Presenting the Plant Way of Life

The Springtime Plants and Patterns ‘playshop’ series concluded last weekend with a little exhibition in Xiangyang Park, featuring drawings and notes of botanical encounters made by a jaunty group of kids over the past two months.

Like everyone, kids can easily overlook plants as they cast about for things of interest. Plants are stationary, for one, while the hunter instinct in us all is more drawn to things that scurry. Yet if one can entice kids to look, plants can help them develop a knowledge of themselves as participating in a connected and miraculously complex web of life. This is especially relevant for kids not growing up on the farm, rooted to laws of nature by habit. Drawing city kids into the plant world is a patient art and not always easy as our ‘playshop’ guides will attest. Below is a brief roundup of insights from our tour of city parks.

1. Elucidate Parallels
Stimulating interest in plants is partly a matter of elucidating parallels between the plant way of life and the animal way of life, better yet between a particular plant’s way of life and that of the person studying it.

Take the veins on a leaf. They are not visible from a distance, nor do they usually catch our attention just glancing at a leaf’s surface. But prompted to examine the leaf’s underside a child can’t help but to trace the delicate lines with eyes and fingers. There is no need to explain them: even the youngest investigator can appreciate their likeness to our own veins. One possible revelation in this simple activity might be an apprehension of mortality. However brief and indistinct, this kind of aesthetic experience of an individual plant can lay the foundation for a slightly altered, more relational frame of mind.

As one continues investigating, more novel parallels between ourselves and plants may become apparent. Wrinkles are more pronounced in the bark of some trees, the deep grooves home to colonies of moss and lichen. Why? “Because they’re older!” comes a chorus of voices. After comparing the skin of an older person in the group with a younger person, picking out the older siblings in a stand of camphor trees becomes an exuberant game.

2. Articulate Differences
A careful inspection of the ground around any tree will reveal bits of fallen bark, each piece an irregular shape with varied thickness, texture, color. In light of the parallels with our own skin these qualities become quite interesting. They tell us something about the tree, but they also tell us something about ourselves. Do we shed comparable volumes of detritus? Is our skin a similarly variegated patchwork? Why is our skin so soft in comparison? These kinds of questions point to differences perceived in the context of parallels. They may seem like idle musings, but they can also stir hidden connections that are the substance of creative breakthroughs.

3. Cultivate Playfulness
Since different qualities of plants will capture people’s interest differently, exploratory activities ideally give everyone the opportunity to interact with the botanical world on their own terms. Arranging situations conducive to directed play is a complex challenge. Here are just a few thoughts: 1) a playful attitude is infectious; 2) tools are invitations to play (e.g. pencil and paper, magnifying glass, specimen containers); 3) quality of mind reflects quality of space. Each of these bears elaboration but the first is paramount, and it just means entertaining your own flickers of curiosity towards botanical life you encounter.

Plants are replete with peculiarities that stimulate the imagination and – for adults especially — stretch our tolerance for bewilderment. Photosynthesis is the central puzzle, but everything from the way plants protect themselves, draw nutrients and water from the soil, breath, communicate and reproduce takes us on a journey from the familiar to the strange. Consider an abbreviated list of types of sexual expression among flowering plants: dichogamous, dioecious, gynodioecious, hermaphroditic, polygamodioecious, protandrous, subandroecious, trimonoecious, unisexual. Dioecious denotes the familiar arrangement where individuals are either male or female and remain so for life. The variety of creative alternatives and their physical manifestations are curious to say the least, maybe bewildering, or depending on your mood deeply humorous.

On a sunny May day in Shanghai we are presented with the spectacle of minute flowers and delicate seed pods raining down or sailing away on the wind, towering trees and tiny sprouts, outlandish fragrances and forms. Everything is on the cusp of morphing into something else. In this exquisite wonderland a simple word may be all that is needed to turn another’s mind onto the plant way of life.