Rediscovery: Plants are alive

I’m not going to complain about Natalie Angier‘s opinion piece in today’s New York Times:

In his new book, “Eating Animals,” the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer describes his gradual transformation from omnivorous, oblivious slacker who “waffled among any number of diets” to “committed vegetarian.” Last month, Gary Steiner, a philosopher at Bucknell University, argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times that people should strive to be “strict ethical vegans” like himself, avoiding all products derived from animals, including wool and silk. Killing animals for human food and finery is nothing less than “outright murder,” he said, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “eternal Treblinka.”

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

Indeed, I’m glad to see it. But I wanted to point out that this isn’t exactly news.

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Note to self: Health and nutrition

Often, I eat only one meal a day, but that equals approximately 1860 calories and 103% of my daily recommended fat intake. If I snack on top of that? Well, let’s see … the bag of Cheetos brand cheese puffs right next to me has 560 calories, over half my daily sodium intake, and will add 45 points to my daily fat intake, bringing the total to 148%. (Right, as if I’m ever going to eat only one “serving” out of the bag.)

What’s interesting is that my friends and family say I’m looking healthier these days. Yet, coincidentally, I had a physical yesterday, and not only am I 12-17 lbs. over my personal target weight, my cholesterol level is stratospheric and the low:high ratio completely out of balance. Solutions? Quit smoking, stop eating so much restaurant food. My doctor? If I do those two things, he’s not going to worry about the numbers. My blood pressure is just fine, I’ve dropped 10-15 lbs. from the last time I tried to quit smoking, and my glucose is where it should be, and my triglycerides are dandy.

(This is more a post for me than anything else. You know, history, reflection, that sort of thing. Maybe I want one of those, Holy shit! moments in which I look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking. Like the whole weight thing; I’m the only person I know who cares how much I weigh, and everyone else wonders why it’s an issue. Of course, when you wake up one day in your mid-30s and find your belly bouncing for the first time as you walk down the stairs, it’s alarming. When you respond by resolving to take up jogging again, and literally can’t because of those pounds, it’s distressing.)