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Spandrel: Plants want to grow


…I discovered some volunteers in the compost pile! They appear to be tomatoes, surely sprouted from some Roma or cherry tomatoes that I fed the pile some time ago.

volunteers in the compost pile (sometime at the beginning of May, 2022)

Volunteers interest me because they demonstrate something important: plants want to grow. Given even somewhat right conditions, plants will sprout and get to creating their own environment, reaching up to the sun and down into the earth at the same time.

In a way, the position of plants resembles the way Buddhist traditions understand humanity. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions in which humans represent a particular and special part of God’s creation, in Buddhist thought humans don’t differ ontologically or teleologically from other beings. Human life remains valuable, but, at least in the Mahayana tradition, differs only in degree from other forms of life rather than in kind. Hence the prevalence of vegetarianism in Mahayana schools. Humans, (in)famously, make their own environments. But only after plants have made one for us first.

But though humans don’t differ in kind from other beings, human life nonetheless remains precious because we are ideally suited to awakening to what the Buddha taught: that life is characterized by suffering. Humans are conscious and, therefore, aware of our suffering as such, but we are also relatively limited in our abilities to remove the possibility of suffering from our lives. By contrast, gods and other celestial beings “higher” than humans enjoy long lives devoid of suffering, but because their lives are completely carefree, it never (or rarely) occurs to them to try and figure out the problem of birth, death, and rebirth. In traditional accounts, this means that after death gods and celestial beings, having done nothing to expiate their bad karma or gain merit and insight, tend to be reborn “down,” as animals or humans.

Many cultures use trees as symbols connecting the worlds above and below, and for good reason: terrestrial plants are the reason any terrestrial animals exist, and, therefore, any intelligent life (on this planet). The bumper sticker that reads “Trees are the Answer” isn’t incorrect, just a bit limited in scope. Plants convert solar energy into sugars and turn solid rock into soil, making life possible for others – in a way, we humans (and other heterotrophs) have a parasitic relationship with the autotrophs that built the possibility of our world from bare rock and CO2. [Cue Agent Smith in the scene where Morpheus is chained up in The Matrix.]

The same volunteers, the end of May 2022

But parasitism isn’t exactly right. Humans are responsible, along with other factors, for the extinction of a great many plant species, but we also have something approaching a commensal or mutualist relationship with a significant number of others. But regardless of our relationships with them, humans can learn something from the plants around us: plants make worlds that suit them without thinking about it. We humans, parasites par excellence, can’t not think (I think?). But if we look to plants, who patiently make worlds day in and day out, sometimes suffering, often dying, we might catch a glimpse of a positive way of being, a way of being that makes worlds constantly, because it wants to…