On the human journey through the spiral of deep time.
It was nighttime and I had not left the house for several weeks. The pandemic had just begun. After a long day of desk work, I wanted to rest, move around a bit and get some fresh air. I took my flashlight and looked out into the garden. Like a nocturnal animal, I began to walk through each of the plants we have planted in recent years, and other trees and shrubs that have grown without asking permission: the guarumo, the lorito, the roses, the bamboo, the lemon, the bougainvillea, the redvein abutilon. I turned on my flashlight and illuminated each one as if they were soloists in a theater to observe them individually. I noticed they were different. They were in the same place, but they were not the same as a few hours ago. Some looked more upright, others had shrunk, some flowers were now open and some leaves were now closed.
The plants in my garden were moving at night.
Under our accelerated lifestyle it is to some extent understandable that we perceive plants as immobile, static beings, rooted in space and time. However, thanks to ancestral and scientific knowledge, we know that plants move in relation to their environment. Although it may seem otherwise, they are highly sensitive beings. Some studies even suggest that they are much more sensitive than us animals. They are capable of perceiving and reacting to stimuli such as climate, light, gravity, lunar and solar cycles, weather and, among other things, the behavior of other beings around them. Plants respond to relationships. Their sensitivity not only makes them dynamic beings in constant movement with an intelligence that we still do not fully understand, but it has also made them adapt to a planet that is in constant transformation, for around 500 million years.
That pandemic night in the garden I found some solace in these observations. My mobility was restricted by world conditions, but the plants had shown me that there were many ways in which I could continue to explore the world. I took advantage of the fact that there were few options for human social nightlife, and from a deep sense of curiosity, I decided to start observing them at night.
Something similar happened to Darwin in 1863 when illness confined him to his room for weeks. He, too, found solace for his innate desire to investigate when he turned his attention to his confinement companions: plants. He spent hours observing them, watching them grow, noticing how they devised strategies to find the light. Perhaps in the midst of his "normal" rhythm of life, Darwin would not have had the time and the desire to investigate the movement of plants, but because of an external factor (his illness), he was forced to adapt to their rhythm. Just like me in the garden. Just like everyone else at that time in our history.
Back in my garden and after several nights of dedicated observation and presence, my vision was already more refined and accustomed to the darkness. I began to notice that some leaves like those of the lorito trees (Cojoba arborea) would close at night, it seemed as if some animal had sucked each of the small bright green folioles that made up their leaves. Later I discovered that this species belongs to the same family as the touch-me-not (Mimosa púdica) and it all made sense. The guarumo (Cecropia obstusifolia) also showed its huge leaves positioned slightly downward, as if the light of the full moon was weighing on them. The leaves are in charge of receiving the light, some plants close their leaves at night to rest and then open them vigorously in the morning.
The ability of plants to adopt different positions in response to day and night is known as Nyctinasty, one of the types of nastic—temporal movements that occur in plants and are produced by external stimuli. In addition, they also respond to biological rhythms, including circadian rhythms, which govern their behavior throughout the day. I even read that there is also a kind of synchronicity between the movement of plants and the rhythms of the moon—as happens with the oceans and the tides, it is believed that the lunar cycles regulate the movements of the water that passes through the leaves.
However, beyond these movements of the leaves that were perhaps the most evident in my imagination and my animal sensibility, I suddenly discovered that the garden was in a beautiful choreography of nocturnal processes: the flower of the redvein abutilon and the leaves of the bamboo swayed gracefully from side to side to the beat of the wind; from some trunks, such as the gallito (Caesalpinia exostemma), glowing liquids poured out; the flowers of the spineless yucca looked closer together as if they were hugging each other.
But the most surprising thing in these nights of choreographies was the blossoming of an old and rigid cactus that had suddenly sprouted dozens of beautiful white flowers that only bloomed for a couple of nights. I remember feeling an indescribable excitement when I noticed this great transformation. That cactus that used to be very discreet during the day had suddenly become the protagonist of the garden. I wondered with regret how it was that after so many years living with it I had never noticed this spectacular nocturnal event.
On a moonless night it is said that light levels are 100 million times lower than on a sunny day, so some night-blooming flowers, such as those of the cactus, have developed special characteristics to be recognizable by their nocturnal pollinators, such as bats, moths and other insects. For example, they emit very strong odors to attract their pollinators by smell, they are also larger than those that bloom during the day, and they are almost always very light-colored to be more detectable by the specialized vision of their pollinators. At that moment I felt a tremendous desire to become a pollinator so that I could observe the cactus flowers in all their splendor.
Aware of my limited animal abilities to perceive the movements of plants, I took my camera to try to somehow interpret those nocturnal choreographies. It was not a simple matter. How to represent these invisible movements? Darwin asked himself a similar question. After long weeks of observing the cleverness of a climbing cucumber plant that moved slowly in search of the sun, he wondered how he could understand and reveal the movements of this plant accurately. So he developed a way to record the movements by placing the plant between a sheet of paper and a glass plate where he would mark a reference point as the plant grew. After many hours of recording, he was able to track the plant's movement over time. With a little creativity, Darwin made the invisible visible, he was able to represent and record the growth of hundreds of plants.
