Tag Archives: the plant kingdom

Other People’s Fieldwork

When I first started doing fieldwork as an assistant on other people’s research projects, I thought the sense of deep peace and contentment that pumped like blood through my body then was inherent to the tasks themselves—that as long as I was doing useful, physically demanding work outdoors, a happy and untroubled disposition simply came along for free with the muscle aches and the torn-up fingers and the sound of ravens burping musically in the sky.

It wasn’t until I started running (or, to be more accurate, “stumbling”) my own field studies that I realized things feel completely different, mentally speaking, when you are the one in charge of decision making and also the person whose career is riding on the data you collect. Gone is the marvelously charming sense that as long as you complete your to-do list, you’ve delivered yourself usefully unto the universe that day. (Who knows, now that you have to write the list, if the tasks on it are any use at all?) Poof goes the unearned beatitude of the mind. It dies like a whistle on the lips the first day you stare out at your own study site, alone and in charge.

It is pure delight, therefore, to have the occasional chance once again to do someone else’s fieldwork, and this past Tuesday I was lucky enough to be presented with just that opportunity. I spent the day with Susan Waters, who a decade ago was once of the very first graduate students in the Hille Ris Lambers lab (and is therefore my academic cousin). She now works for the Center for Natural Lands Management in Olympia, doing plant-pollinator research in the prairies of the South Sound.

This is Susan, wearing the quintessential uniform of the field ecologist: Gas station sunglasses in a camouflage pattern and a hat borrowed from a former classmate that the sun has faded from a deep fuchsia (still the color of the lining) to strawberry milk. She’s fantastic.

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One of Susan’s aims is to document the plant-pollinator network in the prairies along a gradient of disturbance (from pristine, to disturbed but restored, to disturbed and unrestored). To do this she and a couple of field assistants—presumably each currently in possession of a sense of deep peace and contentment) spend long hours watching patches of flowers and recording every pollinator that visits. It’s grand work, and looks like this:

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Another problem of interest to Susan is whether a plant’s connectedness to a pollinator network is related to how vulnerable it is to the loss of pollination services. To address this question, she’s been collecting data on seed set from paired flowers, one bagged to prevent it from being visited by pollinators and one left open. I spent most of the day Tuesday following Susan around a beautiful patch of blooming prairie, bagging buds and putting seed pods into paper envelopes; and yes, it was every bit as carefree as I hoped. I shall try to hold on to that feeling of calm as much as I can, since I’m heading out into the field again myself at the end of the month, armed with a whole set of new protocols to pilot and worry over.

My day with Susan gave me two other gifts: One was a brilliant idea for marking individual plant stems using lightweight plastic bird bands, the kind normally used by poultry and pigeon fanciers to identify their birds. Ecologists are nothing if not resourceful. To wit, gift number two: The immensely satisfying knowledge that the sophisticated piece of equipment used by a pollinator researcher to collect seed heads is precisely the same tool my friend and marine biologist Alex showed me a couple of weeks ago that he uses to transport baby geoducks: a lady’s footsie.

Happy summer, y’all.

 

In the Field, Finally

The last time I checked in here, the very first field season of my PhD career was just about to officially begin. I was filled with anxiety about my ability to handle the complex logistics involved in setting up a multi-year research project, to design protocols that would result in robust scientific data, and to serve as a mentor to two undergraduate interns when most of the time it feels very much like I myself have no idea what I am doing.

Four weeks in, I am happy to report that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last month. For instance, one of my biggest questions was whether the phenomenon I planned to study (insect herbivory on subalpine meadow plants) actually even existed at a level that I could observe and record. I’d been told by Elli, a previous student in my lab who spent years surveying the same plants I was interested in, in the very same meadows, that she almost never saw evidence of insect damage. For months, even as I made intense preparations for the summer’s work, I was wildly nervous that I’d get out there, squat down at a plot ready to count tissue loss on leaves, and see absolutely nothing. However, I can now report that there definitely are enough insects in the meadows making a living eating plants that their traces are there if you are looking for them. This fact—that you might not notice something you’re not actively looking for—is definitely no knock on Elli, and actually seems rather marvelous to me. It serves as a huge reminder of the value of personal observation. I’m still unsure of whether I’ll find any evidence for strong climate drivers of insect herbivory, as I had hoped; the levels of plant damage seem not only species-specific but very patchy, and there are lots of factors I hadn’t anticipated dealing with in my analysis (for instance, my new transect on the east side of the mountain is drier, as I’d expected—but it’s also greatly more disturbed by burrowing rodents). So far, it’s not clear that the climate-driven elevational pattern I thought I might find will actually emerge from the data. But that’s a bridge to cross later. For right now I’m just happy I’m not trying to study a ghost.

