Below is a picture of a plant popularly known as a black rose. It’s a succulent and not closely related to a regular rose (as are apples, by the way). Shown here, by itself, more or less, it shows beauty in its radial symmetry and shiny leaves.
And then, there’s this:
Fireworks. Rainbows. A light show of beauty. What gives?
What gives? Its neighbors — that’s what gives
And it gives back. The beauty, the variety, the subtlety — they only come to life as part of a community of plants. Each one allows, blocks, filters, reflects, or even possibly refracts and diffracts the light of the setting sun. On evenings like this, with not a cloud in the sky, the light here (very dry) is sharply directional and allows these effects to be enhanced. But the main thing is the interaction with the other plants and trees of the garden.
And, isn’t this true for people as well? Someone can look beautiful but true beauty shines when someone is loving, teaching, learning, dancing with, or playing as part of a team or orchestra. That’s when people reveal their most amazing and unique gifts and charms.
In fact, the only special gift humans have is the ability to communicate with each other in complex ways that allow us to cooperate even across time and space.
An expression that perhaps goes back to the Roman Coliseum or “gentlemanly” dueling. What is a weapon? What can it mean to say, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”?
A few years ago, I decided to try a little experiment. I knew that studies showed that owning a handgun did not, in general, make you safer. Actually, it was the reverse. Nonetheless, I thought perhaps I would feel safer. For one week, I imagined that my cellphone was a lethal weapon. I could pull it out and cause someone else horrendous pain or to end their life or both. As you might imagine, I did not feel more secure or safer. I felt more paranoid about others but also afraid I might accidentally shoot someone.
In the middle of Monday night, one of our cats turned over some cat bowls and made a huge ruckus. I immediately yelled bloody murder and jumped out of bed. I would not want to have a gun if I’m awakened like that. My body is primed for action and my mind is not yet anywhere to be found. I literally have no idea as to what’s going on. It only last a few moments. But those few moments are enough time to grab a gun and shoot someone. And that someone is far more likely to be someone in your family than a home invader. Maybe they left a book in your room and couldn’t sleep so they came into your room to retrieve it. I don’t really think an error like that is self-forgivable. Your mood would be altered much to the negative for the rest of your life. The only alternative would be to shut off your feelings so completely that you literally became a heartless monster.
What occurred to me tonight taking pictures of flowers, as one is wont to do, is making a much better use of the iPhone than a gun for home protection is. For one thing, if you own a gun for home protection, you hopefully rarely use it. I use the iPhone nearly every day. The statistics say that you’re actually more likely to die in a home invasion if you have a gun, but let’s say, no, in your particular case, you did manage to shoot two people dead. And, that’s that.
Except of course, it isn’t done at all. You will find out that those two people you shot didn’t think it was so cool and they may sue you. Or, you may find out things about those families such as how desperate they were to make enough money to feed their kids that they turned to crime. Of course, you don’t want to hear that. They broke the law. And, indeed, in many states, that can be enough to get you off the hook.
The “hook” of the law, that is. But that’s not the only hooks there are. There’s the social hook. How do you think other people would view you? Maybe some will view you as a hero. But certainly many will not. You might end up being much more annoyed at those who view you as a hero that at those who view you as a villain. Either way, your life will never be the same. Those changes are much more likely to be negative on balance.
There’s another social hook. How would you feel about someone you care about marrying into a family where someone killed two young lads? Better protected? Or, might you be worried about how that gun might be used in the future, in say, a marital dispute? (Although, of course, suicides and accidental killings should also be on your mind, but those are always a possibility with a gun owner. But in the case of the dual killer, we don’t just know he might kill when provoked; we know he will kill when provoked. Maybe you think a home invasion is sufficient reason for murder. But how about a marital dispute? Surely you’ve noticed that even couples who love each other can come to a point where they are too frustrated to think clearly. I don’t really see how a gun helps a situation like that.
