Rilke & Chamovitz on Plants

A remarkable new book on plants has appeared.  Entitled What a Plant Knows:  A Field Guide to the Senses (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012), it is by Daniel Chamovitz, a leading research botanist.  His approach is clever.  He describes at the molecular level how humans sense things, & then does the same with plants.  In doing so, he shows scientific proof that plants can see, smell (yes!), touch (feel) & remember.  He also proves that plants cannot taste or hear.  Regarding the latter, he has fun with a book that appeared in ’73 claiming that plants like the music of Bach & Muzak, but shrink under the impact of Hendrix & Led Zep.  Chamovitz proves that is not true at all, while admitting he grew up on Hendrix & Led Zep.

The book is very well written for the general reader, with only a minimum of jargon.  The endnotes contain all the short scientific articles which appeared in technical scientific journals demonstrating proof of these facts.  But one doesn’t even need to look at those to follow his reasoning.  The book should help cure all those “animal chauvinists” who think plants aren’t intelligent.

The poet Rilke would have loved this book & its wealth of information.  He was always interested in factual scientific precision, hated the approximate in knowledge.  This was especially true of his knowledge of plants.  I illustrate this in chapter 5 of my Rilke on Death book which discusses his intense & unusual interest in several specific plants, notice especially hydrangeas & the hazelnut tree.

In my book  Rilke on Love, I discuss the rose in his self-composed epitaph & also translate this 2-line poem from late in his career:

Transform stamen on stamen,                                                                                                           fill your interior rose.

This is an incredibly concise account of the evolution of the ancient eglantine (sweetbrier) flowers, simple red & yellow, into the more modern rose with its multiple colors, by way of  the eglantine’s stamens slowly evolving into the rose’s petals.  Rilke also refers to this phenomenon in his Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 6.

Read Chamovitz’s fascinating book with Rilke’s approach to plants in mind.




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