Challenged seeds still attempt to thrive

Narrated by Anchor.fm AI

I grew up in a farm setting. It was more of a hobby farm than a fully working one, but my parents managed to earn some money selling some produce. Our primary cash crop were strawberries that would bear fruit only for a few weeks around June time frame. When they produced, we had lots of strawberries and I was picking them up from ground level in the sun.

There was a lot of work to prepare for the picking season. The plants needed to be spaced out or replaced. The runners would start new plants and they either had to be moved or discarded so that there was room for cultivating and straw.

My broader point is that we took care of where the strawberries were allowed to grow. That care resulted in healthy plants that bore lots of fruit when the time came for that. We gave them everything they could want: lots of sunlight, plenty of water and fertilizer, room to grow, and protection from invasive plants or pests.

Eventually, we settled on a garden for ourselves but the garden was meant to provide a substantial portion of our annual food. Instead of seasons for selling things, there were seasons for picking and then canning or freezing or otherwise storing the crop that would all ripen at about the same time. When it was time to pick sweet corn, it was time to pick the entire crop and that crop was supposed to supply us for much of a year through canning or freezing. We were fortunate in having very fertile ground and many of the crops produced in great abundance for the size of the garden.

I have mixed memories of that experience. I am grateful for having it. I loved the experience of cultivating crops from start to finish. We also had animals of different types at different times, and I loved the experience of caring for them. On the other hand, I recall the dread of having to work when the work was needed. When it is time to pick, things must be picked right then. Another example was with the farm animals that demanded daily chores, every single day.

The work pays off in having a productive farm because we gave everything as close to optimal conditions as we could manage. As I mentioned, we were fortunate in having a good location so that our task was not as great as others.

All my adult life, I have spent zero time around a farm or even a garden. I did some lame attempts at gardens but I was too consumed with the mental challenges of work that I couldn’t get myself to pay attention to the simple but repetitive attention needed for even a decent garden. Instead, I contented myself by just watching progress for plants along my usual routes. These would include the well maintained lawns and the mostly wild growth along the park trails. I follow the same routes with some regularity where one of the motivations was to observe the progress of things, or to check out if the same thing I saw last year came back the following year, and if so how did it compare with last year. That kind of thing fascinates me.

When I bought this house, I eventually gave up on trying to plant specific things or achieve anything with the land. Instead I just let things grow where they wanted and then trimming or removing the ones that seem to get too crowded or were clearly unwanted. Very unexpected things would start to appear. Clearly they came from seeds, but I’m not aware of any plants of that type anywhere nearby.

By the way, that gave me hope that someday some squirrel would plant in my yard a hickory nut from the tree that is growing in the park about a block away. I specifically wanted it to come randomly. That’s one tree I never saw sprout in my yard. Unsurprisingly I got some mulberries that thrive here and are carried by the birds. I also got trees from seeds from my neighbor’s tree. The surprising trees were fruit trees, I think they are apple trees or something related to apple. Also mysterious was a cedar tree that came from no where.

These are trees that want full sunlight and room to grow. Instead they ended up in shade and crowded by other plants. Also, apple trees and cedar trees should not be near each other, yet that is where they happened to come up. The cedar is gone now, lost due to a landscaping attempt to manage the slope. The apple trees remain completely in the shade of a mature tree. They are growing up tall and narrow with still a small trunk. They haven’t been there for long, probably started when I started my most recent job about six years ago.

The volunteer trees that are most comfortable in my yard come from the roots of a large tree of heaven that I had removed many years ago. This is a notoriously invasive tree because the sprouts come from already mature root system so they grow very fast and thick. Every year, I cut out about a thousand of these things when they reach about 5 feet high. I am not exaggerating. I keep wondering if they can be made into a crop because I have a reliable annual harvest.

The second most comfortable come from the neighbor’s tulip poplar. So far they seem unperturbed by growing in the shadow of the parent, and they are excessively crowded. Although I did not deliberately plant them, they are growing roughly where I wanted some trees. Given that the parent tree is very old and apparently stable in its location, I think this will work out.

The mulberries are content enough to bear fruit, but they are mulberries after all. I like the tree even when is struggling to get some space.