I wasn't as interested in recording exactly what the movements of the plants in my garden looked like, but somehow it seemed important to me to try to portray what my animal senses were noticing in each of these neighbors. By way of memory, by way of treasure, by way of observation. I wanted to capture what a little bit of attention on the unattended could reveal and provoke in my imagination, and for that I needed to remind myself of what I am: an animal with limited night vision, but with technology to figure it out.
During those long pandemic nights the plants in my garden were not only comfort and companionship, but also reminded me of my animality. They taught me that understanding themselves as beings in constant transformation, capable of adapting to new conditions, is the secret that will probably make them continue their life on Earth for millions of years more. Perhaps if we were a little like plants-sentient beings in constant relationship and transformation with their surroundings-we could enjoy more our experience of being life on a planet that is constantly transforming. Perhaps we would feel less frustration when things are not the way we want them to be. Perhaps the pain in the face of change would be more bearable.
Just as Darwin's studies became the basis for our current understanding of plant behavior, my nightly observations became the basis for my new relationship with the garden. Now I observe the plants and my garden through other sensibilities, we coexist under other rhythms, deeper and more careful ones. Without realizing it, the world constantly invites us to move slower, to give ourselves a pause to notice and appreciate that life is always in constant transformation.
You are garden
All the time
communion of universes
the Sun's drawings,
a dance of shadows on my notebook.
The Spider and the Stone,
looking at each other
the murmur of the nights
the concert of the mornings
the Leaves that moves without Wind
the Seed that pricks,
their paths and their holes.
the scent of the Poppy
the Root that looms
the Sprout that sighs.
the Hummingbird that traverses you
also the Fly,
also the Mosquito.
the craaaccc of Bamboo,
the juuuuuuu of the Wind
the friiiiiinnnn of the Great Kiskadee when the fruit falls.
the Tree melted in time
submerged in a hole.
Also the scent of the Rain hugging the Soil.
the tickles in my feet
the dirt that stays under my nails
my eyes seeking your rhythm
Some will say you are not.
That you are only terrain
prisoner of my lines,
property that does not shed.
I say that you are a green galaxy
that emerges when we let life be
that your limits are infinite
and your inheritance
You are generous complexity
Your are gift in motion
You are a lot of beings transforming
at each moment.
and will be
the constant spirit that accompanies us
the subtle hug I receive each day.
Who would I be
if you are not!
A few months ago I picked up some Guanacaste seeds (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). I like their ear shape and their rattling sound. So when the tree in the lot out front dropped its seeds in our garden, I gathered some and put them in the center of the table. There they stayed until one day my nephew found it fascinating to break them in half. I took them then to a corner in my garden and for days I watched as the seed coat eventually cracked and decomposed, until the little eye-shaped seeds were revealed. I continued to watch them curiously for weeks. One day the coating was gone, another day the little seeds started to turn green, another day, one of them had sprouted! One afternoon when I went out to photograph the seedling I found that its leaves were closed. When I returned the next morning they were open. Then in the afternoon, they were closed again. I allowed myself to marvel at this plant ritual as if it were the first time anyone had ever discovered it.
The other day, with the aloe plant, the same thing. In the morning, its flower was pointing to the west. Within three hours I found it pointing completely in the opposite direction, without noticing when it had moved. The experience strikes me as that of a magic trick, where rationally I know that there is a logical explanation for what I have just seen, but on the surface it appears to me to be marvelous and inexplicable. I know, rationally, that plants move and do things. I have read about the ways in which they know where is up and where is down, about the ways in which they transmit "messages" through their internal structure, about the phloem and xylem that conduct water, minerals and nutrients to the various organs of the plant. I have seen the stop motions that, condensing and accelerating time, show me the choreographies of the plants. But the truth is that left to my senses, all of this is imperceptible. If I depend only on my perception, I can only infer the movement of the plants from the evident changes in their position. What happens between point A and point B eludes me and I can easily fall into the trap of thinking that nothing worth appreciating is happening in between. However, it is precisely in that imperceptible lapse that the plant does what is necessary to generate a change.
This dismissal of the latent—that which exists without manifesting itself or which is apparently inactive—is a rather particular quality of our modern society. We have learned to see and value life through milestones: the key facts or outcomes that allow us to recognize 'progress'. It happens to us when we look at plants, our own lives or even the History of humanity. A few days ago, I listened to an interview Krista Tippet did with journalist Gal Beckerman, author of the book The Quiet Before. Beckerman gathers in his book a series of movements that happened silently, without protagonism, but that were the spaces where some of the most radical ideas in history were conceived and that we know only through their later outbursts: the scientific revolution, universal suffrage, feminist movements, civil rights. By emphasizing the quiet before, Beckerman highlights the long and discrete periods that preceded these events, pointing to the necessary incubation that these ideas required.
The Guanacaste seeds I had collected were from the two trees on the properties next to our house. That is, neither of those trees are growing on our property, yet their long branches reach over the walls and sway over our garden. I can see them from my bedroom window, from my bed even. So, every day, the movement of their branches is my first indicator of the weather: the stormy rustle of the February winds, the tremor of the leaves before the rain, the pleasant sway of a sunny, cool day, the stillness at the peak of the dry season.
