Phytosophy — the unprobable life of plants

This article was originally published on phytosopher.com

TIME

[ tahym ]

noun

1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.

2. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration.

Time is a complicated thing to unpack. Everybody knows what time is. It is a measure without which planning and order in the society can not be achieved. Time is a concept that everyone understands and agrees on, but at the same moment, it is a very abstract notion. Even the definition is more daunting than of more complicated ideas, like the crisis or equally abstract concepts such as the procrastination, job or nation, which I explored in this blog.

So I am naturally concerned that I can not make justice to the task of unpacking time through the lenses of the plants. Thus, I promise myself and the readers that I will come back to this topic with hopefully more wisdom and clarity. So please bear with me in diving into the concept of time.

Past, Present, and Future

We are the only living species on Earth with the capacity of contemplating past and future events. We are arguably the species what is least living in the present. We are cherishing pleasant moments from our lives and are daunted by dark memories. We relive the past in our heads, thinking about what we could have changed and how our current context would have been better or worse. Anybody would reason in favour of travelling back in the past and changing a chain of events, hoping that will bring more happiness in the present.

A pressing deadline, our health condition or a put aside behaviour change are all making us resentful towards our past-selves. Although we have this incredible analytical capacity of our own past, it seems not compelling enough to make us more proactive and responsible for our present time.

We are the only species predicting and planning for the future. The rest of the organisms can not comprehend long term cause and effect relations. Climate change will impact their lives even more than ours, yet the animals and plants have no tools to fight this phenomenon. In contrast, we have the knowledge of what can happen and the deep understanding of the factors that can accelerate or slow the process. And we still seem lost in the time and either ignore the facts or fail to act.

This ability to look to the future, coupled with the failure of acting in the present goes to individual levels, as well. You don’t have to be science literate or have a high dose of critical thinking to realise the impact of the current actions into the future. You know that the extra dessert after dinner, the snacking on the couch, or the lack of sleep will all contribute to affecting your health and longevity. Still, the quick reward system is in control at that point, and later, looking back, regrets creep in.

Why can we have such an exceptional understanding of the concept of time as past, present and future and still fail miserably to act accordingly?

Time is such an excessively explored concept. Many enlightened thinkers described, unpacked and philosophised about it. There is plenty of inspiring, thought-provoking or wise quotes on the idea of time. One of my favourites is Orwell’s, from his classical dystopian novel.

Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

— George Orwell, 1984

“Who controls the past, controls the future…”

The past is a time frame that can be analysed in retrospect. It left a signature, data, that can accurately describe the cause and effect relations. The past events are lessons for the future. There is also a very popular maxim stating that ‘history is repeating itself. Apparently, some believe that humanity is reluctant to learn from mistakes and trapped into an unbreakable cycle of events.

Either way, although we should try to improve our future based on the lessons learnt, the general feeling is that that is not the case. It is essential to highlight that it is, in fact, a feeling. The objective truth is that society and humanity have significant improved steadily, and continuously, throughout the ages. No one can argue that we don’t live in the best times of our history. Nor that middle ages or prehistoric times were better for us. Our brains are wired to keep an open eye for threats and react to the negatives more than acknowledging the positives. This primal instinct can grant the lack of gratitude for the human advancements. Of course, some events showed the opposite, such as terror attacks, inequality, discrimination and many more. But the data objectively indicates our improvements by learning from the past and planning for the future [1].

“Who controls the present, controls the past…”

The second part is even more powerful. Earlier, we looked to the past to learn and adjust our actions for the future. This time it is about the power of now. Controlling the present means being mindful of the passing of each moment as potential bits for taking the right actions. Being in control of the activities in the actual time will create a feeling of satisfaction, pride and happiness looking back to the past. If you are mindful of the impact each of the actions in the present has on the future, you can understand that you are creating a history to be proud of. And as we have seen before, who controls the past, controls the future.

A great book in which the author unpacked the power of the small actions we take each day is the “Atomic habits” by James Clear [2]. The goal of the book is to help the readers to adopt healthier habits. Still, the real value comes from understanding the power of being in the present.

Living in the present is tricky. Although we ONLY live in the now, as everything we do is happening in this instance, it is very challenging to be mindful of this. Even when we engage in any activity, we are either thinking of past events or planning for the future. In that sense, we are rarely present. Our mind is an inpatient time traveller that it is impossible to convince to stay, even for a brief moment, in the now. Meditation is one of the tools that can help us be more present. And although the method is rather simple, following the breath or the sensations in the body, it’s very challenging to do it more than a few minutes. We look at the meditation masters or monks as having this superpower of living in the now. A power that seems unreachable by ordinary people.

