Baruch Spinoza wasn’t far from the truth when he said “The investigation of Nature in general is the basis of philosophy”
I stood in the presence of giants today. The tallest cotton thistle (I have ever seen) and I, inhabited a moment of stillness, of biblical proportions. The company of plants is never boring and I love a challenge; this non-native vigorous biennial with coarse, spiny leaves provoked me to write a poem.
Onopordum acanthium is from the family Asteraceae, with especially large populations of this flowering plant existing in the United States  Spiny bracts and globose flower heads sporting coloured ray and disc florets are simply beautiful.
The cotton thistle is considered a noxious invasive weed for it reduces the production of forage, prohibits land utilization for livestock and blocks access for people and wildlife. The dense stands of the large, spiny plants exclude animals from grazing as well as access to water  We pattern the presence of plants tailored to our own existence but this species is a great source of nectar for insects. In the time I stood next to a variety of wild flowers, all stinging insects made a beeline for the cotton thistle.
This variety of plant tends to colonise disturbed pastures. In its native range, cotton thistle is weakly competitive and needs gaps to regenerate, to develop and maintain stands; populations of Cotton Thistle tend to retreat when disturbance ceases  So it is ironically a plant that grows in the absence of aggressive competitors, for a disturbed pasture is essentially one where the land is stripped of vegetation through man-made changes to the land surface, like clearing or excavation.
The land was disturbed in an upheaval of community, crowns displaced, roots exiled. When cotton thistle staked claim to sodden earth bogged in tearful commiserations, it resurrected like the flower of Christ. Invasive, émigré? What's Native ? No man was ever a prophet in his own land. And here, preaching a gospel of love were a globulised community of centripetal rays and centrifugal discs, they turned the other cheek and more. Bees with stingers went soft on compassionate flowers unwrapping sweetly, nectar or love. They crossed stings and spines and even nails, paled in comparison. The flower lives to sweeten the life of a bee and the bee exists to ferry love to flowers.
There are plants that look like a tangle of golden threads. These holostemparasites lack the green of chlorophyll and the ability to photosynthesize but they have unique structures called ‘haustoria’ that penetrate into the vascular tissues of a host plant to access their nutrients, specifically into the phloem tissues, so they are phloem feeders  They lack roots and leaves and I was very disturbed to find a mass of them atop a patch of Ivy. Yesterday, there were two tangles and they spread so fast, I had never thought golden dodder to exist anywhere around this area. Cuscuta campestris , as this species is known in the botanical world, most certainly startled me on my walk.
Researchers are unable to explain how Cuscuta evolved. They have since placed the plant in the family Convolvulaceae, unlike the Cuscutaceae that I had learnt of during my degree. The plant is phylogenetically close to the tribe Ipomoea that contains all those popular twining species we know of, like Morning Glory and Sweet Potatoes, and here it is, amassed on Ivy, making me uneasy and yet, I marvel at the nature of being.
One simply requires removal of its golden twining stems and pruning of the host plant, so that the garden looks less of a mess. Yet, the plant is an ideal species in research due to its lack of differentiation of plant tissue like other complex Angiosperms. The plant can even create a bridge between different plants for transmission of diseases from one host to another, which can be of immense importance in scientific investigations. The haustorium though, remains little understood as a specialized outgrowth that is unlike any other found in the plant world as also does the fact that Cuscuta isn’t typically host specific.
In the manner of man’s anthropomorphizing ways, Dodder has been described as possibly the most intelligent plant using taste, smell, movement and touch to manipulate other plants, and hijacking and transferring its genes, large molecules like DNA and RNA, including viruses through its specialized structures. Dodder is also able to use messenger RNA to track the condition of the host plant or to alter it which is similar to horizontal gene transfer between plants and microbes used for the genetic modification of plants species 
It is a very unusual holoparasite that even produces greenish to white flowers arranged in a cymose inflorescence. The seeds of Cuscuta campestris may have arrived on the patch of Ivy, dispersed by wind, water, birds, other animals, or by man with machines and planting material contaminated by dodder seeds. Children too, interestingly, can be agents of dispersal in that they tend to ferry the plant stems across a distance  The plant is of no economic importance and is considered a noxious weed and here it is, sullying the garden and I don’t know what to think.
