The Backyard Naturalist – Down in the Dark
Plants and People Prepare for the Spring Emergence
Fall bulb planting and spring bulb sprouting make me think of bridges. Driving across bridges I usually think grim thoughts about what I would do if my car plunged off the side, if I had to try to remember the advice from “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” It’s patently ridiculous, requiring the kind of cool no one possesses without military-style training — waiting for the car to fill with water, then taking a last deep breath in the remaining air pocket, opening the door and swimming toward the surface. This presumes, of course, that you can orient to where the surface is, in turbid water, probably at night, hypothermia setting in. I think of this at bulb-planting time for the ease with which plants do a very similar trick.
Bulbs have a right way up, and a gardener does well to attend to it. In most cases, they sit like little teapots: The broad basal plate settles flat into the little pit, and the pointy bit points up. There’s always advice online about making sure they go in right side up, but then, the advice-givers often admit, it won’t be the end of the world if you mess it up. The plant, in most cases, will figure out what’s gone on and sprout itself up and root itself down regardless. Down in the dark, in the dirt, a shoot sprouting will make a U-turn if it finds itself wrong-way down, and fiddlehead around to bolt for the light. But is it light at all that these pallid tentacles are following?
Plants have light-sensing cells to be sure, but they can also sense gravity through starch grains that settle to the bottom of specialized cells in the roots and shoots. By the pattern of that silting sediment, the plant knows which way is down. The roots will follow that signal, and the shoots will flee it. In the old Victorian papers, Charles Darwin and contemporaries reported on their experiments on the subject of plant growth. Language shifts, of course, and those writers used older meanings of words: “sensibility” means something more akin to “sensitivity.” They were interested in just how plants react to input from the environment via what Alfred Bennett referred to as “the organs of assimilation” in an 1875 review of Darwin’s book “Insectivorous Plants.” Bennett and Darwin both used the word “irritation” to refer to any stimulus. Irritation, then, did not have a negative connotation to these scientists. Gravity, water, sunlight: All were irritants capable of drawing a response.
I thought about this meaning of irritation as I was commiserating with a friend over email. She and I have both been stuck at home for a year now, constantly cohabiting with other people who are working from home. She told me she found the sound of her husband’s nightly peanut snacking almost unbearable. I told her I had asked my husband if he really needed to walk so loudly and so close to me as he passed through the room? He just stood there, blinking at me. On my meditation app, the teacher always prompts me to note any sounds around me. I find myself wondering how I could fail to note them.
My organs of assimilation are raw and frayed. Eyes closed, I can tell which child is walking through the kitchen, exactly what snacks they are sneaking. I can hear the radon fan’s ceaseless whirring, and my husband breathing louder than seems strictly necessary. Some of these are irritants in the conventional sense, but mainly, I suppose, the way the plants mean it — after a year holed up, the second spring, I’m coiled, ready to bolt for the light.