Being in the present is powerful because it gives you full control of your destiny. Being mindful of your actions will help you make the best decisions for your future, and when you look back, you will not feel regrets or shame. It is not an easy endeavour. It takes practice, patience and commitment, but it’s your time; everything you ever lived or will live happens now, so it is worth it.

A measure of events passing by

The most common definition for time is the duration of an event or the set point on the 24 hour day. The days are making the weeks, the weeks months, and the months years. This might sound redundant or at the kindergarten level, but it is essential to point out precisely what I am trying to unpack. Prior, I explored time as a reference to now, a database for memories and a diffuse accumulation of hopes. Now, time is a metric. It’s different in a very significant way.

Timekeeping has been a preoccupy of humans since the beginnings. But devices for keeping the period accurately were only invented in the 17th century. At first, people were using the sun or water to quantify the passing moments. Candles or hourglasses were also used as a measure of time. Seeing something measurable passing was the best way to measure the duration of the events. Later, more mechanisms were developed up to 1656, when the pendulum clock was invented by Christiaan Huygens. It was the norm for a very long time. It took roughly 300 more years until the production of the first, now standard, quark wristwatch began. Currently, the norm is the Atomic clock which is the reference for all the other mechanisms that need to be calibrated by the atomic hour [3].

Time is an essential metric without which society would not look the same. The work wages are calculated regarding the time worked.

I have to repeat myself like in almost every blog post. Here too, the quantity dictates.

The eight hours/day job that became a norm in the industrial revolution is still the most common work duration. It doesn’t really matter what you are doing in those eight hours. The quality, once again, is trumped by the quantity. There are jobs, such as a factory-like organisation, where repetitive and predictable activities make sense. Still, in most cases, there is a dynamic of highs and lows in the volume of work. But even when there are more quiet times, the employee has to stay eight hours at the office. The time is wasted for both parties because there is no extra activity done, and the opportunity to engage in other activities is lost.

I have written more about the jobs in another blog post. Check it up here.

A finite, non-renewable resource

Nobody has time. This is a universal human condition. Not having time is perceived as an attribute and not having time means not being lazy. And laziness, as explained in a past post, is seen as a negative trait. Not having time means that you are active and engaged. Nobody asks how your time is used. Busy doesn’t necessarily mean productive. Being active doesn’t mean you are doing activities to improve the world or the life of others. Anyhow, everybody says that they don’t have time.

If you ask a million dollar tech company CEO or a ticket seller in a bus station, they both would say that they don’t have time. We have the same amount of time available during a day. 24 hours. We are using a part of it for sleeping and the rest in work and leisure time. For some, the lines between professional and personal lives are more blurred than for others. But everybody has at least a daily long list of to-dos. Even if some of those activities will happen today, or not, that seems anyway, like it’s time demanding. Therefore, busy. Either if you have to spend one hour on a call with a potential investor or vacuum the house, the time is equally valuable, and the activity makes you similarly busy. Everybody is equal in the face of time. And no event is more worth than the other. Time is just quantifiable moments that are continually passing, dissolving into nothingness.

Time arguably is the most critical resource. Although it is not renewable, clearly finite, it’s always the same for people. I would like to say that nothing really affects time as a resource. But that is not entirely true. Climate change doesn’t really have an effect on time. But if you think that all humans are born with equal amounts of time, the influence of the environment, much challenged by climate change, can affect the people. Pollution will take some years out of the available time, the food availability in a scarce, overpopulated world, will have a significant impact on life expectancy and longevity. The only end of the time is death.

Time is a resource that all organisms on Planet use, and the result is the past, present and the future. Even inert bodies are affected and use the time. A river passing the mountains creating valleys or a rock sculpted by the wind is defined by time. It is a resource that we use without our consent. We can’t overuse, nor underuse it. We just use it as it is. We can’t steal from others, exploit it and try to get the upper hand over competitors. Time is an apolitical, just, gender-equal, money neutral, resource. But there is one danger that is under our control; we can WASTE it.

I don’t mean that we can sit idle, be lazy or simply be inactive, letting the time pass unused. That too is a way of using the time. And in some cases, idleness can be a very positive way of using the time. What I want to say is that we can waste time by engaging in activities that are not improving our lives and others, but rather destroying it. To do harm, let yourself controlled by your vices or engage in activities that bring no satisfaction, is to waste time.

Scrolling the Facebook feed would give you the impression that you are using your time wisely by checking in on friends and contacts, or keeping updated with the latest news. In fact, you are actually wasting time that could be better used. Even staying present in those minutes and observing the things around you is a better use of the time. And if you want connection, there are other, more meaningful ways to do it than giving a thumbs up.

