Don't ask the flowers, they don't know

April 16, 1997|By John Brain

ON THIS BEAUTIFUL spring day, with all the daffodils in bloom and the cherry trees and magnolias redplendent, it is chastening to reflect what all this exuberance means to the plant kingdom: absolutely nothing.

For the appalling truth is that this great twin trunk of the Tree of Life, vegetation, though it has been extraordinarily successful in developing countless species covering almost the entire surface the earth, is totally unconscious of its achievement.

The daffodils may, as Wordsworth exulted, be ''tossing their heads in sprightly dance,'' but it is he and his species that enjoy them, whether in ''the bliss of solitude'' or strolling in their thousands among the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington. Despite their luxuriant proliferation, plants are as ignorant as stones, as stars, as anything else in this God-forsaken world other than the lucky animals whose sniffy senses have irked them into what we experience as consciousness.

For the great forests, the pulsing jungles, the green grasslands, the velds and steppes and prairies that gird and transform the dusty rocks of our planet and make possible the environment on which we animals depend, are alive but in a kind of dreamless sleep, a coma of unawareness, just as if they played a role akin to stage props in a play written by a human mythmaker who babbled the vanities of Genesis.

For us humans, whose role it is to wonder at the beauties of nature and the immensities of the universe, it is a terrifying perception, as if we had peeped through a forbidden door and seen something amazing yet appalling: our spark of intelligence streaking across the night sky against a backdrop of blackness, a something that might as well be nothing, the ineffable ignorance of the universe.

And though astronomers tell us that the galaxies number in the billions and their stars in the billions of billions, and that statistically we as consciousnesses are surely not alone, that is little consolation to creatures incapable of bridging the gulf between stars even in our own galaxy, and can only see things farther off the way they were millions of years ago.

That plants are insensate is as much a mystery as that animals are sensate, but on the whole it is just as well that we don't have to anguish over cutting the grass or pulling the tubers. Yet gardeners certainly seem to have green thumbs, and there are those who swear that plants appreciate Beethoven and diviners who attest that a hazel switch will oblige by twitching to betray deep water. And when spring comes, as it seems to with regularity, it is almost as if the earth were rejoicing at the renewal of life, not as a vague poetic metaphor, but as a fact of nature.

Pity the snowdrops

I always used to feel for the snowdrops who braved the January cold, because they had no companions and never knew about the splendid pageant they were leading. They just spoke up, made their statement, wilted and died before the crocuses ventured out. Then I realized that all plants are alike in their blindness, aware of nothing, not even of the caresses of bees, for whom the colors and scents of petals and stamens have a special meaning.

Insects too have their place in nature, and none more glamorous than the butterflies whose patterned wings delight us but leave their own species cold. As much could be said of all those creatures that run and hop and fly and crawl and swim, so skillfully, so beautifully, but which lack the aesthetic sense to appreciate themselves or each other. It places on us an incredible burden, the burden of those who see, who feel, who care and at least begin to understand that which is not understandable, which has no meaning other than what it means to us.

Maybe it is best to enjoy the return of warmth and sunshine like cats that roll on the path and stretch and lick a paw without anguishing over the meaning of it all. Better to be a garden bird busy nest-building or a goose heading north to the tundra to mate and lay, obeying their biological clocks as our ancestors used to at Stonehenge and Avebury. To say April is the cruelest month is a contortion of the Puritanical mind that revels in crucifixion at Eastertide, but even if we set aside such religious perversions, there remains the existential black hole, the unconsciousness, the Horror. It makes of spring a trembling, a dubious joy.

John Brain writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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