Last week I attended of a symposium on Environmental Arts and Humanities. I listened with creeping discomfort as three speakers talked about “truth” as if it were subjective.
One speaker talked about her research on photos, not what is in them, but what observers of the photos take away. These takeaways were the big feelings like expansiveness, future, optimism, comfort, and adventure. What I saw was an archive photo of a fish-packing plant on a bay, and beyond that, a few fishing boats and distant hills. Another speaker talked about critiques of the Gaia hypothesis. I heard him suggest that our process of deciding whether evidence supports a hypothesis depends on the cultural lens through which we view the evidence. A third speaker talked about cultural appropriation of a stereotype of the spiritual and tribal identities of Native Americans, taken on by the 1960’s San Francisco hippies. What they appropriated was very different from what the specific Native Americans would have identified as his or her spiritual and tribal identities.
In these three examples, I worried, is it not clear which of the following pairs is the truth? 1) What the photo shows or what people see. 2) Whether an argument supports a hypothesis or whether people chose to think an argument supports a hypothesis. And 3) The identity that the 1960’s hippies saw while looking at the Native American individual or the identity of that individual Native American.
As I rushed off to an appointment, I reflected back on the name of the symposium, Environmental Arts and Humanities. I wondered how people can make progress on environmental issues by examining subjective reactions to photos, selective acceptance of evidence, and identity as an entity that is in the eye of the beholder.
~ ~ ~
Then I rushed off again, this time to the property for the weekend. There, I pulled at the Marah vines that covered our planted saplings; they snapped with a satisfying “pock.” I discarded them behind me, and moved on to the next ascending rope of vine. And gradually, pulling vines off of our planted saplings, I got a personal answer to all of the questions.
I’m a biophysical scientist, I reminded myself. I believe–probably because I was taught–that there is an absolute truth to every object and phenomenon. People can fabricate stories, which are best guesses, really, that are consistent with observations. We are trained to then leave those stories open to reinterpretation when more observations come available. We can never be sure that we have come to the absolute truth, however, because we can never prove that something is what we are guessing it to be, we can only show evidence that supports that it is (or isn’t). In practice, we allow stories to pass as truths so we can function day to day. More correctly, we recognize our various degrees of confidence in the different stories that we pass off as truths. For example, I am quite confident that blue is a different color from green, but less confident that blue is the same color to my husband as it is to me.
I straightened from a complicated vine, one that was mixed in blackberry. My glasses were missing. So I knelt and begin patting the grasses and discarded vines until I found them. But the discomfort had again crept over me. I had admitted a level of subjectivity in my definition of absolute, scientific truth with phrases like, because I was taught, people can fabricate stories, and what we are guessing it to be.
My thoughts turned to the vine I was ripping from the saplings: what was that vine, and why did it fascinate me? I had about four hours to think, as I worked my way across a couple of acres. After the break of finding my glasses, I had only one more break. I fell backwards, and exhausted, hot, bloody from berry prickles, and throbbing from the nettles, I stayed there on my back. After eight years of weekends there, I had never realized there were so many birds on the place.
And here is what I came up with.
First, Marah oregonensis, also called manroot and old-man-in-the-ground, is in the cucumber family. How cool is that! To add to the strangeness of potentially-wild pickles growing here in Oregon, just about every part of the plant is toxic.
Second, this fleshy vine can produce thirty-foot long stems in a couple of months. The stems are so dependent on turgor (water pressure) to hold themselves up that when the shoots die down in the fall, all that’s left is a draping papery skeleton that will be gone by Valentines’ Day. On top of that, the succulence of the stems and the softness of the leaves are counter to the habit of the other large plants in its range, with their woody stems and their leathery leaves.
(And so now I interpret. How in the world can Marah be so fleshy and have such fast growth? By making use of an enormous, fleshy taproot for storage of water, energy, and meristems (buds). This taproot is thought to be an adaptation for surviving surface fires. Thought to be, but is it? I did co-author a paper on storage strategies like that in vines many years ago, but that doesn’t mean I am exposing the truth about Marah.)
(And now I interact emotionally. The taproots can become exposed in slides along road cuts, or they can wash up on creek banks. With morbid fascination, I have more than once investigated to make sure I’m not seeing a human calf or torso. That morbid fascination, that astonished gawk, is part of the fun of this plant.)
Third, what about those tendrils? They begin as long, thin seekers, straight or slightly curved, translucent and just a few ticks stiffer than corn silk. But when a tendril’s tip meets a suitable support, it wraps around it several times, for a surprisingly firm grip. When I unwrap the tendrils in fascination, I feel as if I’ fingering someone’s Top Ramen that has turned green.
After the tendril’s tip has secured its grip, the central portion of the tendril begins to coil. The Marah pulls closer to its support. Because the tendrils are attached at both ends, the central portion has to coil in opposite directions. That is, if one end has six clockwise turns, the other end has about six counter-clockwise turns. What I notice before the coiling direction is the junction point near the middle between the two segments. I remember that staple-shaped spot in our telephone cord when I was growing up.
(I’m interacting again. I’m enjoying the mechanical design, and I often can’t resist pulling off a few tendrils and playing with them.)
(And scientifically, I know how the tendrils actually coil. And then I wonder. I wonder if we can use information for our own engineering designs, what is called biomimetics.)