It’s challenging to keep track of the best practices for time usage. I developed a system that I will unpack more while exploring how the plants are using their time but will give the guideline here. I analyse in retrospect how I feel about any activities that I engaged in during the day. If I have a feeling of accomplishment, joy, or simply brings a smile on my face, then I know those activities, are marked as positive things to do. When I experience opposite thoughts, I know those are indeed activities which at that moment made me think it’s worth engaging in. Still, in retrospect, they brought more misery than joy.

Watching some YouTube videos might give me the feeling of relaxation, learning something new and enjoying some time off, at the moment when I decide to indulge in it. In retrospect, it will make me think I wasted time that I could have put in other activities that are more fulfilling, such as writing. This analysis helps me to ponder about which path to take. I’m not perfect, but it has really helped me to more often structure my time and find more meaning at the end of the day.

This medicine has some side effects. Try not to become a perfect human being. An overachieving machine. Be honest with the analysis. For example, watching TV in the evening is not very meaningful or a fulfilling activity, per se. But spending that time with my partner and enjoying a good TV show, is definitely not time wasted.

Plants and time

I have tried to unpack and organise the concept of time in the previous chapter. The goals were to create a baseline for the exploration of the concept through the lenses of the plants. I hope that the first chapters show how complex and abstract the time is. I think it highlights my obsessive contemplation on this concept and my inherent difficulty to grasp its meaning and utilise it wisely. So let’s explore how plants relate to time and what can we learn to apply in our finite lives.

The plants are very diverse, and I have explored in the post about death on the different timelines and longevity of different species. Some seem mortal, while others have a short life, compared with us. But despite this vast spectrum, they all have the same resource of time. Their goal is to not waste it and use it wisely to prolong their immortality through reproduction.

It’s funny how plants seem so immobile, still and just lay in the pots or ground, not doing anything. But if you have a plant at home, you will observe the results of its growth. You will see a flower in one day or more leaves in another. But the process is so slow that you can not attend this performance. That is why we enjoy watching time-lapses of plants growing, or flowers unfolding. We fast forward their time passing to our speed and impatience.

There is something so humbling and profound about this. Think about it. My lavender on the terrace lays in the sun like a lazy person on holiday. I don’t see much change from one day to another. And I like to think that I take enough time to observe the plants around me. One day while washing the dishes, I saw a flower. After a few days, more flowers, until the bush of lavender is full. But the process of forming a flower and getting the velvety purple colour is very tedious and slow-paced. And what we relate to as a lavender flower is actually an inflorescence. Meaning it is formed from multiple flowers neatly arranged in a certain way.

First, the stem of the inflorescence grows. Stealthy rises above the leaf canopy. Then it starts forming like an ear of wheat. It’s green and still keeps itself stealthy in the fullness of the leaves. Then from its sheaths, dark purple flowers emerge, shy in the beginning. From the base to the top. Getting up some courage, complimented by all buzzing insects and humans alike, the flowers, one by one, unfold and open widely. They lay and sparkle in the sunshine, getting ready to form the seeds that will help the plant prolong its immortality. The whole process is a spectacle that we miss and only awe at the end product.

Don’t just stop and smell the flowers. Stop and take a seat at their spectacle!

The plants live in the present

Time is a concept that interwinds in all other aspects of the society or personality that I write about. Therefore, there will be a lot of references to the other blog posts.

I made an argument about the plants that live in the present. They live in the now. It’s something that we, as humans, as much as we understand the concepts of past, present and future, are rarely in the now. And that has a significant impact on our lives. When we postpone activities that will help us grow, we are either stuck in the past that we can’t control or long for the unpredictable future.

The plants live in the present. They react objectively and immediately to the subtle changes in the environment to improve their chances of survival and reproduction. They don’t get stuck on mistakes of the past and don’t think of the future as a promised time to do more. They act now. To act as a plant is to live in the now. To take advantage of each second to grow and thrive. The plants mastered ‘the now’.

You might say that they don’t have much to do anyway, and the plants don’t have distractions as alluring as we do. It’s easy for them to be in the present. That is somewhat true, but I can think of other time frames for the plants too. Evolution, in itself, in the past. The plants react as they do because they are equipped with a set of tools and natural mechanisms that improves their adaptability to the environment. In that sense, the past is all the iterations of genetic information that has been passed and modified to make fitter traits that would bring a particular species of competitive advantages and adaptability. So, in a way, the plants learnt from mistakes and applied them in an iterative process to this moment.