There have been smaller and more practical lessons, too. I now know that I should bring extra flagging tape with me when I go to the east side of the mountain, because there’s a good chance the ground squirrels there will chew up the flags marking my plots. Extra kill jars are also a good idea, because you never know when you (I) will drop one into a marmot hole. I’ve learned that on humid or wet days the insects caught on sticky traps will start to decompose extraordinarily quickly, even if you only leave the traps out for 48 hours. (In general I’m struggling to deal with storing sticky traps for later analysis, because they are a pain in the ass to handle and their catches are very easily squished.) And I’ve learned that while Rainier’s mosquitoes are a vicious and cruel tribe—each week I come away with dozens of bites on my head, face, waist, and hands, the places hardest to cover up—my hatred for them pales in comparison with my affection for their mountain home.

Perhaps the nicest discovery of all is that, after having been terribly nervous about becoming a DDCSP mentor, my time with James and Leila has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the field season so far. They are both smart, curious, funny, and kind. They take their own projects seriously—both involve aspects of plant-pollinator interactions in the same subalpine meadow ecosystem where I work—but are always happy to help out with mine. And they are wonderful company. As someone who fell in love with the outdoors in large part because it offered the opportunity to experience a vast and quiet solitude, I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy being the leader of a crew, no matter how tiny. But somehow we all seem to naturally fall into low-key moods and high-energy moods at the same time, and I have adored working with them. They’ve only got another two weeks before their program ends, and I know I will miss them more than I could have ever imagined I would!

I remind myself daily that I’m at an incredibly early stage in my project, and a lot could change. But while I am still not entirely certain of a great deal, I will say that it is far more comfortable to be in the field dealing with concrete day-to-day problems than it was to be imagining those problems from my desk. I’ll post another update here later on this summer—for now, it’s time for a night’s sleep in my own bed before I head out into the field again tomorrow morning for another week of work. I’ll leave you with a few images of the last month.

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Lupinus arcticus with three well-chewed leaflets (probably by juvenile grasshoppers).

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Valeriana sitchensis, my most abundant study species, showing signs of attack by an as-yet unknown gall-forming insect.

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Bite marks on the developing fruit of an avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum). Not sure who the culprit is yet.

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I have to be careful not to confuse mammal damage with insect damage. It was most likely a marmot that sheared off the tops of these tiny Castilleja parviflora stems.

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I see a lot when I manage to look up, too.

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We’ve had about half and half wonderful weather and days full of fog/rain/clouds. Those can be gorgeous too, though.

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Leila at 2000m.

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James and Leila at 1901m.

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The three of us.

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The mountain, writ large.

Better Yet Crawl

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

I don’t have a natural talent for observation. In the course of most of my daily activities, noticing is a hard mode to maintain. There’s a lot of triage going on—What’s on my work calendar; did I do that Chem homework that’s due today; have I lost my hat again; wait, where am I going right now?

But even when I’m out on a hike, or backpacking, giving heed to everything around that’s worth heeding isn’t necessarily easy. Thoughts get in the way. Putting foot in front of foot gets in the way. Sensations from the eyes get in the way of sensations from the ear.

You may be different. If so, I envy you. Me, I like that Ed Abbey paragraph because hell yeah seeing shit is hard.

There are lots of reasons it’s a little easier in the field than at home, two of which are that there’s a lot more to see and you’re less used to seeing it. But I realized recently that maybe the biggest, simplest, most relevant reason I tend to notice the world more on field trips is that I’m so often doing what Abbey suggests:

Crawling.

I’ll tell you about a trip with Danielle Christianson last month in Sequoia National Park.

