"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Vines on Black / Vines in Films

From We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson:

“One day a group came by bicycle; there were two women and a man, and two children. They parked their bicycles in our driveway and lay down on our front lawn, pulling at the grass and talking while they rested. The children ran up and down our driveway and over and around the trees and bushes. This was the day that we learned that the vines were growing over the burned roof of our house, because one of the women glanced sideways at the house and said that the vines almost hid the marks of burning….

“We learned, from listening, that all the strangers could see from outside, when they looked at all, was a great ruined structure overgrown with vines, barely recognizable as a house. It was the point halfway between the village and the highway, the middle spot on the path, and no one ever saw our eyes looking out through the vines.”

From “The Long Rain” in The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury:

“The storm above them flashed down another series of bolts and then moved on away. Once again there was only the rain, which rapidly cleared the air of the charred smell, and in a moment the three remaining men were sitting and waiting for the beat of their hearts to subside into quiet once more.

“They walked over to the body, thinking that perhaps they could still save the man’s life. They couldn’t believe that there wasn’t some way to help the man. It was the natural act of men who have not accepted death until they have touched it and turned it over and made plans to bury it or leave it there for the jungle to bury in an hour of quick growth….

“Even as they stood over the body it began to vanish, for the vegetation was edging in upon it, little vines and ivy and creepers, and even flowers for the dead.”

From MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood:

“Ahead of them is the roadway leading through the forest. Untrimmed branches reach into the corridor of light above it, opportunist weeds push into it from the margins, renegade vines overhang it. Out of the swelling foam of vegetation the curved dome rises like the white half-eye of a sedated patient. It must once have seemed so bright and shining, that dome; so much like a harvest moon, or like a hopeful sunrise, but without the burning rays. Now it looks barren. More than that, it looks like a trap: for who can tell what’s hidden in it, and what’s hiding?”

From The Passage by Justin Cronin:

“They emerged into the atrium, into sun so bright they blinked against it. The room was like a forest. Nearly every surface was choked with fat green vines; in the center a stand of palms reached toward the open ceiling. More vines dripped from the exposed struts of the ceiling, like coils of living rope….”

From Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer:

“The deserted village had so sunk into the natural landscape of the coast that I did not see it until I was upon it. The trail dipped into a depression of sorts, and there lay the village, fringed by more stunted trees. Only a few roofs remained on the twelve or thirteen houses, and the trail through had crumbled into porous rubble. Some outer walls still stood, dark rotting wood splotched with lichen, but for the most part these walls had fallen away and left me with a peculiar glimpse of the interiors: the remains of chairs and tables, a child’s toys, rotted clothing, ceiling beams brought to earth, covered in moss and vines.”


For this post, I took a few of the grapevine photos from the previous two posts (see Plant Entanglements (1 of 2) and Plant Entanglements (2 of 2) and reprocessed them on black backgrounds. Lightroom keeps making it easier to get good results with this technique, and yet there is still a bit of tedium associated with each one. As precise as Lightroom masking can be, I always end out cleaning up around the fine edges of each element of the photo, once I decide which parts to keep and which parts to smother in darkness. As with other repetitious tasks, the mind wanders while the brushes flow — and I started wondering about how often I’ve seen vines represented in apocalyptic scenes in books and movies, where they’ve taken over buildings and cities.

While I usually lead off each of my posts with quotes from poetry or nonfiction books about plants, nature, gardening, or photography, this time I went a-searching my collection of fiction books for references to vines. A lot of my fiction reading occurs in the dystopia, science fiction, or horror genres — this is probably because I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was a baby — yet I was still surprised at how often nefarious vines appeared in these books. The five quotes above are just a small sample; scary vines, apparently, strike many writers as darkly metaphorical — and as especially potent symbols of nature reclaiming civilization.