So I wondered of each haustorium embedded, producing biochemicals that could dissolve phloem components of the Ivy for absorption, without in fact dissolving itself. Was the Ivy in pain? Was the Dodder, a sadistic plant? Its simple stems had matted the surface and would shade the leaves of the Ivy if left to its own devices, reducing photosynthesis and eventually killing the plant. On the other hand, the Ivy itself seems like an opportunist, crowding out the surface, because horticulturists simply appreciated its cosmetic allure in having climbed historically valuable edifices and now deem it a useful ornamental.
The poem is about that which we do not understand except in the language we know of or the stories we hear, whether those be scientific, cultural or mythological. This tangled mess of Dodder, that I reluctantly call beautiful, demanded a divine origin and the Greek myth of the golden fleece seemed most apt. (I have added notes below, on the story, that make for interesting reading) The poem is an attempt at a synthesis of our limited knowledge through the creative lens of our collective illusions.
The Golden Fleece of Dodder
The world was upside down for a gilded moment, like roots seeking sun, a golden fleece over Ivy and your tangled mess lifted to the heavens.
This savage union demanded you twine so, salivating ecstasy within sentient stratum. Do you feel, as you kneel and grope leafy vines,
the same as when Poseidon had his way with Theophane, to let out his inner beast and make you in his image.
You wore it for kingship, golden, fibrous, for now you walk over your leafy subjects, taxing their sunny labours and feeling svelte.
Your weave is the hurried knit of a harried tale and children playing Argonauts, will snip at your aphorisms to pass them on in manner of plundering recruits.
They constellate the land like you seed the stars in the myths of man; What fascination holds such simple staff that morphs to serpent on yielding strand?
In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of Chrysomallos, the winged ram with golden wool, which was held in Colchis. The fleece, a symbol of authority and kingship, figures in the tale of the hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts, who set out on a quest for it by the order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Through the help of Medea, they acquire the Golden Fleece. The story, of great antiquity, was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC). It survives in various forms, among which the details vary (Wikipedia)
The ram was fathered by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form with the nymph, Theophane, the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. The golden ram saved Phrixus, the son of Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly but also king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece) and the goddess Nephele. The ram took the boy Phrixus to Colchis and in essence, this act returned the golden ram to the god Poseidon, and became the constellation Aries. Phrixus settled in the house of Aeetes, son of Helios the sun god. He hung the Golden Fleece preserved from the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares (Mars), the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. The fleece was guarded by a never-sleeping dragon with teeth that could become soldiers when planted in the ground. The dragon was at the foot of the tree on which the fleece was placed. In some versions of the story, Jason attempts to put the guard serpent to sleep (Wikipedia)
Animals feel emotions, even those of regret and disappointment, I thought I knew that, when I indulged in poetic anthropomorphism. In the book I have been reading on ‘The Inner Life of Animals’, the author Peter Wohlleben observes, that regret is an emotion which usually protects us from repeating our mistakes because it stops us wasting energy by engaging in dangerous or pointless behaviour over and over again.
Wohlleben draws attention to the work of researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who observed rats in regard to both these emotions. He says //They built a special “restaurant row” for rats – a ring with four spokes leading to four different feeding zones. When a rat came to the entrance of one of the spokes, a sound indicated how long the wait for food would be: the higher the sound, the longer the wait. And now the rodents began to act like people. Some lost patience and went on to the next spoke in the hope they would be served more quickly. Sometimes, however, the sound was even higher there, meaning the wait time would be even longer. Now the animals looked wistfully back in the direction of the spoke where they had just been, but they also grew more determined not to change zones again but to wait longer for their food. People react in similar ways – for example, when we switch lines at the grocery store and realize we’ve made the wrong choice. The researchers detected patterns of activity in the brains of the rats similar to patterns in our brains when we mentally replay our predicament. That’s what makes regret different from disappointment. The latter kicks in when we don’t get what we were hoping for. In contrast, regret kicks in when we also realize there could have been a better outcome. And researchers Adam P. Steiner and David Redish discovered that rats can clearly do that //
The ability to gauge the future should help mitigate feelings of regret and disappointment, as one should then always know the right course of action. Since it is impossible to predict completely accurately, even the weather, one could simply change one’s perspective but this may be a major oversimplification.
What of the system itself that generates predictable trajectories, like in ‘the restaurant row’ created by the researchers, which invariably ends up with a slew of disappointed rats who now regret their choices unaware of how the system is designed.
