Halle, F. 2002. In praise of plants. pg. 41 – 124; pg. 173 – 184. Timber Press, Portland, London.
“What would biology be without poets?” asks Francis Halle, which I think is a key point to this reading. I think of poetry as taking the everyday and describing it in new ways and with new eyes so as to fully inscribe the meaning that is present all along. This is vitally important in all aspects of life, particularly when presenting new ideas. Putting the poetry back into biology allows us as readers to see Halle’s perspective on how we currently look at plants, why we have this perspective, and presents a new viewing model.
One of the most poetic sections is describing the time scale for plants and reflects on the question of whether plants are mobile. There is an important distinction to make of plants being fixed, but certainly not immobile. The poetry in this passage comes in changing ones perspective on the time scale in which we are looking. We judge plants as immobile based on our human concept of time, an action that might be described by anthropologists as being ethnocentric. This way that we as mobile humans view plants “makes us doubt that they are really alive.” Halle describes that if we multiply our common time we look at by 100 an increasing number of times we can see the amazing mobility that plants possess.
“Multiply by still another 100, and now a minute of observation covers almost 2 years, Animals have completely disappeared, erased by their mobility. As for the movement of plants, tey remain fairly calm in the shade of the understory. This majestic calm is lost in the well-lighted upper strata, where things are more frenetic. The lianas fight with each other in a sort of fierce swarming then head toward the open canopy like arrows. The sudden skyward launching of leader branches of the great emergent trees corresponds to the hasty and inexorable entombment of the supporting trunk under the network of roots of a strangler fig”
Another interesting idea that Halle explores (quite exhaustively) is the distinctive commonality in polarities that exist among most plants, and again among most animals. Plants have a single polarity and radial symmetry, while animals generally have two polarities and bilateral symmetry. This essentially means that one can look at a plant from any side along the horizon and it will have horizontal symmetry and vertical polarity, resulting from it being fixed to the ground underneath it. If looked at from above, this plant will also be symmetrical. Most animals on the other hand have dual polarity. The vertical polarity again results from having contact with the substrate, but there is also horizontal polarity due to the forward motion of most animals.
I thought that this discussion on form was very interesting. Halle made the point near the beginning of the reading that form is often ignored in science because it is qualitative. I think that this is important to consider not only for the form of plants, but to expand this notion into looking qualitatively in other areas of science.
Overall, In Praise of Plants is an important new perspective on how astounding plants can be, and furthermore promotes looking at them with higher regard. I thought that one of the sole pitfalls of this work was the manner in which it was written. It provided long sections which did not seem to be making much of a point, but then periodically it would all be put together. These moments rewarded the endurance of the reader and put all of the information in context.
This carrot certainly has form! (Leif Douglass, Sooke British Columbia, Oct. 2009)