Botanically, the appearance of vines swallowing a cityscape would indicate a fairly advanced stage of reforestation. Vines would certainly not appear at the outset; they would, instead, be preceded by a variety of plants generally known as rosettes — small plants with leaf structures at ground level — whose growth helps create conditions for later, larger plants to take hold in the soil. Vines would probably show up around the time that shrubs and the first shoots of future-trees appeared, but the vines would have the distinct evolutionary advantages of rapidly growing upward as they reached for the sun, attaching to and climbing any structure they encounter, and “outrunning” plant-eating animals. That they evolved to avoid herbivores is probably speculation; but, hey, why not, let’s give them their agency.

With a little bit of “googling” I was surprised to discover a robust body of research on plants and the arts. Try searching for phrases like “plants in movies” or “plants in literature” if you’d like to see what I mean. The last search led me to this article: Plants and Literature — a fine overview of the subject — which covers both historical references to plants in prose and poetry, and also connects to contemporary movies and books. Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins and the 2008 movie by the same name (where (spoiler alert!) the vines consume the humans) and Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, also adapted into a movie (where humans get blended into plant-person hybrids, among other astonishing things) are both mentioned. Vines have at least co-starring roles in both books and both movies — but their visuality is more flagrant in the movies. A fun comparison could be made between those books and films, and that of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House — where there is only one incidental reference to a vine, yet the various movies based or loosely-based on her book typically feature threatening attack-vines twisting among the woodwork of the house and capable of doing-in the human interlopers.

What is it about vines that get so much literary attention? Vines, grapevines, and ivy are often potent religious symbols, and also frequently represented in cemetery garden designs and funerary art (see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister) — so culturally, and across cultures, that gives them some special oomph. Many vines get designated as invasive species; yet those same vines can be purchased at garden stores in tiny pots and transplanted into our gardens. On one hand, we can’t control them; on the other hand, we think we can. My own property features about five different vine varieties that I subsequently learned are considered invasive in the southeast, including English ivy and wisteria — both of which I only find “personally invasive” (that’s not really a thing) when I get behind on my landscaping and they do what they naturally do: try to take over anything they can get their tendrils on.

Eighteen years ago — as a new homeowner and extra-amateur gardener — I thought the wisteria growing near one back corner of my house was just delightful, until I realized that in a few summer weeks it had grown up the side of the deck, along the back walls of the house, and into the attic through a roof vent. Me and the wisteria got in a fight after that: I pulled about fifty feet of vine from the attic and cut the rest back, then thought I might be better off to down it entirely… which I tried to do by sawing through the vine’s ten-inch-diameter base, and, failing to make much more than a dent, went to Home Depot and bought a trellis for it instead. For the vine, in other words, the battle was won.

Similarly, after a multi-year drought afflicted the southeast around 2008, a new vine appeared embedded within the English ivy in my front yard, a plant I’ve not been able to identify but is probably a creeper variation, based on its behavior and appearance. Its leaves are tiny — the largest ones only an inch or two wide — and it produces skinny, strong, and fast-growing stems that are both self-entangling into a pyramid shape and will wind themselves around individual English ivy leaves or any plant, tree, or shrub they encounter. While it dies off every winter (its only redeeming characteristic), it’s become one of my summer rituals to get rid of as much of it as I can, since it will choke off the ivy if I let it. To the English ivy then, this anonymous vine, I imagine, is an invasive species. To me too!

So I suppose some of our darker experience with vines — especially invasive or obnoxious ones — is about our uneasy relationship with nature: we want to tame what will not be tamed, but we keep trying anyway. Their silent violence and tenacious exuberance affords them a special place in literature and film, considerably more prominent than just setting the mood or establishing the scene. Given their unique abilities — especially that of rapid growth (that seems to happen as we watch); their ability to envelope large structures and landscapes (see, for example, kudzu smothering trees near Atlanta); and their tendency to be only temporarily manageable — they can be twisted into a powerful metaphorical choice for books and movies.

Maybe there should be a separate Oscar category for Best Vine in a Feature Film….

