March 2014

Nic Grosso


A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

Ruth Kassinger, maybe you tried to sneak it in there, placing such bold statements in middling chapters, safely tucked away from the hyper-sensitive eyes of readers before they were hypnotized by the rhythm of your voice and the pace of the book. But after stumbling across it, I knew there could be no other place for me to begin: sea slugs, cute? And sunflowers, creepy? What?! Even if this particular slug were capable of photosynthesis, I rarely equate the ability to break down light into energy with being cute. And really, sunflowers creepy? Maybe strange or otherworldly but even as the summer ends and they are reduced to withered brown versions of their former selves, can't you see something human in their downcast heads, Charlie Brown at his most glum?

Okay... now that I got that off my chest, I can say The Garden of Marvels is a delight. Through an intimate history of flora chronicling human interactions with plants, Kassinger takes the reader along on her personal journey into the green world. With a light touch, she takes us through potentially dense histories and scientific jargon, making the world eminently accessible and personal. But it was the author's approach that really drove my enthusiasm for this book. Not a botanist or historian by trade, Kassinger was drawn to the topic by her own gardening adventures and an endless curiosity, a passion that fills these pages. She does not simply accept a given notion but digs in and tries to understand its roots. "The historical moments when the explanation for a familiar phenomenon shifted from myth to fact, or when scientific truth was converted into a practical process or product, continued to fascinate me. I relish a good plot twist, and these discoveries or inventions often changed the trajectory of civilization."

And it was a similar curiosity that led me to this book in the first place. In my head, I have an ongoing debate, one that pushes back and forth between eating animals and vegetarianism. One of the more frustrating components to this internal argument was the moral one. And it wasn't that I didn't occasionally feel guilty thinking about a chicken running around a yard headless, spurting blood before finally falling to sleep no more, the dying moo of a cow, or the otherwise inhumane treatment and slaughter of animals, but I understood, in the larger picture, that death was an integral part of life. And, anyway, my main question was why were animals any more deserving of our sympathy than plants. Plants have been around for hundreds of millions of years growing, adapting, evolving, trying to survive. I had even heard this thing about how when an insect bites into a particular kind of plant it would secrete this chemical to both warn nearby plants and to make itself less tasty to said insect. They are no less alive or deserving of life because their life cycles take on a different form than our own. All of this just seemed to point me toward a more conscientious approach to life, making choices with some awareness.

I was reminded of a story from This American Life taken from Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex about these parasites that would get inside ants and chemically manipulate the ant to climb upward, usually up a blade of grass. A grazing mammal in which the parasite desired to live out its days would likely consume the ant on this blade of grass. Worse, this wasn't the exception to the rule but rather fairly common among parasites, with some traversing up to six animals before reaching their final destination. This left me shaken, wondering how much of our actions were our own: what was the result of the evolutions of our brains and what was chemical reactions sparked by the millions and billions of microscopic creatures living in us and around us.

Which did Camus choose again? The coffee or the revolver?

It was at this point, then, that I thought maybe I was thinking too much. I had fallen down one too many rabbit holes and needed something to get me out of my head and bring me back. But if it doesn't throw you too much, filling you with a crippling sense of fear or overwhelm you with despair, isn't it a doozy? What a wonder how delicate and intricate life is!

There are vastly more chloroplasts on Earth than stars in the universe. All these chloroplasts owe their lives to that one eukaryote that engulfed an indigestible cyanobacterium that lived 1.6 billion years ago. That single creature's descendants turned the rocky continents into our leafy, green world without which none of us could exist.

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062048998
416 pages