Given that collectively, plants form more than 80% (80!) of the living world’s terrestrial weight, and that, today, we humans are the largest evolutionary and geologic force on Earth, how we people think about plants matters. Many botanists, geographers, and anthropologists are paying increasing attention to how our species’ history of ‘replanting’ the world has contributed to the development of the modern world. One of these ‘replantings’ has, of course, occurred through our willingness to modify climate (even within small spaces) to host plants well beyond their native range. This 2-min excerpt is from a new essay that I’ve just started working on about the TRU Horticulture greenhouse which has, over the last 30 years, provided fertile ground for plants and people growing together.
Transcript: Take Carbon
Take an atom, call it carbon, let it be agreeable, as the chemists say, able to bind with four other atoms at once, and you fabricate the backbone of life.
Sitting in a diffuse light, surrounded by plants on all sides, my fingers hold pen and purple ink spills on the page of my field journal. What of this world, I wonder, isn’t made of carbon? And how did we come to a time and place where you, me, the entire world, is exhorted to decarbonize? When did carbon become a dirty word? How have we meddled so profoundly that I worry about the climatic cost of the cellulose fibers in the paper that records these words?
Yet, moments ago on this late January morning, it was not worry, but pleasure, that spread through my body as I stepped into the cool spaciousness of this greenhouse operated by my university’s horticulture department. This building is neither big nor particularly handsome—especially not in comparison to the elegant orangeries of Victorian England that I’ve been reading about, really, drooling over. No, my pleasure grew from the same root of desire that has for millenia tempted people like me to transport and grow plants beyond their native ranges. People like me who have not hesitated to alter climate—even if only in small, enclosed spaces—in order to meet the needs of a flora naïve to winter or to push plants beyond their seasonal rhythms.
Outside, the native plants of the South Thompson valley—sage and pine and bunchgrass, balsamroot and geranium—have long quieted into their winter dormancy, an adaptation inherited from their ancestors who, like them, knew the taste of winter. Many endure belowground; taller ones like trees and shrub must resist wind and ice and snow along with low temperatures. But the world inside this greenhouse, with its insistent hum of a heater, knows no winter. Instead, it shines with reflected green, vibrates with photon capture and release. Above me, a corregated polyvinyl washes blue sky into shades of white. Snow slides off in large whooshes of sound. To the left, a waist high metal bench runs the full length of the greenhouse, covered in succulents, agaves, and sparse-leaved fuschias. To the right, a similar sized bench carries geraniums, before giving way to shrub-sized cycads, a Brugsmania taller than me and a rather extraordinary orange-petaled Indian mallow.