How to Interview a Plant [cont.]

Second Step: Find a location; identify subjects.

On my return to Spain in 2013, I start out in the botanical garden in Valencia. Where would be the best place to try this out? I have two requisites: sufficient shade and a spot to sit; ideally with little human traffic, so I can concentrate on the plants without distraction. Based on my previous visit, I vaguely sense these criteria can be met in the muntanyeta (“little mountain,”) section, the Valencian rockery, so I head there.

Muntanyeta, Valencian Rockery

Around 10 a.m. on a Monday, the garden is quiet, or so it seems. From the main path, I follow a short side trail, maybe eight meters, to the center of the rockery. It is quite shady, so I’m off to a good start. First thing I notice once I stop moving is the throbbing pulse of the mourning doves cooing; the air reverberates in the stillness of this glade. Then I start hearing the frogs croaking along the little stream water feature. Before long several cats from the sizeable feral population inhabiting the garden stroll past my cautiously; the males spray, marking and remarking territory. I quiet down and start considering the plants. Now, which plants? Thinking of Holdrege’s sensory exercises (see Step One), I know I’ll have to start with drawings, and that’s something for which I lack confidence. So I want something simple. Looking around, there it is, along the watercourse: a horsetail! Equisetum hyemale, like all Pteridophyta, is quite primitive: basically a ribbed stem with occasional whorled branches and sheathing leaves. It looks like a simple green stalk by the creek. But of course, there’s not just one; there’s hundreds, forming a tight mass up against the path.

Equisetum hyemale

Equisetum hyemale

I don’t worry about that for the moment; I’m looking for a place to sit, and there is none. But luckily I come across a large rectangular stone, rising maybe a meter from the ground; it is crosscut by the rope that marks the boundary ringing around the collections. Technically, sitting on it, I’m transgressing the border, but I figure I can get up quickly if anyone should be concerned. That sense of caution evaporates over the next three days I work this site and realize no one either notices or much cares.

After twenty minutes with the horsetails, observing their clumping patterns as much as the species’ morphology, I start feeling bolder. Maybe I can do more than one kind of plant; maybe there’s another one that wouldn’t be too hard to draw. Looking around, I find it, too: a dwarf palm or palmito, Chamaerops humilis, a monocot. The distinct blades of its spreading fan-like leaves strike me as also rather easy to draw. And it’s across the path from the horsetail, in a sunnier spot at the base of the “little mountain,” so I get a broader scope on the site. I start the next series of observations by walking slowly around its bulging, prickly frame, at least as far as I can while keeping on the path. That’s when I discern another plant, this one in bloom—composite red flowers. It’s one of several conspecifics that are spilling out of the scene and under the rope border. I trace its colonizing trajectory back to an etiquette: Hieracium pilosella. I’m not certain that’s the proper identity since there are several other plants near the sign, but it’s lovely, so despite my misgivings over trying to draw something so complex, I decide to include it as well. So then I’m at three, the magic number.

Chamaerops humilis

Chamaerops humilis

The second step Holdrege recommends is to shift attention from focused to open, so I try that. Once settled in, considering the plants each in turn, I let my attention gently wane and shift. By just sitting still, I perceive the host of other species: the pollinators lacing through the warming air; the frogs in the nearby water feature; the cats prowling. The perceptual training uniformly focuses on “the plant itself”—but here I see the species, partly through what I’ve imbibed from botany but also understanding species thinking and populations; all of which has overwhelmed the representational capacity of the setting directed toward displaying a “local” assemblage of species (a flora). Now I spot clouds of insects; they seem to concentrate in the sun, as I watch its movement across the site and the plants. I realize how little I know about insects, since I can’t identify them within the spectrum of sights and sounds swirling around me, from the pool and on up the hillside. I don’t know who any of the insects are that land on my arm or in my hair. Nor can I identify the various birds that swoop in singly to get a drink. Only the occasional seagulls circling overhead. I grow frustrated and confront the sad fact that I’m lacking a broad naturalist knowledge base. The consolation is that I grow intrigued at how oblivious I am to species all around us, until I sequester myself in a seat and just sit. I wouldn’t even realize my ignorance or obliviousness until such a moment. Just as I only acknowledge the wafting pollen when I sneeze. Bugs on my note books, odd droppings from the trees—their densities are greater by the horsetail, in the marshy ground.

Then I’m struck by an unanticipated recognition: In this space and moment when I am trying to attend to plants, I get a clear sense of how social this setting is. Not just as a representation designed as an argument about the flora of Valencia, but as a spot in a corner of a densely packed city. I’m all alone, just me and the pollinators and these plants; but the social comes through in waves. First, I recognize voices: the sounds of a daycare in one of the buildings bordering the garden, along with snippets of conversation and even song from an adjacent stack of apartments; people sporadically passing on the path, and the more frequent cats. The noise of traffic laces an edge of the soundscape. With a couple of minutes I’m overwhelmed by the social—not of the plants, but of my conspecifics! … I feel like John Cage playing the audience. But another little victory: this is the first time I consider “the social” as a distraction rather than that which I painstakingly work to see and to explain.

What do I glean from all this. First, I realize the concentrated attention that insects devote to the plants highlights how little attention humans pay to them, even in a place dedicated to their display. In the two hours I sit there on this first day, only a few people filter through. But their movements and attention is well-familiar to me from spending many days in the garden. They flit past, seemingly unable to focus. They’ve not had the experience of a botanists showing them how to identify plants, how to recognize the genus, how to locate a species in a habitat range. Short of such training—informal or otherwise—it is very hard for most people to pay close attention to plants. I can see meaning, too, as part of the problem here. Unless plants fit into a frame of meaning—as aesthetic, symbolic, or useful—than we urban dwellers generally have little interest in them or capacity to focus attention upon them. Mostly, the only people who devote more than a few seconds in considering a plant are taking a photograph. But for that matter, I confront the significant challenge this project entails: the initial experience is of an overload of the human social in its manifold dimensions. I cannot tune it out initially, since it is so pervasive; yet I also would not have recognized how it percolates up in quite soft and subtle ways if I was not trying to interview these plants.

attentive insect

attentive insect

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