Wasn’t that fun? See what happens when my mind wanders!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Plant Entanglements (2 of 2)

From “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell in Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.


This is the second of two posts with photos of grapevines from my garden, taken in April, 2022 and recently discovered entangled the backlog of my Lightroom library. The first post is Plant Entanglements (1 of 2). As with the previous post, the first batch of five photos shows the tendrils and leaves of a Concord grapevine; and the rest are from a Catawba grapevine.

Hmmm… I’m thinking I might sling a few of these grapevines onto black backgrounds just to see how they look; although — given the very tiny and fine details in some of the images — this may take some time….

Thanks for visiting!

Plant Entanglements (1 of 2)

From A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger:

“Left to their own devices, your plants’ vines will branch and rebranch and then rebranch some more, crisscrossing each other while growing several inches a day into a wrist-thick spaghetti of vinery. The plants will also want to develop lots of leaves, which are as big as serving platters and hover above the vines on two-foot-tall stems. Your vines will also want to produce many small (relatively speaking) fruits that can hide under those leaves…

“A rampant tangle of vines and leaves means some leaves will shade others, and shaded leaves are slacker leaves when it comes to the business of gathering sunlight. So it’s your job to go into the patch every day and prune, arrange, and stake, the rapidly growing vines so that they conform to your ideal….”

From “Blueflags” by William Carlos Williams in The RHS Book of Flower Poetry and Prose by the Royal Horticultural Society:

I stopped the car
to let the children down
where the streets end
in the sun
at the marsh edge
and the reeds begin
and there are small houses
facing the reeds
and the blue mist in the distance
with grapevine trellises
with grape clusters
small as strawberries
on the vines….


In a previous post (see Found Blooms! (1 of 2)), I mentioned that I had been tidying up my Lightroom library at year’s end, and found a couple of sets of photos of cherry blossoms from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens and some photos of grapevines from my back yard. The grapevines have appeared here before (click this link if you’d like to see all the versions), and that may be why I didn’t attend to them last spring — you know: so many plant photos, so little time! I took the photos in this post (and the next one) last April, and spent a bit of time last week polishing them up and trying to give their leaves and tentacles a bit of flair. I’ll likely take another set of similar photos in a couple of months… however….

The historic winter storm that created havoc throughout much of the U.S. in the days leading up to Christmas brought about four days of below freezing temperatures and below-zero windchills (brrrrrr!) to much of Georgia — something that hadn’t happened since the 1980s and therefore not since I’ve lived in my house. The extreme cold for that extended period severely damaged a lot of plants that normally continue to grow (though more slowly) over the winter. My front yard and about half of my back yard, for example, are covered in carefully-curated English ivy, and nearly all of its thousands of tiny green leaves have turned black and crumble in your fingers if you touch them. Many other “evergreen” plants have done the same; on my property alone, azaleas, boxwoods, autumn ferns, holly ferns, jasmine, and fringeflower bushes have all turned black. It’s all very strange and somewhat disconcerting, even moreso when I walk around the neighborhood and see that yard after yard has turned dark gray or black. These plants are all perennials, though, so I guess it will be interesting to see how well they regenerate — and to photograph new life when it pushes out the dark, dusty remains.

Since the grapevines take winter naps anyway — losing all their leaves and turning their vines to sticks in October or November — I won’t know until late March if they survived the storm. I’m hoping they did, of course, since I’ve had them for so long — and I’m guessing they will since the ground didn’t freeze. I could replace them, naturally, but there’s something delightfully nostalgic about having the same plants coming back every spring for so long — for over a decade, in the case of these grapevines. I’m sure I’ll be out there with the camera, should the first swatches of green appear in about eight weeks.

The first seven photos below are the tendrils and early leaves of a Concord grapevine; and the rest are the tendrils and leaves of a Catawba grapevine. With these photos, as I remember it, I tried to frame the subjects to create a little elegance and drama around them — to the extent that that’s possible with plant photographs — by making deliberate choices about framing the subjects.

