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Field Notes: Considering The Sessile Life

A corkscrew hazelnut sits outside the back door in its winter glory. All the other plants and shrubs are looking pretty chastened, deceased even, awaiting their Easter resurrections. But this jaggedy hazelnut cuts a fine figure against the snow, having long-since jettisoned its drab, unkempt cover of leaves. Its electric personality is now fully exposed in its branches with all the manic excitement of a Kramer, a Harpo Marx, a Harry Lauder.

Oh? Never heard of Harry Lauder? Don’t worry. Almost no one has. The Scottish comedian/entertainer died in 1950, and the memory of him has faded — except for his funny, crooked walking stick. The fame of Sir Harry’s odd and ever-present stick has been secured, among horticulturists anyway, by the corkscrew hazelnut, which is known in most garden centers and catalogs as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.

The shrub is a cultivar of a European filbert supposedly discovered growing in an English hedgerow in the middle of the 19th Century. From that humble beginning, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick has managed to step out into pampered landscapes throughout northern latitudes, adding a little pizzazz to the winter scene. It’s a nice story.

Plants, however, rooted to the ground as they are, never step out anywhere ­— even if they are renown as walking sticks. They are sessile, which is the biological term for being fixed in one place. As sessile life forms, plants, from the fragile snowdrops of early spring to the mighty sequoias, have to make their way in this world by not going anywhere. (Let me qualify that. To clear a spot for a small kitchen herb garden we are planning, our corkscrew hazelnut will be relocating in a couple of months to a more spacious spot in the yard through the agency of Kate, me, a wheelbarrow, and a couple of spades.)

Sometimes it seems that one of the biggest challenges for our species in this evolving world is the ever-diminishing nature of our own rootedness. We are becoming increasingly peripatetic in both our physical lives and our distractions. If I were bound to the earth, I might be more aware of my surroundings, more keen on seizing the advantages on hand in any given moment. There would be no hurry, literally. No fast. No slow. Just what is, right here, right now. It all sounds so very Zen.

In this state of contemplation, it is easy to admire plants, even — or especially — their corkscrewiness. Trees in particular are beautiful in every season. Our obsessive cultivations as gardeners are direct evidence of the power plants have over us. Perhaps this charisma is one of their more potent tools for changing or improving their environments, inducing our subservient species to pick them up and move them to better ground, irrigated and enriched with nutrients.

Plants reap the rewards of exhibitionism, with their sexy parts all out in the open pitching their seductive talents to pollinators and people alike. But they keep their true genius hidden away underground where their root systems do the serious work of survival.

In his excellent piece in The New Yorker, “The Intelligent Plant” (12/23/13), Michael Pollan writes that scientists have found that “the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorous, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it.”

Plant root systems are somehow sensate without having a brain or a nervous system, and the work they do in finding water and nutrients has more impact on an individual plant’s survival than anything that goes on above ground. That’s why when we move Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick in the spring, Kate and I will worry more about damaging the roots than the branches.

In considering the sessile life, it would seem that our big brains and nervous dispositions would be a distinct handicap, with all our overthinking and impulsive pacing about. In such an existence it is better to leave the corkscrew consciousness behind and just be what we are where we are — and leave it at that.

(More than 90 Field Notes essays by Curtiss Clark can be found at field-notebook.com.)

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