Lastly, there is your own hook. That may be the sharpest and deepest cutting hook of all. You will second guess your actions on the night of no matter what. That’s just human nature. Some dark, rainy evening, when that re-run is playing for the 13th time, it will hit you that you knew damned well they were unarmed. Another part of your brain screams “Bullshit!” And, so you block it out. Until several weeks later, you discover your cousin’s preferred brand of weed is way stronger than what you’re used to. And, as that snuff movie replays itself yet again, it occurs to you that you not only knew they were unarmed, you thought: “So what? Nobody’s going to put me in prison for it. In this state, they’l think I’m a hero.” Again, you hear the booming voice: “Bullshit!” Only this time, you realize that isn’t your voice at all. That voice is the one he used to destroy you when you told people about his molestations. That’s not you. Or is it? You might, at some point, find yourself depressed by this debate, perhaps riddled with self-doubt. At other times, maybe you’ll come to peace with your actions. But the debate will never stop.
I take pictures of flowers. They are for anyone to enjoy or ignore. No regrets. That’s my “weapon” of choice.
But that doesn’t mean that they, as a species, and they, as individual plants, don’t make decisions and embody strategies and tactics.
Today, a local crow and I were playing the counting game. I think that’s the most parsimonious explanation, even though I can’t “prove” it. Here’s what actually transpired. I went out into the garden to take pictures of flowers before it gets too chilly. Soon a crow said, “CAW!” So I said, “CAW!”
Then, the crow crowed “CAW! CAW!” So I repeated that message. Any way, we got up to three and the crow started over at one and we went through the whole sequence three times.
They cawed three times and I said: “That’s what we call ‘Three’ and I “cawed” the first three digits followed by cawing three times. He cawed back.
Then, once again, I said, “One, Two, Three” and “CAW! CAW! CAW!”They next did something I don’t recall hearing before. They did a distinct two-tone CAW: I think it was low-hi. I went out to photograph roses, not take notes on crows. I repeated his two-tone CAW as best I good and he flew off while cawing about ten times. I fantasize that they flew off to tell their friends that they discovered a human who almost seems smart enough to CAW! Indeed, they are having quite a conversation out back right now. I am not yet sophisticated enough to know what they are talking about but cross-species communication is pretty cool.
The rose bush speaks to me too, of course.
I cannot hear it with my auditory apparatus. At least, not yet, I can’t. I have to “listen” with my eyes, and my mind, and my heart. I “know” something of what the rose wants and needs. I know it needs water and sunshine, for instance. It needs minerals. But those things are true of green plants in general. What does the rose tell me about its strategy and tactics for survival and thrival?
No, the rose bush cannot answer my spoken questions, but that often happens when it comes to communicating with other humans. I have read some poorly documented code (perhaps my own) and tried to figure out what the heck this code is doing. Probably, the single most important thing is to understand what the programmer was trying to do. What was their intention. I don’t actually have to know what precisely was in their mind in order to understand it at a useful level. This particular human programmer might have been thinking primarily about getting a raise, or impressing their supervisor, or outdoing their friend. Who cares? I need to understand an imputed design rationale.
In that same sense, I strive to understand the imputed design rationale of the rose plant. It doesn’t require that the rose talks to me in English. For example, why are a rose’s blooms so beautiful? Certain, the original “motivation” was mainly to attract pollinators like bees. But guess what? Some of the same patterns, colors, and odors that attract insect pollinators also attract human caregivers. In fact, the human caregivers have, through selective breeding, put additional design constraints on roses. As a result, there are more varieties of roses than there would have been without human intervention.
The roses have, one way and another, evolved genes that encourage them to grow beautifully. In a way, this can be said to be their “intention” — Their “design rationale” is that if they grow more beautiful, they will thrive more. But is their “intention” to be beautiful so recent? Suppose that other mammals also find the blossoms beautiful? Attracting mammals to the rose plant may encourage them to breathe carbon dioxide on the roses; to defecate nearby and provide minerals; perhaps even to bleed some because of the thorns. It’s even possible that there is also an innate design rationale of all life to be beautiful. Life is beautiful in terms of being itself. Perhaps, other things being equal, surfacing the fact of your being part of life by being beautiful is itself a survival strategy. It increases the chances that other life forms will cooperate with you. They will perceive that you are kindred and may have something valuable to trade.
Is it the natural state of affairs that all life reaches out for all life in the hopes of reaching some mutual understanding?
