Inspired by the Los Angeles Review of Book’s recent “Speaking Substances” series, I thought I would try the form as a collection of blog entries. The LARB pieces ask, “What if the best source of news about the planetary effects of environmental damage was the planet itself?” It explores four elemental media: Rocks, Bodies, Ice, and Oil. Mine will take up Plants.
“The Burners taught me that plants are people,” said the experimentalist, in reference to a long weekend in J-Tree devoted to the ingestion of manly quantities of psilocybin. “Matt would be over by some cactus or wildflower and introduce me. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’” As the philosopher, I held my tongue. Although I’m personally not a fan of taking chemical short-cuts to transcendent mental states, I had to agree: plants are people too.
We were in the mountains for a friend’s birthday at Bandido, north of La Canada just off the Angeles Crest highway, a site the birthday girl had described as “dreamy.” As we watched the sun set over a nearby ridge in a gauze of pink and later tracked the ghostly clouds rolling across the darkening skypatches between the tops of soaring Jeffery pines, I had to agree. We slept the best sleep I’ve ever had on a first night in the backcountry, cushioned by a luxe bed of needles and miscellaneous undergrowth.
In the morning, we hiked to the top of a nearby peak, Mt. Hillyer. I saw my friends from Baden-Powell, the rock-hugging clumps of silver leaves that would blush lapidary blossoms come August. Slender stalks with pyramidal heads of yellow blossoms – a species of mustard or shepherd’s purse – shivered and bobbed as we passed over nearby boulders. Low-spreading bushes thick with lavender blossoms seemed to exude moonlight – California lilac, aka soapbush. Spears of lupine raised their flags, pointing us off-trail.
When we reached the flat at the top of the peak, my son found the strangest plant yet, if plant it was: a waxen salmon flame emerging from the duff below a swaying ponderosa, a lone fungal forest-floor namaste, about as big as an artichoke. He knelt beside it, using my phone to take a selfie with this expressive, silent tongue.
The experimentalist and I stayed upmountain longer than the others, sharing a caffeinated Clif Bar, listening to the wind and receiving the subdued but amiable addresses of a field of nodding, purple-headed grasses. We both noticed their translation of the wind and in the moment at least found it preferable to anything we could say to each other. In fact, I pondered what it might be like to experience it as a kind of language, as an address to me as material and not as human.
Of course what I contemplated was impossible. If it’s language I can understand, it’s human. Maybe even the longing to receive such an address is suspect. For starters, in foregrounding the wind and grass I was already creating a frame that rendered some things invisible, taking them out of the imagined conversation: the phone with which I took the picture, the Prius we’d driven to the mountains, the chemically-engineered energy bar, the protected National Forest, the leisure time I had to enjoy it.
Nature is itself a cultural concept, and culture is of course a natural effect of human animals living together (Bruno Latour uses the term natureculture to express the inextricability of the two terms). Further, ideas of “nature” are historically specific, not timeless. The desire for a less mediated communion with the nonhuman that underwrites my desire to get into the mountains depends on the ways we currently conglomerate reality into the categories human, nonhuman, and nature. These conglomerations or blackboxes can make it hard to see the ways in which a long history of human practices (myths, crop cultivation, settler colonialism, advanced capitalism) condition all my contact with what seems, at least, to be natural, or nonhuman, or just not-me.
Maybe the best I can do is to become increasingly aware of the invisible (but not necessarily immaterial) conditions of my contact with all that environs me. And so, that afternoon, I tried to hear not just the plants – their undeniable invitation to enjoy the full sufficiency of embodiment and emplacement – but other media inflecting and transmitting what they had to say. In the moment, that meant calling on Thoreau to help me look at what there was to be seen. It meant trying to remember the leaves and berries of the manzanita so I could ask the birthday girl (also an acupuncturist) about their medicinal qualities. It meant identifying the Indian paintbrush – another old friend I’d first encountered in Glacier National Park during my initiation into backcountry trekking – reaching red plumes up to touch the day. It meant trying, at least in my imagination, to decompartmentalize the leisure time I spent in the backcountry from the rest of my life. It meant, and means, trying to stay engaged with the call (from me, or from the world?) to notice, to attend to what is before me, to touch the peculiarities of being, here.