We also went through this process of evolution. Our problem, though, is that the quick technological development is far in front of our biological advancements. Our brains are still weird like our tribal ancestors while living in a far futuristic era compared with that time.

In any case, it is clear that if you want to make use of the available time, you have to (try to) live in the present. And that is not enough. You can be mindful of your actions, even when these are not contributing positively to your life. For example, you could be in the now while smoking a cigarette. You could focus on each breath of smoke, the fire burning the end of the cigarette, the warmth around the fingers etc. That is to be mindful of the actions you do in the present. But that doesn’t help your life. In contrast, it is adversely affecting it.

It could be that such a mindful experiment might help giving up on bad habits. I try to think about food in that way (rarely, though). Go deeply to the whole value chain, see how much positive or negative impact it created or simply imagine the ingredients of that product as separate components. When you grasp the amount of sugar in some products that we love, you might have second thoughts on whether to eat that or not.

The plants will not indulge in activities that are not beneficial for their life. They are in the moment while concentrating their energy and focus on surviving and thriving. They take each moment of their life as an opportunity to grow and develop, and living in the present, helps to execute on those positive actions. The negatives are disregarded with the same tool of living in the now.

Going back to Orwell’s quote, the plants do control the present, thus controlling the past. What they do at the moment is creating history. Because they can fully be in the present, the ‘decisions’ that they take are without fail the best ones. Therefore the past is a mirror of ‘ethical’ behaviour and actions. And they do control the past through the mechanisms of evolution. The adaptation to the environment is a feature ‘learnt’ in a long time in which trials and errors lead to the successful traits that will render the species victorious. The passing of the plant’s DNA further and keeping the species safe and with increased longevity is paramount. Therefore the successful future is based on past evolution.

We can try to be more like a plant, and try to objectively observe our environment. Using the data, we can decide which actions we should take to improve our chances of a better life. If we crave some junk food, we should understand where that comes from and what will be the impact of that action on our body, mind and heart. And then take the correct set of steps. The more we do this, the more it will become second nature. It is hard and demanding in the beginning, but it’s a learning curve we have to go through.

Plants measuring time

I have discussed in this post about the history of clocks, the central aid in our efforts to organise the day to day life. Keeping the time as accurately as possible was an ancient preoccupation of humans. Its importance is undoubtful, and its implications in society are enormous. We managed to get the technology to accurately track and keep the time alongside with developing more things that nudge us into wasting it. It’s a paradox too little addressed in our society.

One might think that immobile organisms such as plants do not need to keep track of the time. They can’t anyway move so what is the point of caring about the passing of the time. Think of the vegetable planting calendar that humans use in their gardens. We wrote them, yes, but they were dictated by the plants. How so? Well, plants adapted to their environment through many years of evolution. They organised their life activities, mainly growing and reproduction, to fit the setting. They could not control the weather, biotic and abiotic factors, just change their traits through trial and error in finding the best mechanisms to thrive and survive [4].

The plants synced their activities to the seasons, temperature changes, soil characterisation and the dynamics that happen in the ecosystem. They do track the time. The very subtle changes in the environment that would not finch us are triggers for their operations. They take advantage of the perfect timing to initiate flowering, seeding or slowing down to get into dormancy in the winter. They track the time as accurately as we do, if not more. But they use their perfected tracking ‘devices’ to calibrate their actions with high precision and thus increase their likelihood of thriving in the environment.

They developed these synced timings within the ecosystem during millions of years of evolution. Climate change is going to such a rapid phase that these well-equipped plants are left fighting a war where they are not equipped for. The increase in the temperature might delay some of the actions, or fool them. A heatwave too early would start the flowering of the trees that will soon die in a frost wave that follows. The plants are reacting objectively to the environment. They use the time with the information they gather to precisely plan and execute their actions. But the fast and unpredictable changes that occur due to climate change will render them either too late or too premature. Their adaptability, which was built through millions of years and increased their resilience, disappears in a couple of years of man-made climate change.

A study showed that the wild species have better plasticity, or in other words, increased adaptability compared with the domesticated types [5]. And with human knowledge and technology, we should help the plants resilience. They gave so much to us (everything), it is time to give back something.

Even if the plants’ timing is under threat from climate change, it is essential to pay attention to the lessons that we can learn from them. We have a higher degree of understanding complex changes, such as climate change. We can react to it by understanding the cause and effect. But the timing and living in the present are two methods that need nurturing at the individual and societal level. Seizing the moment means taking the appropriate action that will assure that the outcome contributes to the bettering of your life and others. It means distinguishing what actions are wasting time and which are using it as a feeding resource to a growing organism. If we try to be more mindful about the activities, and the passing of time, we will equip ourselves with a tool that controls the past, present and the future.