I was about five when my grandfather held my ear in the Solarium as we watched for cars and tried to guess the color of the next one. And, he quoted Confucius:
“When I reach over and pinch my grandson’s ear for a moment, I hold immortality in my hand.” When I was a child, I took this to mean that I was his immortality since I would live on. And, he did mean that. But I also think that he meant me to remember it when I became a grandfather. So, I pass down this wisdom, originally perhaps from Confucius and perhaps from much older sources.
In any case, when I contemplate their lives, it also means I hold immortality in my mind. I see the unbroken chain of ideas as well as the unbroken chain of biology. We are all part of a great tree of life. And, now we are also part of a giant tree of information. Ideally, the two work together as one. We learn more and as we learn more we use that knowledge to make the tree of life ever more resilient and ever more diverse. The healthier the Great Tree of Life, the more time and energy will be left over for us to learn more and more. Biology and knowledge have a natural virtuous circle.
Destroying the chain of knowledge and instead corrupting it for selfish purposes will mar the Great Tree of Life. It cannot be otherwise. How can we do what is wise for any part of the Tree of Life, if we are filled with lies? We will utterly fail to be nourishing. The Cancer-Greed will want you to think nothing of the welfare of any life except a small circle which they will, of course, claim to include you in. But focusing that narrowly on life always results in catastrophe. It’s like driving a car in LA traffic while staring at a spot on your steering wheel through a magnifying glass.
“Short-sightedness can be fatal.”
Certain experiences jump so easily to mind after many decades much more readily than they have any right to. For example, my grandfather made a wonderful rock garden with a goldfish pond. Once when I was perhaps 5, we sat on a rock and I saw some ants on the ground traveling in a line. He wondered aloud whether they were “sugar ants” or “fat ants.” He claimed that some ants like sugar and others prefer fat. Well, I certainly knew where I stood on that issue and announced, “Oh, they are sugar ants!” We got two little bottle caps and in one, put some sugary water and in the other some lard. (Back in those days, people used lard. It’s true.)
I knew, even then, that my grandpa was a really smart guy. And, yet, here I was — absolutely sure of the answer without even having to do an experiment. Fat? Yech! Don’t get me wrong. I already loved bacon and nuts. But Lard? What self-respecting ant is going to want to eat that? I certainly wouldn’t!
It didn’t take long for me to be proven right. The ants almost totally ignored the lard and had an entire supply chain set up in minutes for the sugar water. Of course, it’s easy to see now that my reasoning was completely naive and self-centered. But that didn’t mean I believed it any less fervently then. Grandpa designed an experiment and we looked at the results. But it was no experiment to me. I knew the answer — so I thought. It wasn’t as though I thought it more likely that they would go for the sugar. No. I knew they would go for the sugar because that’s what I would do.
“Pilots who die from running out of gas were sure they wouldn’t when they took off.”
She sensed that she was surrounded by others — some very like her and many very unlike her. Yet — she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right.
She felt — bound up. She wasn’t free to grow in the way she really wanted to. And now she was moving in a most peculiar way. Her ancestors had seldom moved in such a way as this except in times of great catastrophe such as an earthquake. Suddenly, she found herself completely disconnected from the nourishing earth. Beneath her was nothing but cold hard metal and a whirring vibration.
Now the warming sun disappeared, not as a gentle sunset. No. This was a sudden and violent transition from warm noon sun to complete and utter darkness. She sensed that she was not alone in this sunless prison. All of her fellow prisoners were also in a panic. Again, she sensed the cold hard metal beneath her and a deeper rumble of whirring vibration.
Then, and completely without warning, the sunlight again began to beat upon her with its full force.
Soon, she felt herself unbound. She struggled to understand. She tried to stretch her roots out, tentatively at first, as you might begin to wiggle your toes after waking from a deep coma. She felt an unslakable thirst, Then, she sensed moisture nearby and minerals.
She still felt as though she were in a very strange place. Had she formed her thoughts into words, she might have thought: “I have no idea why they would place me here of all places.” If rose had been human, that would have bothered her a great deal. But among her many distant aunts, uncles, and cousins, those who spent their energy decrying their placement, few survived. Her strategy, like those of her successful ancestors, was rather to spend her energy being as beautiful and varied as possible.
Her faith was strong. Had she had a verbal creed, it might have been something like this:
“I believe in the bees and the breeze.