There is a pin oak tree that showed up voluntarily about 20 years ago. This one I deliberately transplanted to a spot I thought was more where I wanted a tree, but even that was probably not where this tree wanted to be. It was too close to the neighbor’s tulip poplar. Yet, this tree is managing to grow a straight trunk as it tries to reach the sky. Despite its nearly 20 year head start, it is losing the height race from the tulip poplars.

Soon I will clear out things before they get too out of control, but it has been interesting to watch.

I think about the perspective of the seed. In each case, the seed had the potential grow into a large and broad tree if only it had started with plenty of room and sunlight. Instead, it started in a very unfortunate conditions. It does not have room to grow, and it does not have much sunlight. I imagine each may yet grow into their fullness if only all the others would disappear.

Recently, I installed some landscaping to level off the slope near the house. The level is perfect for a garden of some sort. The nostalgic part of me really wants to make it into a vegetable garden. The problem is that it does not get enough sunlight.

The long term plan is to get some shrubs or small trees but that will have to wait until autumn. While waiting for that time, I decided to try to plant some seeds in packages that clearly state the need for full sun. I planted them a single seed at a time with a spacing more appropriate for shrubs. I tried to pick the locations from memory where there were most splotchy sunlight in the summer.

I also did not do anything to prepare the ground such as add some topsoil or fertilizer. If the seeds do manage to sprout they are not going to thrive. I bought a variety to see which one will at least make it to a flowering stage. I only used about a quarter of the seeds in the packets and I intend to plant those in a similar fashion after the first batch sprouts so they will be spread out over time. The experiment is whether there is a good spot and a good time for a certain plant. It would be fantastic if I managed to find a spot and time for one type of plant that would provide me even one meal’s worth of produce.

I imagine from the seed’s perspective what I am doing is cruel. These are premium selected seeds that have the potential of producing bountifully if only they were planted according to the instructions. I deliberately disregarded the instructions.

The seeds have no choice where they are planted. I apologize for using the word choice, but I am using the term in context of the potential that resides in the seed. That potential requires the fortune of being planting in a favorable spot, or being planted at all, as many of its package peers may never get planted.

At the start, the seed had little clue about where it is. The information it has is that is surrounded by warm and moist dirt. It will start off with a root and a shoot. Perhaps it may give up shortly after starting because the conditions are not right to even get started. I expect they will make it out of the ground and offer their first leaves. At that point, they may appear healthy for that stage, but also at that point they will demand provenance from the sky above and the ground below. Their future will depend how well they can tolerate the meager rationing of sunlight and nutrients that they will have available. Given the conditions, I would be surprised if any really survive more than a week after breaking ground. The world they are entering just is not the world they need.

In a previous post, I described the dilemma of a new born or a hatchling. It enters the world after developing as far as it can with the offering of the parent. At that point, it needs to start to survive on its own. I wondered in that post what motivates the new creature to even try to survive. It may just think this is what life is all about, including the starvation and thirst. The purpose of life could be to merely experience breathing the air and feeling the sunlight. I conjectured that they need a taste of something wholesome in order to then start pursuing it. For mammals, that would be the taste of the mother’s milk.

I don’t know what that first taste would be for something like a nest of turtles long abandoned by the parents. For sea turtles, they somehow must get a taste of the refreshing feeling of water because their first act is to seek out water. The nest is usually a distance from the shore so they didn’t figure it out but directly experience being soaked in the first place. We describe their immediate seeking of the water as instinct, but I remain mystified as to how that happens. From the hatchling’s perspective, it gets out of the confines of the egg and is able to fully fill its lung with air and see things in sunlight. With no parental guidance or accidental taste, what motivates it to do anything but just passively experience the brief life it will have in that state.

For plants, the motivation is more straight forward. Once their leaves start receiving sunlight, it will start to benefit from what the roots have to offer. The roots have a motivation to grow to satisfy the growing demand. Meanwhile the adequate sunlight will start to produce an excess of energy and other organic products. This wealth encourages the production of more leaves, but it also needs to do something with the excess and the solution is to build more structure to hold up the plant. Once the plant breaks above ground, the path for growth is self-motivating as long at the opportunity for growth is there. It needs the sunlight and the nutrients, and it also needs the absences of poisons or diseases.

