledge?

Let’s take it step by step:  An exuberant person is a high-spirited person.   But the root of the word has to do with external reality, not with internal feelings.  The Latin root “uber” means fertility, abundance, growth.  Add the prefix “ex,” and it means lavish fertility, super-abundance, phenomenal growth—like our Creek Field this past August. 

 It makes sense that the ancient meaning eventually gave birth to the modern:  Lavish fertility of the land meant humans would survive and thrive—a spirit-lifter, if ever there was one.     Exuberant land meant exuberant people.

So the Creek Field imparted its exuberance to me through ancient associations that became hard-wired in the human brain?

Perhaps.  But could there be additional explanations?

Plants communicate with their environment through the production and release of chemicals.    As Michael Pollan writes, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary.”   Wildflowers swaying in the wind are not just a lovely spectacle; they are also emitters of what Pollan calls  “chemical chatter.” 

We don’t have ears to hear this chatter.  

But maybe we aren’t as deaf as all that.  

Among the chemicals plants produce are two that function in mammals as neurotransmitters and mood-regulators—serotonin and dopamine. 

Could we be more attuned to plants’ messenger molecules than we realize?  Do we have capacities we have yet to develop?

Botantist Robin Wall Kimmerer thinks so.   “Listening in wild places, we are audience to a conversation in a language not out own,” she writes.  She believes we humans were once fluent in that language and that we can become fluent once again.

In her book  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer explores human-plant relationships by comparing the experimental method of Western science with the nature-learning of her Potawatomi culture.   In addition to mutual confirmations, the comparison reveals differences.    Western science asks about a plant,  “What are its parts?  How does it work?”    Indigenous wisdom, based in a tradition of sacred reciprocity, converses with a plant, asking, “What can you teach us?”

When Kimmerer started college, she found that the science curriculum would never address her most basic question, the one that led her to biology in the first place:   “I wanted to know why we love the world, why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock us back on our heels in awe.”

That’s not too different from my question:  What is this exuberance that is both out there in the  Creek Field and in here, in my head and heart? 

Scientists, some of whom are at this moment setting up experiments to test entomologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” (which posits humans’ innate affinity for non-human life), will certainly help with the answer.

But all of us can help:  When among plants, we can ask freely and listen deeply.       

We can pay attention, with open hearts.

A modified version of this essay was published in the Junction City Daily Union on September 16, 2016.  

The short video below shows the Creek Field in August 2016.  The sunflowers sport not only blossoms but Dickcissel families and a juvenile Indigo Bunting.  And you can see (and hear) that Deci shares in the exuberance!