Green Neighbors: Plants, People and Plasticity

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 09:15:00 AM
Houseplant eats mailbox: This innocent-looking jade plant, a huge version of our wobbly little houseplant back East, covers a whole Berkeley yard-and blooms, too.
Ron Sullivan
Houseplant eats mailbox: This innocent-looking jade plant, a huge version of our wobbly little houseplant back East, covers a whole Berkeley yard-and blooms, too.

When I first arrived in California, riding on my faithful mas-todon, one of the things that blew my mind was looking out the backdoor of the place we’d just rented and seeing a geranium hedge as tall as I was.  

Am, still, more or less. I mean five-feet-four, as well as mindblown. I have since learned enough to call that a pelargonium hedge, but the feeling lingers. It got more intense when I started noticing jade plants also as tall as I am. Both are good old granny-houseplants back home in Pennsylvania; these were both out of doors and out of scale, to my naïve eye. 

The first time I saw plants in Florida, same thing only bigger: We were in a backyard near Miami, waiting for a red-whiskered bulbul, when our hostess said, “There he is, on the schlefflera.” By then I’d learned that a schlefflera is a houseplant, sometimes big enough for bank lobbies. This one loomed over the house, 20 or 25 feet tall, a real tree. It did indeed contain a red-whiskered bulbul.  

Went to Hawai’i, craned my neck to see the scarlet blossoms on ginger plants towering over my head. By then I knew to expect this, but it still made me holler and jump. The Honolulu airport was festooned with monster Monsteras on its concrete road supports, or am I remembering Miami? Tropical plants in the (semi-)tropics, oh yes.  

Context changes us all, and in many ways. I have personally experienced the well-known psychological Geography Cure, and so did my late brother, who arguably didn’t begin to grow his own decent life till the Salvation Army transplanted him entirely to Binghamton, New York, a town where he knew nobody at all. Sloppy thinkers and “hardcore” genetic-determinists like Dr. “DNA” Watson himself still make fools of themselves by speaking as if they knew the limits of any individual or, worse, arbitrarily designated group. But if you smuggle Granny’s geranium to Berkeley and plant it in the ground, it grows from houseplant to hedge without any further genetic input. The potential was always there. 

Plants respond genetically to context changes too, of course, as populations rather than as individuals. That’s how the great Hawai’ian silverswords came to exist, descendants of our own tough little temperate tarweeds. Geneticists working on organisms all over the planet are tracing wonderful sagas of migration and adaptation, all written in everybody’s DNA. The wise ones, and wise reporters who talk about them, rarely say “never” or “only,” and they know that no true story told ever has an end, except extinction.  

That’s why extinction is so unbearably sad, because it ends so many unimagined possibilities. Like simple death, it happens all the time; like a schoolyard massacre, it tears great holes in the fabric of lives and everyone’s future. We don’t, we can’t, know what we’re losing.  

We don’t even know what we have, until we recognize its context. Until we recognize our own context, that it’s the place, the water and air and geology and our fellow organisms all around us—the stuff we’re literally made of.