Danielle is a Ph.D student at UC Berkeley; I met her through a mutual friend, and have now had the great good fortune of helping her in the field on two occasions. She’s kind, very funny, and intimidatingly smart, but extremely practiced at downplaying her background—which includes several years spent working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, CA. One of my favorite things about Danielle is that always she ends the afternoon by turning to her assistants and saying (absolutely from the heart, and no matter how frustrating or difficult the past 10 hours have been), “Thanks for the good day.” That—along with the fact that she brings frozen blueberry pancakes to the field and wakes up early to toast them for everyone’s breakfast—may tell you all you need to know about her.

This is Danielle at work.

This is Danielle at work.

Six years ago, she started this quixotic venture by looking for and marking thousands of tiny seedlings (mostly Abies magnifica, red firs) with even tinier metal tags. Since then she’s been counting how many survive in each of several dozen small plots within her study area, as well as how much they’ve grown in biomass each season. Danielle’s also been recording a multitude of environmental variables across her site during the same time, including soil moisture, temperature, sun exposure, and topography.

Matched with the seedling numbers, these data will tell us how differences in climate, and changes in climate over time, affect the seedlings on a scale much finer than most climate models can currently accommodate. This is interesting and important work that has lots of theoretical implications for managing and predicting the future of this particular habitat. In practice, it demands the execution of a lot of small, repetitive, and surprising field tasks.

On this trip, for instance, we needed to track down every seedling that was still alive last year—or find its tiny brown corpse amid the dirt and leaf litter—or failing that, at least pick up its lost tag. Since even an “old” seedling that’s been around for over a decade might be just a few centimeters tall, that wasn’t always easy. And after five years of attrition, there were still over 2,000 seedlings to be found. Danielle and Jack, her field assistant for the second year in a row, were like morel hunters in springtime who see mushrooms everywhere—their eyes having learned to pick out the shape of pygmy conifers before their conscious minds recognized them. It took me a bit longer to get used to looking this way.

Found seedlings had their tags removed; from then on they were identified by flags.

Found seedlings got mapped and assessed in a variety of ways. Danielle would measure their tallest height, count each individual branch—a number that could range from 0 to 40 or 50—and then, based on the fact that “new” growth on a conifer is a slightly different shade of green than “old” growth, decide how many branches and branchlets had managed to make progress since last year. Finally, we tried to photograph each seedling head-on against a white, shadowless background, so that Danielle can use computer vision analysis to determine the area of its canopy, or “leaf silhouette”—another way of measuring biomass without ripping a tree out of the ground and taking it back to the lab.

(This photography project may have been the most frustrating of all this year’s field tasks, for reasons that are too boring to go into but mostly involved the total lack of cooperation of sun, terrain, camera, and human body. It did cause Danielle to spend an evening fashioning a portable portraiture backdrop for our seedlings out of construction paper, a hard-backed folder, a clipboard, electrical tape, and binder clips. That thing was awesome. Remind me to write a post sometime about the crazy gear field scientists make out of household objects.)

But listen, pretty much everything on that to-do list required getting down on and crawling on hands and knees.

One afternoon I saw a bit of dust moving out of the corner of my eye and ended up watching a carpenter ant try a dozen times or more to shift the body of a dead compatriot, significantly bigger than itself, out of a depression in the soft red earth. Once there was a glint of something burnished, so small it could have been imaginary, but when I scratched beneath the bark of the log I was sitting on I found the green sheeny case of a wood boring beetle long moved on to better skins. There were pieces of it. Here wing, here head, here torso. An arthropod jigsaw puzzle.

Another day I bored Jack, who was napping beside me during a break, with the astute observation: “There’s a really pretty blue fly or something over here.” Hiking home evenings after, I spied a spider being mauled on the trail by the same little beast and took a video, and that is how I know it was really a blue mud dauber wasp, not as menacing-looking but related to the cicada killers I used to see in Chicago.

After one pee I returned with the pleased announcement that I had found a tree that had become a trail. In its afterlife, the fallen trunk retained a thin shell of intact bark cradling a woody avenue of beetle-mulched chips. Danielle, considerate, pretended to be impressed by the discovery—but afterward I noticed decaying tree-trails all over the place.

One of, it turns out, many tree trails.

I’d like to tell you everything: How red fir pine cones fall apart into scales that look to me like miniature gingko leaves in fall color; how their terpene sap sometimes smells like ripe oranges. How you can tread hard on the torso of a tree gone through by ants and release a fall of wood dust fine as baby powder. How the pine marten we saw chasing Douglas squirrels one day stopped on a branch to yawn and flashed fangs like a vampire bat.

