A Reflection on Vegetating

With all this rhetoric about wanderlust and the free will of mobility, I ask you to take a step back and reflect on the meaning of vegetation. The Oxford dictionary defines life as “the condition that distinguishes active animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” Like reigning monarchs in a democracy of checks and balances, our kingdom as we know it is divided into flora and fauna. Who are these living plants that we share the world with, and why don’t they get any respect?

We share this experience of life with our green-leafed and immobile friends in a lopsided symbiotic relationship. We consume plants to derive energy for our activities of self-gratification. We chop down forests to make way for roads. Even if you are a vegetarian, all the nourishment you consume inevitably comes from plants. We exploit plants as stepping-stones of energy from the sun so we can indulge in the fruits of life, and what do we give in return? They only ask us to breathe.

Instead, we respond with degrading metaphors. The term “vegetable” as applied to a person means they are complete invalids with no brain inactivity or basic response to stimuli. When we “vegetate” it means that we sit around like “couch potatoes” and lead uneventful and monotonous lives. We presume that trees don’t exist when we philosophize, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it …” But what about the trees themselves? Don’t they experience it? Mind you, this Lorax-speak is all at the risk of sounding anthropomorphic.

What an existence to sit rooted your whole life with no sense organs, no power of voluntary movement and no capacity for self-reflection or free will. Bodhisattva sat under the Bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment and the subsequent worship by millions of others, but what did the Bodhi tree get out of it?

Plants are not alone in their patient and sedentary behavior. Besides the sizeable segment of the American population who could be considered clinically non-reflective, brain-dead and immobile, there are a few animal species that willingly take the Emily Dickinson approach to life and just sit around rooted in one place, filtering nutrients out of the air or sea. I have been told that barnacles spend their early years as free-swimming polyps until they eventually tire of riding the currents and attach themselves to a rock or the underside of a boat. Once they are secured in place, they have no need for their brains so they digest it for nourishment. Talk about Zen.

Why would a rooted plant need a brain anyway? There are no conscious decisions to make, no freedom of choice. If they had a brain, they would probably go crazy with log cabin fever. Instead they sacrifice themselves for our sins. We distill their fruits of labor into our wine. We chop down trees for our bridges and paper. We carve our names on their trunks. We bleed rubber trees for our shoes and tires so we may be mobile.

The vital difference between plants and animals is that plants do not have specialized sense organs and nervous systems, and they don’t have the ability to respond rapidly to stimuli. There are a few anomalies such as the Venus Flytrap that are the bit of yin in the yang (whereas, barnacles are the bit of yang in the yin). But for the most part, the only movement of plants is embedded in their growth. They are not able to transplant themselves, but is this a handicap?

So the next time you are hacking a swath through virgin rainforest with your machete for the sake of adventure or manifest destiny, stop and think about the experience of planting yourself, of taking root. Perhaps it is we that suffer the incurable desire to constantly relocate ourselves to where the grass is always greener? To constantly seek greener pastures?

Hats off.


(c) 2003 by Derek White