Given this aforementioned research, I thought about the city crowds from a strictly zoomorphic perspective; the inefficiency of rush hour, the disappointed looking faces in an exaggerated hurry while the system draws to a crawl, and those blighted souls regretting the last minute dash into a busy supermarket. There is a self-sameness to it all, people moving through the paces of their groundhog rush hour.
The photos I took inside a subway tunnel in Manhattan. The poem though, is a work in progress.
The Grid, is freedom along angles run amuck, between glimpses of the walking white man, pixelated on a traffic light. One can flee the compass, turn West, then defiantly perambulate the perimeter of an urban garden, for the thrill of green. The city they say, crowded out the man, but man is simply a crowd of one, among the shadows that slink along the sidewalk, until they slowly descend, into the entrails of rat city, tunnelling predetermined paths. Charting a course of darkness, through the vast sea of breathless faces, where a mosaic of tiles brighten the embedded smiles and the haze of imprisoned light, in the selfsame burrows of sunken places
I thought I’d celebrate having finally read one half of this touching account of non-humans by Peter Wohlleben in his book, ‘The Inner Life of Animals’. It is as interesting as it looks and the author has shared many personal anecdotes featuring his funny goats, oversexed fowl, timekeeping dog, intelligent pigs, friendly ravens and individualistic bees among stories of other animals.
I thought I should write something simple today on the little wildlife I have seen in the East African Savannah and parse out the idea of the expanse of the heart. It’s a plain poem and with no beginning nor end, it is simply meditative.
Is the heart as large and dusty as the Savannah?
Does it have little green oases of muddy ponds where feelings glint off the surface in mirroring the passion of the Sun?
Do pink dollops of hippo-esque affections wallow in their murky depths?
The thorny mistrustful acacias too sigh softy in their parsimonious giving as the giraffes synapse with them, all the while puckering and kissing their moody leaves.
The Impala meditate a quickened pulse while they inhale the day and exhale the night.
The lions survive simply stressing them out but the fleas get the lions too, like karma.
Sometimes the fiery orb burns away the brittle surfeit of rigid grass to make way for vital green and the guinea fowl congregate on the living plains like happy heartbeats.
The woods are pensive, dark and deep coursing like subterranean whispers for miles; seeking, reaching, grasping root chasing root, entwined, twisted, contorted, conflicted, or spread eagle.
Have you noticed: the sun, remains but a distant memory and the murmur of the core is what she seeks, the tree you hold clasped to your heart, distracted as you are by crimson temptations of Spring.
Is that the rising affluence of sultry summer heat, that colours you green like the leaves, or the tempestuous Autumn with her hurricane winds which float you away on sensate empiricisms.
Finally, when in true Frostian fashion, the Overstory retreats in icy chill to the bowels of the Earth, then, in that moment we find her upside down or maybe right side in, for the forest lies beneath, a singular organism …
…pulsing, dreaming, biding time as she slumbers, knowing well, that one day the globe would be engulfed in a root ball and all the pebbles and the mud would be but memories in space like it does in over watered flower pots licking window ledges, surviving potted prisons.
What will we say then? That we knew it all along.
The Overstory, a book by Richard Powers features the story of a fictional botanist, Dr. Patricia Westerford, based on perhaps the real life Ecologist Suzanne W. Simard whose work involved studying how trees communicate with one another using the Mycorrhizal network. It is the story that drew me to the book and perhaps the only story that struck me as poignant.
Trees in temperate regions retreat within themselves in fall towards winter. Trees are also known to reach out to each other and form a supportive network underground. The forest network pulses in a singularly strange fashion, we try to emulate these traits in our primitive human ways, perhaps anthropomorphise the trees sometimes to imagine ourselves being superlatively exemplary in our feelings and emotions. I do not know how else to explain this.
Here’s to trees and hoping that we all aim to be like them ~ complex, complicatedly intuitive, harbouring a sensate and fluid intelligence, adaptable, resilient, beautiful in every way. The understory seems to hold the key to the forest, something about what lies beneath, like in an iceberg.
As we chase incessant production and consumption above ground, let us spare some thought to what really makes our planet habitable, our emotions colourful, the sentience in our being and our lives worth living. I am not sure it would be okay to live outside the world of life giving plants.