The thing about the practice of looking is that your gaze relinquishes allegiance, becomes catholic. Having spent time with wood dust and beetle exuviae, I was free to notice what we had brought into the forest—ourselves. I liked watching the unconscious choreography that was Danielle, taller than tall, unfolding and refolding her limbs like a carpenter’s rule to fit into the spaces beneath and between fallen trees. I liked the way the sun slipped between the worn folds of her striped cotton shirt and forestry vest.

Jack was a far more careful scribe than I, and there was sharp satisfaction in the correspondence between the movement of his hand stirring a pencil in tight, tiny circles, as if writing the whole of Walden on a grain of rice, and the sound of lead scratching data onto paper.

This is her last year of data collection, but Danielle still has one important trip to make to the mountains; among other final tasks, she needs to pick up all the environmental monitors she’s set up at her study plot so that she can collect data from them. That trip was supposed to be happening as I type, but because of the government shutdown, she has no access to her field site. That’s true for other scientists doing research in other federally managed lands across the country, too. And for many doing work in areas like Danielle’s, if the shutdown doesn’t end before the first snow, getting there may become impossible until next year.

That’s a lot of seeing, sitting, wondering, and understanding that’s not going to happen.

This Week at Tejon Ranch

I’m about an hour north of L.A. this week, on a small team helping out a U.C. Berkeley grad student with his dissertation research at Tejon Ranch. Tejon is a fascinating place, both biologically and politically—it’s a 270,000 ranch framed on all sides by four very different ecological regions, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, California’s South Coast, and the Great Central Valley. It’s also the largest contiguous piece of land in the state that’s held in private hands.

About 5 years ago, the Tejon Ranch Corporation (driven by entwined motives, one idealistic and one economic), signed an agreement with five national and Californian environmental organizations. The contract was designed to help the company figure out how to shepherd its land in a responsible way, and it turned about 80% of the property into a conservation area while protecting the company’s ability to develop the other 20% without the threat of lawsuit. (More details on the rather intricate agreement, which has been great for the land but hasn’t quite worked out exactly as planned so far, in this excellent Sierra Club article.)

One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the environmental groups signing it would form a new conservancy whose role would be part natural resource management, part research, and part public outreach. Felix, the grad student whose project we’re helping to launch this week, is working with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and the university to study 15 plots along creeks in the riparian areas of the ranch.

The research has a pretty broad scope: it aims to use soil and vegetation sampling, wildlife monitoring (of particular interest are the huge population of feral pigs that plague the ranchers, but we’re also setting up a herpetological study), and geomorphological data to create a comprehensive picture of:

a) What’s out there, and
b) How it’s affected by different patterns of land use (for instance, cattle will be kept off some plots and continue to graze on others, to see how livestock management practices affect species composition and abundance. Felix’s lab is particularly interested in comparing the relative impact of specific human activities vs. climate patterns on a landscape over time).

A previous project, which is now wrapping up, covered essentially the same ground in the ranch’s grassland areas.

We drove down on Sunday (there are five of us here; Felix, his lab manager Michelle, a recent graduate, and a current undergraduate) and had our first day of fieldwork today. To no one’s surprise, it was a tremendous learning experience: It took us all day to complete the long checklist of tasks for a single plot, and if we kept going at that pace there would be no way to even come close to finishing all 15 plots by Friday, our last day. So we’ll be streamlining the protocol for the rest of the plots, and Felix will have to save some bits of the data collection for future visits to the site.

We may not have accomplished everything we had hoped to do when we set out this morning, but I think it’s fair to say we had a great day. The ranch is beautiful—full of ridged and folded hills golden with Mediterranean grasses that came here in the bellies and on the hooves of Spanish cows, now dotted with North American cows. There are oaks and willows and cottonwoods and wild grapes. The sun was pretty intense, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but down by the creek we had more shade and very few bugs. I might tell you a little more about the project later on, but before I crawl into bed tonight I wanted to at least share a few photos with you from the day.

We parked right next to this gorgeous sight.

Michelle showed us how to use a clinometer to measure the grade of a slope.

This Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) was riddled with galls, which are bad for the tree but lovely for birds and other wildlife which eat the insect larvae they contain.

This is a view of the dirt road where we parked our vehicles (you can barely make out the white Conservancy truck between the trees there) from plot CH3, where we worked today.

Michelle took and pressed a few plant samples today.

On our way out of the ranch, we stopped to look at a male red tailed hawk perched on a fence post. He flew off before I took this picture, but you can still see his mate tiny up at the top of the tallest tree. We aren’t doing any bird research, but it was a good bird day. No roadrunners or condors yet, though. Maybe tomorrow.

    

Rosemary Is a Strange Thing

Rosemary is a strange thing. Who else would store perfume inside a needle? A strange thing, Rosemary. You cannot take her measure just by looking. Inside just one green spine resides a piney forest, all entire.

Rosemary booms in the dry and the rocky, grows moldy and limp if life gets too easy. Rosemary doesn’t want tending by you or by anyone.

Find her in the desert, where more tender things die. Let her drink only what blows in off the salty sea winds.

Rosemary

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

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343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

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It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.

The Sweetest, Spiciest Medicine

They’ve been living with us for over a year now, two little South Asian transplants. Recently I put them both outside after a long winter punctuated by the spit and wheeze of the radiator, and they seemed to notice right away the sun on their long arms, reaching up towards it like hungry birds. They have since grown lush and so very, very green that it seems almost too much to look at them sometimes. Their greenness demands experimental uses of adverbs: They are severely green, my trees—tempestuously green—vehemently green. They pound greenness into an essential oil.

If you rub their leaves between your fingers, as it is impossible to resist doing, the aroma they give off is warm, nutty, spicy—a hint of tangerine, a sip of onion, the breath of an entire simmering curry in one tiny tear-shaped package. They could not be more beautiful, especially after a summer storm that soaks their soil dark and forms tiny reflecting pools on every fragrant leaf.

The curry leaf tree‘s scientific name, Murraya koenigii, honors not its own charming qualities but the botanists Johann Andreas Murray (of Sweden) and Johann Gerhard König (of Germany), both of whom lived and died in the stink of the 18th century and neither of whom, I would wager (drunk as I am on dinner), ever sniffed anything quite so rich and piquant and utterly heady as the coconut dal I made tonight using eight little leaves I harvested from our balcony garden.

But it needn’t content itself with this cold label, for the curry leaf tree had the great good fortune to be born in a land that seethes with musical tongues. It bears at least two dozen other names (or maybe a thousand), each as alluring as the next. You can call it karepaku or karivepaaku in Andhra Pradesh; narasingha or bishahari in Assam; barsanga or kartaphulli in Bengal; gorenimb or kadhilimbdo in Gujrat; mitha neem, gandhla, gandhela, or gandhelu in Himachal Pradesh; karibeva in Karnataka; kariveppilei in Kerela; gandhela, gandla, or gani in Kumaon; bassan, basango, or bhursanga in Orissa; karivempu or karuveppilei in Tamilnadu. If you speak Hindi, you can name it kathnim, mitha neem, kurry patta gandhela or, barsanga; in Sanskrit, take your pick from surabhinimba, kalasaka, and mahanimb.

Just roll those around your tongue for a minute while you look at this tempestuous green.

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I am not a fan of conceiving of food as medicine, but (dal warming my belly, smell of curry on my fingers), I wondered this evening if there might be not only beauty, not only pleasure, but also virtue in my trees. I confess, I wanted to think so. They are such winning little things, so brave and out of place on my Midwestern porch. Let them be shored up for another winter, I thought, with more good qualities. Let them be salubrious, and shore me up for winter.

Here, then.

In 1995, a group of Indian biochemists found that rats, fed with a supplement of curry leaves, experienced far less of a blood cholesterol-spike from the vast quantities of coconut oil the researchers were also feeding them. A few years later, another Indian team found that the effects of a known carcinogen on rats were significantly mitigated when the rats were also fed curry leaves. There is some evidence that curry leaves reduce blood sugar levels in mildly diabetic rats. They appear to function as antioxidants. They have an antimicrobial effect. They even seem to improve memory.

Virtue, thy name is karivepaaku. And since I have you, how could I be other than fiercely—brilliantly—dauntlessly healthy?