Plants resource efficiency — time

In a previous blog post, on how plants react to a crisis, I have described the resource efficiency in nature. Plants are not wasting resources. They are taking as much as they need and give back to the ecosystem. The resource use efficiency is optimised through millions of years of evolution. Time as a resource is efficiently used by the plants, as well. The time is thoroughly understood by nature as a non-renewable but plentiful resource.

Time as a resource is finite in the sense that death is the ultimate deadline of the living organism. It is non-renewable in the sense that you can not recover, recycle or reuse the moments. Once passed, or used, it is gone. But it is a plentiful resource in the sense that as long as you are alive, you have it. No poor or rich, fortunate or unlucky person has more than the other at the present moment. Longevity can be influenced by the environmental or societal context, but not the time as input in the now.

The plants, therefore, use the time to survive, thrive and reproduce. They use it entirely. As a car uses fuel to run the engine, the plants use the time as input for reaching their goals. The plants don’t delay their photosynthesis when the sunrise hits the leaves, nor postpone taking up the nutrients necessary for the internal ‘kitchen’ of the day. They produce cells at a high rate using all the required resources and the time so that they can be thoroughly equipped for the next phases of their life. They don’t delay communication with the rest of the members of the ecosystem. They will never hope for the future to allow more time for them to react to the environment. They use the time entirely. Even in their apparent idleness, their machines are on full capacity dancing with the available resources, not losing energy on the things they can not control.

To use the time like the plants do is to achieve perfection. If you could ask the plants if they are busy, they would say no. For them, busyness is not a trait they look for. Each of the moments is diligently used for the betterment of their chances for survival and reproduction. Is that keeping busy? No! It’s being active in the right direction, putting aside distractions, doing everything that it is under your control to improve your life. Not waiting for tomorrow or grief the yesterday. Use the present and respect how fast and easy the moments pass.

I was reading some letters of Seneca, and he was making the argument that nobody should try to engage in more activities for the sake of being busy. That will create a restlessness of mind and body. Having more to-dos on your list doesn’t mean you will be more accomplished. The plants mastered the art of having the right amount of to-dos to accomplish the ultimate goal without engaging in frivolous activities.

Imagine a plant which, besides its normal activities specific to its species, would push the to-dos list further. It would grow more roots than it was necessary or develop more flowers than the resources and environment allow. That plant would ‘feel’ accomplished at the end of the day and against its competitors, but the next day would suffer ten times more. The nutrients will be depleted, and the energy put in more roots without reason would lead to a lack of resource management. It could result in its underdevelopment or death. In the words of Ray Bennet, ‘the tallest grass leaf is the first one to be cut’ [6].

The plants do not seek social status, and that frees them from engaging in unnecessary activities. We do. We like to show our communities how busy we are and how much we can achieve. We think that this is an output that would bring us more money or a better social status. That can indeed happen, but we would be fools if we think that it has anything to do with genuinely improving our lives, others’, or the world. In contrast, we are lying to ourselves and making a narrative that allows us to continue on that track.

We can’t directly match the plants in their mastery of using the time wisely. We are too young in the long process of learning this important lesson. But we are equipped with intellect and philosophy that allows us to speed up the pace of which we can learn things and explore the hidden teaching of the plants. We can learn from them and apply in our daily lives. The changes don’t have to be huge. There are little nudges that we can adopt in our daily lives.

Some of those are a simple mindful exercise of being in the moment and realising the fragility of the time passing, reminding ourselves about death and the little time we are given on this Planet. Or merely understanding that time is a resource that we all equally have will improve our daily lives. It is in our control to efficiently use it.

Time is like a train on which we are passengers. It goes without our control onwards, passing our life, but it is in our hands how we use our moments on the train. It will soon arrive at the end station where we have to get off and look backwards and hopefully be happy with the long journey.

References:

  1. Pinker, S., 2018. Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin.
  2. Clear, J. and Clear, J., 2018. Atomic habits. Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.
  3. *** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_timekeeping_devices
  4. Hart, S.P., Turcotte, M.M. and Levine, J.M., 2019. Effects of rapid evolution on species coexistence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(6), pp.2112–2117.
  5. Hauvermale, A.L. and Sanad, M.N., 2019. Phenological Plasticity of Wild and Cultivated Plants. In Plant Phenology. IntechOpen.
  6. Bennett, R., 2020. The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great. Chronicle Books.

Originally published at https://www.phytosopher.com on June 2, 2020.

Phytosophy is an anthology of thought experiments that explore the intrinsic human condition through the lens of the plants.