I believe in my own heritage.
Like all other living things on earth today, my ancestry is 4.5 billion years old.
I believe in the power of my roots to seek out and find the nourishment I need; to keep in mind my goals of water and minerals. I push and push, and when I reach the impenetrable, I seek a way around. I dance the dance of life. I don’t avoid the strife. I relish it.”
In the next few days, visiting bees told her that there was plenty of sunshine around even though Rose herself was mainly in shade. That bee-speak was enough to give Rose all the hope she needed to grow tall and wide. She explored in every direction.
The bees that buzzed near Rose told her, in their own way, of the vibrant and varied colors of her many other neighbors. She found their descriptions exotic and evocative. From time to time, she attempted to emulate those neighbors. The buzzing bees would pause in their busyness on occasion to give her feedback on how well she matched the colors of her unseen neighbors.
Over time, she sensed the vibrations of other beings besides the bees. Feathering beings and furry beings, some large and some small. Mainly, they were friendly beings who admired her artwork. But there were also those who cared little for her artwork and instead simply came to feast upon her. Rose’s body became sustenance for mites and snails and aphids. Sometimes, other creatures came to protect her. She liked that. Sometimes, they failed to protect her and the pain became unbearable. But bear it she did.
Rose resolved to use the pain to make her creations more beautiful still.
I should know what God and man is. — Alfred Lord Tennyson, Flower in the Crannied Wall
I love flowers. I love taking pictures of flowers. They amaze me because of their beauty, but that’s only where love starts; not where it ends.
Imagine: a flower depending on bees (as well as other insects) for pollination! Bees depend collectively on the flower for their continued existence. What we see now are two groups of living beings, from very different parts of the Great Tree of Life, who have “learned” (mainly in an evolutionary sense) that they are better off working as partners.
I can see why it’s tempting for some people to look at this as a “proof” of an active God who created all of creation in a relative eye blink. To me, though, it’s even more wonderful to contemplate that this collaboration took work and accommodation on both sides; that it evolved over time; that is still evolving. And with each step, is there something analogous to trust that accumulates in both flower and bee?
There are, after all, plants who eat insects; e.g., the Honeydew, Venus Fly-trap, and Pitcher Plant. So, if we look at it from the plant’s perspective, it might be a huge windfall to be the most beautiful and attractive flower imaginable and to eat every last honeybee in one summer. The plant would “win” a windfall of nitrogen. Similarly, we can imagine a bee-like insect who comes to the plant and rather than simply “gathering pollen,” it devours the entire plant. Lots of calories.
That one year.
Of course, next year, there would be no such plants to eat or even gather pollen from. Of course, it isn’t only flowers and bees who have such an arrangement. It’s all over the place!
Collaboration and cooperation are not just features of the ecosystem, of course. The flower may be the most beautiful and showy part of a “flowering plant,” but it not the only part. The roots are just as vital as is the stem as are the leaves as are the flowers. They are in balance. All are important. And, in a way, each has its own beauty.
Back to the bees though — what could be a more intimate form of cooperation? The flower actually depends on the bee to fulfill its sexual roles! The flower is associated with sexual love in many ways and in many different societies. And sexual reproduction, whether by flower, bee, or human is implicitly saying to the universe, indeed, shouting, whispering, and singing to the universe: “There is still more; there is still something better to strive for; an individual such as never has existed before and a species that will continue to explore what is possible. Life will not end with my life. I am a part of all life that ever has existed or ever will exist. Yes!”
Not bees, nor humans, nor even roses are a timeless inviolate and changeless perfection of form and function that never again needs to change. The essence of life is change balanced with stability. Change by itself is chaos. And stability without change is delusional. More accurately, it’s delusional to start with, but ultimately it is death. Any system, person, species, government, town, institution that declares itself perfect and unchangeable regardless of circumstances is a system, person, species, government, town, institution that has just signed its own death warrant.
Every part of the plant is important. And every part receives benefit. Everyone in human society benefits from the work of the whole but not everyone receives benefit. If a flower neglects its roots, or its stems, or its leaves, the whole plant will die. For our society to survive, it must change. And one of the changes near the top of that list is to make our society more fair. If we don’t, the whole flower of our civilization will die. As will the bees.