Soul Survivors

by Bhutatma dasa
Thomas Hobbes, a materialistic, and admittedly cranky, British philosopher from the 17th century, held a rather stark view of life. He famously declared that in its natural state, the life of man is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Following his own lead, he also suggested a quick-and-easy method for realizing one’s inner-being; viz., let someone put a musket to the side of your head. You will, he assured, learn immediately and precisely who you are—a tiny core of being whose essence amounts to nothing more than a craving to survive.

As devoid of grace as Hobbes appears to have been, his proposal does reflect a certain portion of Vedic wisdom; the understanding that every living entity possesses an inherent aspiration to live forever. Of course, the Vedas relate this powerful inclination to survive, and the fearfulness that emerges when we are directly confronted with death, to the eternal nature of the soul. As Srila Prabhupada writes, “A forgetful, conditioned soul is fearful, (but) fearfulness is a sort of illusion for the living being when he is in slumber and forgetting his eternal relation with the Lord.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.14.38)

Human beings, of course, are not the only living entities who encounter this dream-like panic when faced with the possibility of death, or “non-being.” “There are 8.400,000 species of living beings beginning from the highest intellectual being, Brahma, down to the insignificant ant, and all of them are enjoying the material world according to the desires of their subtle mind and gross material body.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.2.33) So all forms of material life are enjoying in their own way, and resisting “non-existence” in their own way. In light of this, I found some current research on the survival mechanisms of plants intriguing, both as illustrations of the Vedic principle (and its Hobbesian version), and at the same time as glimpses of the amazing creativity of Paramatma, and how He arranges for self-preservation in various ways, all suited to the life form itself. In Srimad Bhagavatam 1.12.17, Srila Prabhupada makes this point, explaining how Supersoul offers protection “to different grades of living beings…by His different potencies.” And he reaffirms this idea in 1.13.45, wherein he states, “Every living creature is allowed all protection by the order of the Supreme Lord in terms of each one’s acquired position in the world.”

In indirect homage to Supersoul, scientists who are exploring such things as the manner in which plants respond to changes in the environment and the sophisticated strategies they employ to ward off attackers, are finding ever increasing appreciation for the ingenuity of our quiet neighbors.

Nowadays, when plant biologists refer to their subjects, the terms they use portray plants as active, purposeful entities who seek self-preservation in ways that indicate acute sensitivity. “Plants are not static or silly,” says 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, and they can even talk through chemical signals.” Touch, sight, hearing, speech? Doesn’t sound like your Dad’s garden anymore! As Dr. Hilker explains, plants exhibit “sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals.”

The view of plants as “slightly animate”, not much more than a food source for the critters who graze upon grassy fields (or steam up pots of veggies) appears starkly out-of-date, and measurably out-of-line, with the incredible behaviors plants routinely demonstrate to the careful observer. Ponder a few of the following examples of plant survival strategies, and perhaps the notion of plants as “passive sunlight collectors” will seem slightly oversimplified. Plants defend themselves, speak to one another, and even eavesdrop on their fellow plant’s conversations.

“Plants are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” says Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” For example, when a predator nibbles on a plant’s leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to drive it away or even emit an adhesive to entrap it. “I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Dr. Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania Sate University, citing how within minutes of being munched upon by a caterpillar, a plant will have organized a full-on defense from the intruder.

Sometimes these defensive measures include cries for assistance. Scientists have uncovered how plants, upon sensing the jaws of an uninvited diner getting busy on their corpus, send out volatile chemicals that act as the vegetable kingdom’s version of a 911 call. And who you gonna call? How about insect-eaters such as dragon flies, who delight in caterpillar meat, or tiny parasitic insects, who can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within. (It is brutal out there!)

Sometimes plants send off communiqués to summon insects who can help rid them of unwanted and potentially damaging eggs. Take the case where a cabbage plant senses that a female cabbage butterfly has laid her eggs on the plant’s leaves, snugly attaching them with tiny dabs of glue. Once it detects the glue on its leaves, the mighty cabbage swings into action. It fires off a chemical SOS message that beckons female wasps, who are drawn to the cabbage under siege, and upon arrival inject the hostile caterpillar eggs with their own eggs. As the infant wasps gestate, they consume the plant-devouring gestating butterflies, and viola! the cabbage is rescued—a high-tech home security system without the monthly fees or sluggish police response times!

Unconstrained by any sort of vegetable kingdom ACLU, plants also routinely eavesdrop on one. As described in the journal Science, a parasitic weed (similar to the morning glory) can detect volatile chemicals released by a potential host such as the tomato plant. The young parasitic weed uses the signal to direct its growth closer and closer to the tomato plant host, finally encircling its stem and literally sucking the life phloem right out of it. The parasitic weed is so adept at “listening in”, it can even distinguish among the messages emitted from healthier or weaker plants, and make a beeline for the stronger ones. “Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants,” the article’s author explains, “it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.”
So next time you stroll by a vegetable garden and think you hear a muffled “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,” don’t be so quick to shrug it off as your imagination—with the help of the Supersoul, these plants have got it going on.


Posted in Editorials.