The crucial point is when the plant breaks ground. For the most part up to that point, it was relying on the benefits provided by the parent and the very basic access to water. When it emerges, it probably will have the appearance, if only briefly, of a healthy plant with much potential. Once it starts to convert sunlight into energy, it will then test its surroundings to see if it will provide adequate sunlight and nutrients. When that test fails, it will begin to show distress and lose its appearance of having any future potential. The plants may die shortly afterwards, or they may struggle.

I recall a similar experiment I made several years ago. I had some old flax seed left over from a long time ago, I think it was sitting there for a couple years. Instead of throwing it away, I just scattered it on a bare spot in my front yard. No attempt at fortifying the soil, and the spot was shady. The plants did sprout and they did grow to the point of producing a flower or two. The plants were clearly far from there potential, but they did manage to get to a flower. That impressed me.

I do imagine that plants have some kind of awareness of their circumstances. This awareness may just be a metaphor for the overall functioning of all the internal mechanisms. It must have been clear from very early on that that the circumstances are not optimal for completing a life cycle to produce even a single seed. The plant continued to try.

I recognize the mechanistic explanation that the plant was just following the necessary consequences of the prior steps of its development. The production of the first leaf necessarily starts the growth of stem and a new leaf. The plant will continue with the resources given. At some point, it will attempt to make a flower, and even produce a seed if it has the energy. I am not convinced that the process is entirely mechanistic. When starved of resources, it makes just as much mechanistic sense to just stop growing.

As I described the process earlier, the success of earlier stages provides the motivation to take growing to the next level. I imagine there needs to be some motivation to reach ever higher and then build a flower. When it is in a location that is not giving it what it needs, I don’t see the motivation.

A human analogy of the YOLO (you only live once) gamble some people take. There is a chance it may pay off eventually so you have to continue forward. That change may be miniscule but it is always possible.

For the misfortunate plant, maybe the tree above will fall down in a wind storm. If that happens it will win. It might just happen this one time.

Going back to the key inflection point of the plant just emerging from the ground. At that very brief period, the plant may appear as healthy as any of its peers including those planted in the most optimal conditions. When I observe the plant, that may be what I conclude. My mind would simulate the future and imagine collecting its fruit in about 60 days. Then, perhaps just a day later, its real prospects will become clear. This will not be a plant that will ever produce anything. The best I can hope for is that it would grow for a little bit more.

I describe this as an analogy of what I have heard about autism. Many stories describe the child being completely healthy and progressing well up until sometime between the first and third birthday when the behavioral development stops and rapidly regresses. Up until that point of regression, the future appeared bright for that child. After the regression starts, there is obvious desperation of the parents who will try anything they can to get things back on track, but to no avail.

It is like the farmer seeing his crop under distress and then doing something like irrigating it or applying some pesticide or something. The parents likewise are trying to restore the promise they originally saw in their child.

In my recent posts, I described the case of an autistic person finally gaining the ability to communicate when he was adult age. In that communication, he described his experiences throughout all the years when everyone assumed he had no such experiences. He described a condition very similar to how I imagine what is happening in a plant. He knows he is more capable than the circumstances will allow him to be. It is impossible for him to escape those circumstances inherent in his neuro-muscular system. It is like the impossibility of the seed to change its circumstances. Despite this dire situation, the autistic mind continued to grow and even mature.

If it is true that the autistic person always had full cognitive awareness of his surroundings, then he was as desperately seeking some solution as was his parents, but with the added handicap of not being able to communicate and of not having experienced a normal life to learn from.

I find this description of autism to be horrifying. At the same, I find it astounding that after 17 years of such isolation, a seemingly well-adjusted personality can emerge almost unscathed. He wants to pursue a college education and is making progress toward doing that. His life for the early 17 years must have been mentally torturous, yet he emerges as someone who does not appear to be a victim of torture, assuming his choice to pursue a degree in neurology is not a pursuit of revenge.

If his story is true, it changes our understanding of autism (or certain subsets of that group). I think it also challenges our notions of the fragility of the mind. He was able to grow his mind despite the hardships.

One presumption of autism is the lacking of cognitive ability. Another may be that the cognitive ability is there but would stop developing or regress due to the inability to communicate with the world through language or through action. It is incredible that the cognitive ability would continue to thrive within that circumstance. The mind continued to develop and mature. I want to know how this is possible.

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