Fourth, those flowers–abundant, diffuse, white. Their open clusters of webbed starts stud vegetated banks, edges of roads, and gaps in the woods. The petals are textured with little mounds. The long multi-flowered stalks have staminate (male) flowers whereas close to the stem are solitary pistillate (female) flowers that sit above spiny balls already showing what the fruits will look like.
(I find I’m curious. Why are the flowers “built” the way they are–domes on petals, male and female parts on separate spikes with separate architectures. Oh, we could develop hypotheses, but are they truths?)
Fifth, those fruits, like maces the size of small kiwifruits, in two shades of green! The spines extend in every direction long and sharp. If you can hold them in your hands (and you are probably a kid if you are doing so), then you can throw them at someone. Or better yet, you can bend the spines and then squeeze the fruits gently. As my brother and other kids everywhere have discovered, if you keep squeezing them for the next ten minutes, a fine white foam will flow over your fingers and wrists, and down to your elbow. As if that’s not enough of a reward, as my other brother liked to demonstrate, you can then shoot the big slimy seeds at someone the same way you can shoot watermelon seeds, with a coordinated squeeze of thumb and forefinger.
(Curious, play, and fun. And enlightening because watermelon is also in the cucumber family.)
(Science stories again: those spines, I would guess, provide some defense to protect the seeds. The foam and the slippery seeds, I would guess, have no adaptive significance other than going along with other adaptive traits that are important. Truths as stories again–or stories taken as almost-truths?)
Sixth, their bitterness! The plant is intensely bitter, as any squeezer of fruits, puller of vines, shooter of seeds, scraper of taproots or operator of a mower, brush-cutter, or weed-whacker in the vicinity knows. Several of the references said that marah is Hebrew for bitter, which they say has the same root as the name Mary.
(Hmm, odd. Why is Mary bitter? Those same references also said that marah is one of the only Hebrew words to have been used in a plant name. I’m thinking of culture now, and history, and language. )
(And back to the botany stories, I imagine the bitterness is another defense to keep the grazers and insects away. It’s quite possible that I’m totally wrong. For example, maybe the bitterness evolved against bacteria or fungi, or that it is related to something else, like maintaining the turgor. I don’t know the truth. I’m not sure if other people are closer to the truth, but I’ve chosen a story, with only marginal confidence in it, and I will move on. Someday I may revise it.)
Seventh, Marah’s leaves are ideal for popping. They are thin, and they have sufficiently vast stretches between the veins that I can make an O with my left hand, place the leaf on top of that, and then strike it with the palm of my right hand. The successful pop is addictive, but so is the unsuccessful one because if I get a dud, I have to try again and again and again.
(And again, I interact with joyful play.)
It can’t get much better than that–seven astonishing traits that I, scientist and player, interact with when I interact with Marah.
But there’s one more side, eight, forestry. Those fast-growing turgid stems with those tendrils make them capable climbers. Those wide overtopping leaves intercept the light that would have contributed to the host plant’s growth. The pull of the tendrils and the weight of the stems cause saplings to contort, to bend, to double over. If a stem gets wrapped around a weed-whacker’s axle, it can pull a small tree down. To keep the saplings growing, I have to pull, pull, pull, for three or four years post-planting in my area.
“Nuisance. Bad plant. Get rid of it,” a forester muttered when a photo of the plant appeared on my monitor.
I’m coming to see his point of view.
(My scientific partial truths emerge again. With that huge taproot that we had said was for fire, eradication would be difficult by any forestry means. That adaptation appears to be a “pre-adaption” against foresters.)
(And now my mind sums up my emotions, after some vague thoughts of costs and benefits. I don’t want to eradicate the Marah in the planted trees, just slow it down.)
~ ~ ~
The weekend was over. We rushed home and back to the grid. There I could google Oregon State University’s program in Environmental Arts and Humanities to get more answers. I read that
- The program is intended to foster “new ideas and new forms of intellectual and cultural leadership based on a scientific understanding of Earth’s environmental and ecological systems, and grounded in a deep understanding of the sources of human wisdom and values.
- Neither the sciences nor the humanities can meet the challenges alone,” and
- “The alliances between arts, humanities, and the environmental sciences … will help humankind make the difficult turn toward a more sustainable life on Earth.”
I have interacted with Marah–in forestry, in intellectual curiosity, in aesthetic appreciation, with thoughts of biomimetics, and in play. The stories I make, the stories I tell, are through my lens, it’s true, and I have a healthy skepticism when I wonder how many and which of my statements about it are approaching the absolute truths.
But how does my brother’s squeezing Marah “help humankind make the difficult turn toward a more sustainable life on Earth”? By engaging him with nature.
Let us keep learning enough tantalizing details to lure kids, kids’ siblings, and kids’ siblings’ parents and friends of the parents back to the woods, meadows, back yards, vacant lots, community gardens, and sidewalk cracks. Let us lure kids to do science projects, and to fall on their backs and listen to the birds. Let us lure college students and professionals and retirees back out to be curious about the world like they might have been as kids. Let us enjoy nature, and not just use it to get by. Let us let those tendrils pull us closer to the framework that supports us, and especially, let us recognize that nature is worth making space for, worth trading off some of our other life amenities for.
I’m a biophysical scientist, and absolute truth is objective. We’ll never know it. But it’s correct, I believe, that the truths I live with are subjective–and not just subjective through me, but through a whole culture. Let us work to keep the fun, surprise, and utility of nature forefront in the minds of those who make up our culture, such that these elements are considered when we all pass judgment, when we decide on what we will allow as true.