Monday, February 8, 2016

Anthurium no. 0516 "Brooke Enhart"

I'm afraid there isn't a lot to be said about Brooke; she's only produced one bloom so far, which was of pretty lousy quality (small, half-dead, boring color).

The leaves aren't terrible, and the plant overall is fine (or at least fine-ish). It's possible that if I give her a second chance, the next bloom will be better, but she's hard to get excited about. So I won't ask you to. Instead, I had another thought about Cleve Backster's plants-have-feelings theory (previously covered at PATSP in a three-part post: one, two, three) recently, and wanted to bounce it off of you.

By the end of those posts, I had pretty much concluded that the whole "primary perception" thing was less about the emotional life of plants and the deep interconnectedness of all living things, and much more about human egos (particularly but not exclusively Cleve Backster's1). The reader may or may not agree, but that's what it looked like to me.2 The new idea is another bit of support for the all-about-ego hypothesis, which is:

If plants having feelings is evidence for some deep interconnected psychic link between all living things, why do signals from that link only ever go in one direction?

Which is to say, Backster claimed that plants were sensitive3 to the emotions of specific people known to the plant,4 over a relatively short physical distance,5 and they reacted to those emotions6 by altering the conductivity of their tissues.7 He took this to mean that human thoughts and feelings are capable of affecting plants and influencing their consciousness, or whatever the plant equivalent of consciousness is.

But as far as I can tell, Backster never attempted to see whether that worked in the opposite direction, whether something happening to a plant would affect a person. Which if primary perception is about the deep psychic interconnectedness of all life, there's no reason why it shouldn't work the other direction. Life is life, after all. No obvious reason why plant thoughts/feelings/actions shouldn't be just as important as human thoughts/feelings/actions. Backster should have done experiments where a person sat alone in a room, hooked up to a polygraph, reporting their feelings, while someone turned the lights out in another room containing a plant. Or waved caterpillars around near a plant. Insulted and threatened a plant.8 Whatever.

But, you know, I don't feel a sudden pang of irrational terror when I throw a plant into the garbage. I can turn the light off in a room with plants present without suddenly feeling hungry, or tired, or angry, or whatever plants should feel when lights go off. Not once has a panic attack tipped me off to a scale infestation. I don't feel sexually frustrated if a bee flies past the window; I am not terrified by butterflies.9 I can hold a plant upside down for repotting without feeling dizzy.

Why not? Well, it's possible that I am some kind of soulless golem who is forever cut off from the splendor of psychic communication with salads. It's also possible that everybody is theoretically capable of having this kind of response, but we all learn to suppress it over time because if we actually did experience all those feelings 24/7 we would be rendered unable to function, what with all the lawnmowers, forest fires, herbivores, and flower shops around. Not to mention shit like the EcoLog 590D:


So. Uh.

The third installment in the original Cleve Backster series concluded that Backsterism was about ego, in that it gives you credit for everything a cultivated plant in your care does right (it bloomed! It must love me!) without giving you any of the blame for anything that it does wrong (it died! Well, I guess the air was too dry.). This is just another angle on that same idea: primary perception gives you the chance to believe plants feel my pain! I must be really important! without having to believe at the same time I feel plants' pain! They must be really important!


1 Who, according to Wikipedia, died in June 2013. Which we all remember, because that was the month when all everybody's plants freaked out.
2 If you want to disagree with me on the subject here, that's totally fine. I don't mind discussing it. However, if you're going to disagree, please do me the kindness of actually reading the posts in question first.
3 (except when they weren't)
4 (except when the test subjects were people not previously known to the plant)
5 (except when the people having the emotions were hundreds of miles away)
6 (except when they didn't react at all, reacted after a significant time delay, or reacted in advance)
7 (because that was the only thing Backster knew how to measure)
8 ("And your . . . uh, roots. Your roots are so puny. It's a wonder you even know what water is, with roots like that. And your foliage is not a deep and robust green. I bet your stomata are all like, duuuuuhhhhhh, all the time. If I was you, I wouldn't even bloom. You don't need to pass on your genes: you're so weak, all the other plants would grow taller and shade you out, if you were planted in the ground. Algae make fun of you. Pollinators say nasty things about you behind your back," etc.)
9 Butterflies would be a difficult and interesting problem for people studying plant emotions, were anyone still doing so (I'm not aware of it personally, but I assume someone must be: bad ideas never actually go away), since butterflies' and plants' lives are tangled in complicated ways. Some butterflies are pollinators, which the plants should like. But butterflies also lay eggs on plants, which hatch into caterpillars and devour the plants, which the plants should not like. Except that butterflies are usually pretty particular about which plants they lay eggs on, and ignore others. Can the plants distinguish butterflies that intend to eat them or pollinate them from those that would ignore them? And how could we tell the difference between increased electrical conductance caused by excitement at a potential pollination and increased electrical conductance caused by terror of being chewed by caterpillars? So an ideal test of plant feelings about butterflies, and their transference to humans, would be pretty complicated.
(Or, at least, it would be complicated if we assume that plants can tell different butterflies apart. It's possible that plants aren't that smart, in the Backsterverse. I mean, the claim is that they have feelings, not that they're geniuses. Nobody denies that 3-year-old humans have feelings, but we don't put them in charge of butterfly taxonomy, do we?)
10 Which in fact does inspire certain emotions. Admiration for the engineering, dark amusement at the name (I can see how a device like this might actually be ecologically preferable to constructing logging roads and whatever, but it's still hard not to see "EcoLog" as some kind of ironic black humor, given its purpose.), a bit of delight at the -- as a MetaFilter comment had it -- "casual, almost lackadaisical dexterity of the thing," and then, you know, the terror, horror, and revulsion.
Hypocritical terror, horror, and revulsion, 'cause it's not like I don't use lots and lots of paper products. Better tree harvesting than petroleum. And this is probably a tree farm in the first place (how else to explain the uniform spacing and trunk diameter?), so this is all those particular trees were ever destined to be anyway. But still.

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