Commentary | The Conversationalist: Seeing ourselves in the fruits of life

“I don’t know how you feel about coriander. I like it, but not everybody does. Some people find that it smells like cat urine; others find it quite exotic and nice-tasting,” says David Wees, a professor in plant science and farm management and technology. Our affinity for plants and other living things is not a matter only of their flavour, or of their appearance. It is something much more fundamental and deep-rooted. Some people’s relationships with plants begin straightforwardly, as a profession or a hobby. Wees was drawn to his field of study simply because he prefers to be surrounded by greenery than by “four ordinary-looking walls.”

It is a symptom of biophilia, or “a love of living things.” The term was first coined by social psychologist Erich Fromm and later explored by entomologist Edward O. Wilson. We are innately attracted to all things living and life-like – an idea that is consistent with the expansion of such fields of study as urban horticulture and horticultural therapy. Plants are integral to our psychological well-being – a common, though not an immediately logical idea.

Visiting with Wees, I found myself drawn to seemingly mundane facts about apple varieties: their various anthropormorphic names – McIntosh, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Suntan; their family histories – “Braeburn and Gala came together, and so the Jazz was born.” McIntosh and Red Delicious formed the Empire. All apples, pears, raspberries, plums, and so on are actually descendants of the rose plant.

Wees also told me of the mysterious phenomenon of the “chance seedling.” One in a while, an unexplained tree will crop up in the middle of a farmer’s orchard. She will not have planted it; the tree might not even resemble anything else on his acreage; it will arrive, purely, by chance; and it might so happen that this anomalous tree will bear bigger, jucier, and more delicious fruit than the rest. In fact, two of the most popular apple varieties – red delicious and golden delicious – were not bred for their particular characteristics, but were themselves chance seedlings.

Considering Wilson’s idea of biophilia alongside my discussion with Wees, it becomes clear that our relationship to plants and animals, our specific way of sympathizing with them and of either humanizing them or mystifying them, speaks not to the nature of the plant or animal itself, but to the human condition.

“We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms,” Wilson writes in his book Biophilia. “They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.”

It seems that our relationship to nature, and even movements like environmentalism, are therefore not simply about preserving nature for nature’s sake, but are about preserving our sense of our own humanness. Our innate love for the living helps sustain life; although it is an optimistic and somewhat simplistic notion, it may also be read in a pessimistic light, as proof of the unerring egotism of the human species.

Are you a closet biopihiliac? Send your roses and other lovable objects to Rosie at theconversationalist@mcgilldaily.com.


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