A few months ago, however, I woke up, not to the news of the weather, but to the deafening sound of the chainsaw. The neighbor had ordered the cutting of all the branches of one of the trees at the height of the first junction of the trunk. At the end of that horrible day, all that remained of the tree was its immobile trunk. In my rage and helplessness, I spent several days trying to understand whether what the neighbor had done was legal or not in our country. The person who answered when I called the Environmental Ministry was patient and empathetic. He told me that there is not much to do in the face of a pruning, but he also instructed me on the signs that would tell me if the tree was dying or healing. He told me that if the tree was fine, it would begin to secrete a kind of resin to protect itself from fungus and bacteria, after which small new branches would begin to sprout. As I listened to him speak it seemed impossible to me to think that, from what was left of the trunk, the tree would sprout again. I allowed myself my skepticism and the mourning that went with it. And also, I began to pay attention to the tree, looking for, and even eager for, the signs that this person had announced to me. The morning I saw a kind of amber glowing in the sun on the surface of the trunk, I was grateful to have been wrong. The day I noticed the first leaves sprouting I dreamed again of long branches swinging back over my garden and dropping their seeds.
The term incubation comes from the Latin Incubatio which combines the prefix in- (inward) with the verb cubare (to lie down). The Latin term in turn originates from a magical-religious practice that occurred in the traditional medicine of ancient Greece—and probably in cultures before this one. Incubatio was a method in which a sick person slept on the temple floor in a sacred area until they had a meaningful dream, the message of which was interpreted by oracles to decipher revelations about the future, transcendental knowledge, or cures for illness.
When Beckerman speaks of the incubation that was required for the radical ideas that have moved the world, he also speaks of the qualities that this latent period has given the movements; among them patience, coherence, imagination. "People can’t sort of strive for a reality until they can begin to imagine it, right? And to imagine it, they need to see some indication that it could exist." According to Beckerman, those indications are seeded in conversations: "...that’s what I see in those moments in the quiet before. I see people having conversations."
The quiet before: the sacred space to dream and propose the possible.
My mom came over the other day and I showed her the Guanacaste seedling. Since I am her daughter, she was as excited as I was when she saw it. We talked about where it could be transplanted when it got bigger, about the space and conditions it would need to grow well. My mom has a natural talent for envisioning gardens and the knowledge and patience to make it happen. That day she told me that she had planted a row of palm trees in her own garden. "I know I won't see them full-grown, but my great-grandchildren will enjoy them"— she told me.
I did not foresee a Guanacaste growing on our side of the fence. For that seed to sprout here it took my admiration for its shape, my desire to collect it, my nephew's curiosity (and mischief), my decision to throw it in the garden and not in the organic trash, the right conditions of soil and climate. But before all that, it took another tree to propose the possibility of its existence in the form of a seed and drop it in my garden.
Moving from one place to another is a change that most trees can only do like that: from one generation to the next. It is a patient, gradual transfer. The day I gathered that seed from the ground, something had already begun to develop before its full manifestation. Latent. Waiting for the right circumstances and conditions to fully manifest in the consciousness of the world. I was just a small part of that.
Tippet sums up Beckerman's findings in a powerful phrase: "every idea that has changed the world began with seeds planted over long, fitful stretches." This, she says, refreshes our perception of how great social change happens by showing us "the reality that our lives and actions below the radar hold the possibility of being more generative than we can measure."
Beckerman describes what happens in the quiet before as a slow, communal process of discovery. That is, it doesn't happen from one moment to the next, and it doesn't happen through a single person. The characters in his book are people whose names almost no one remembers. One of those characters Beckerman quotes in the interview is a French aristocrat named Peiresc, who wrote:
“The brevity of human life does not allow that one person alone is sufficient; it is necessary to adopt the observations of a good number of others from the past centuries and future ones to clarify that which fits better.”
The ideas that these people put forward were, at the time, absolute madness. They were ideas that challenged the seemingly immovable order of their world, and could even be dangerous to mention outside of trusted circles. The rise of these ideas into the world did not take place at podiums or megaphones, but in intimate, informal, close conversations. Many of them, perhaps, in a garden.
Only time will tell if the Guanacaste seedling will grow into a huge tree that extends its branches beyond this garden. However, the possibility already exists in my imagination, even though it still strikes me as a kind of magic trick that a seed I held in my hand could grow into a huge tree. But that's how it is, everything in this world begins as a tiny, improbable possibility, everything is developing before it fully manifests.
To be that small and improbable part of something seems fascinating to me. I am thrilled by the reality that each life can, in subtle and forgettable ways, participate in the possibility of new worlds. So I go out into the garden and try to tend to the latent. Not to decipher the trick of each movement, but rather to marvel at the magic of the constant birth of the world.
Before a sick world, I lie down in the temple of my garden
and dream of the possible.
Sometimes, when the wind subtly sways the Guanacaste,
I surrender to the conversation of the leaves and listen:
the quiet before.