Sunday, October 3, 2010

Plant Blindness -- I wrote this in 2006

Late one evening a few months ago, (this was written in 2006, from a barrier island off the Florida panhandle) a truck hauling a trailer pulled up to the empty lot across from our house. The driver got out and backed a Bobcat off the trailer, and set about his business of mowing down a trail into the lot. The lot was for sale; it is not uncommon for a realtor or owner to have a path cut so prospective buyers can walk into the property and have a look around.

For half an hour or so I heard the machine snapping branches and cracking limbs, then the machine was loaded up again and the truck left. I didn’t think too much about it.

The next day, though, I walked over to check out the new trail. I was dumbfounded. The Bobcat driver had driven right over a beautiful, healthy red cedar. It tilted at a forty five degree angle, trunk deeply scarred, roots mostly exposed. Why? He could easily have gone around the tree, and left it as a focal point for a new home. Was he was testing out his machine to “see what it could do”. Why would someone wanting to make a good impression leave a beautiful tree partially uprooted, halfway laying over on its side?

I don’t believe this was a callous or insensitive man, but I do believe he saw this cedar tree as a challenge, an obstacle to be overcome. He did not see it as a living, breathing and quite beautiful specimen, as I did. He exhibited what is known as ‘plant blindness’, a term coined by James Wandersee, PhD, a biology professor at Louisiana State University. Plant blindness refers to our failure, as a society, to see plants as anything more than a green blur or a background. Until something calls our attention to a particular plant, we tend to overlook it.

Even as a professional gardener, I am no different. There are countless plants I never ‘see’ until some particular characteristic is pointed out. Then, suddenly, I will see that plant everywhere.

Without the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom would not survive. In short, no plants, we die. Or, if animals ever out-breath the plants, the animals lose. Duh.

Why then, are we so unimpressed by the plant kingdom that provides the very air we breath? Humanity is more interested in animals than it is in plants. There are terms for this, too: zoochauvinism anidd plant neglect. Our educational system does not help. Biology classes at all levels place much more emphasis on animals, though that symbiotic relationship between plants and animals cannot be denied.

Maura Flannery, a longtime columnist for American Biology Teacher, said, “I am not alone in my prejudice; to many, botany is synonymous with what is dry, complicated, and uninteresting in biology.” Indeed. I have to admit it was pretty dry stuff to me, too. Not one of my various biology teachers was willing to take the class outside to introduce us, up close and personal, to a plant. We learned about photosynthesis from a book.

By putting more emphasis on the study of animals, my teachers were demonstrating zoochauvinism. By not taking us out and showing us how to measure the rate of growth in a vine from day to day, or pointing out the vivid colors that attracted insects to a flower, or letting us marvel at how a blade of grass could break through an asphalt parking lot, they were exhibiting plant neglect.

Think about it. How often do we read articles in the newspaper that relate to plants? The 2002 demise of the Wye Oak, this nation’s largest, and some say oldest, white oak (Quercus alba), hardly got any press coverage, but a story about a dog being rescued from a boat that same year was carried all over the world. We read articles about the longevity of sea turtles, but who in the world knows what the oldest living tree is? (It’s a bristlecone pine, nearly 4800 years old, and it is still alive, growing in the United States.) Curiously, one botanical story that does get coverage is the blooming of a voodoo lily, which smells like rotting meat. Whenever this occurs in a public garden the press is always there, ready to record the disgusted reactions.

Our children are being shortchanged by the lack of plant knowledge, but there is still little impetus for them to be curious about that half of their world. Video games certainly don’t feature plants. Neither do movies, or games, or books, though library shelves bulge with children’s books about animals. Plants drawn into cartoons are only vague green shapes without detail. Television has long featured shows introducing us to the animal kingdom, and now there are entire channels devoted to animals. And the plants? Well, there is HGTV, which reduces plants to accessories good for decorating our homes. Never has that program really educated me about how a plant grows, or thwarts its enemies, or has sex.

If we don’t know a plant, we don’t really see it, and if we don’t see it, it becomes nothing more than an obstacle, a challenge to our machines. Something to be knocked over, and left at a funny angle in the woods. And yet if they all die, we all die. The image of a big bulldozer capable of scraping up all the plants in its path flashes through my mind. Another image flashes, of thousands of acres of a single crop, which could all be wiped out by a single pathogen. Another image flashes, of rain forests slashed and burned so grass and grain can be grown to feed cattle. Diversity lost, and we never really realize it, because we didn’t recognize what was there to begin with.

As gardeners, we can combat plant blindness by becoming plant mentors. This simply means sharing what we know about the plant kingdom and its wonders. We can mentor children, especially, since they are so open to the wonders of the world. We can also mentor our peers. Would it have made a difference to the driver of that Bobcat if he had known the name of the tree he tried to run over? Would developers slow down just a little in the scraping of every inch of land if they realized a plant in their pathway might be older than their great-grandmothers? Can we help a teenager make the connection that plants breathe out, so that he can breathe in?

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