The Concord displays more translucent colors than the Catawba, featuring mostly shades of yellow and green (with brief slashes of red) that glow in morning sunlight. The Catawba is less translucent and not as shiny, but all of its early growth shows many more colors. In the last couple of photos, for example, you can see yellow and green, as expected, but also streaks of red, orange, blue, and purple or magenta. The Catawba’s rainbow of colors — don’t you wonder why it evolved that way? — persist for about three weeks. As the plant matures, it gradually reverts mostly to yellows and greens, and even the tendrils — some of which will be a foot long — grow mostly in green by early May, though the backs of the individual leaves will still show silver or white for their entire growing season.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Merry Christmas!

From “Christmas Trees” in Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa by Andy Thomas:

“A good candidate for the first proper Christmas tree can be found in a German legend from the 1500s. A popular tale credits the reformer Martin Luther with the inspiration. Walking through frosty woods on Christmas Eve, he was so struck with the starlight glittering on icicle-hung tree branches that he brought one home to his family. He is also said to have been the first to light up a tree; inspired by the bright stars in the sky, he attached candles to the branches to remind them all of the heavens from where Jesus came. Even now, many trees are topped with a star or an angel (or a fairy for the more secular), making a clear link to the Nativity story….

“By the 1920s, trees were installed in most homes of many countries, candles turned to electric lights, and today Christmas just would not seem right without a tree somewhere. Glistening with enchanting colors, there is something truly transcendent about a well-dressed Christmas tree, pulling us into a different state of mind — out of darkness and into light.”

From “Christmas Day and Everyday” by George MacDonald in The Ultimate Christmas Collection:

Star high
Baby low:
‘Twixt the two
Wise men go;
Find the baby,
Grasp the star
Heirs of all things
Near and far!

From “Christmas Day” in Old Christmas by Washington Irving:

“The window of my chamber looked out upon what in summer would have been a beautiful landscape. There was a sloping lawn, a fine stream winding at the foot of it, and a tract of park beyond, with noble clumps of trees, and herds of deer. At a distance was a neat hamlet, with the smoke from the cottage chimneys hanging over it; and a church with its dark spire in strong relief against the clear cold sky….

“The house was surrounded with evergreens, according to the English custom, which would have given almost an appearance of summer; but the morning was extremely frosty; the light vapour of the preceding evening had been precipitated by the cold, and covered all the trees and every blade of grass with its fine crystallisations. The rays of a bright morning sun had a dazzling effect among the glittering foliage.”

Below I’ve accumulated all my photo galleries from this year’s “Days to Christmas” series. Click the links above each gallery if you would like to see the original posts and the quotations I selected to go with them. 

Thanks for reading, and taking a look … and:

Merry Christmas!!!

Ten Days to Christmas: Peace! and Birds! and Beasts!

Nine Days to Christmas: Silver and Gold

Eight Days to Christmas: Red and Green

Seven Days to Christmas: When Nature Does the Decorating

Six Days to Christmas: Angels and Nutcrackers and Wintry Blues

Five Days to Christmas: Yule Frogs!

Four Days to Christmas: Winter Solstice/Candle Night

Three Days to Christmas: Toys and Games

Two Days to Christmas: Santa Claus Rhapsody

One Day to Christmas: Happy Christmas Eve!

One Day to Christmas: Happy Christmas Eve!

From A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd:

“From the kitchen intoxicating smells were beginning to fill the house. Every year my mother baked two pumpkin pies, spicy and immobilizingly rich. Up through the hot-air registers echoed the boom and bellow of my father fighting The Furnace….

“I was locked in my bedroom in a fever of excitement. Before me on the bed were sheets of green and yellow paper, balls of colored string, and cellophane envelopes of stickers showing sleighing scenes, wreaths, and angels blowing trumpets. The zeppelin was already lumpily done — it had taken me forty-five minutes — and now I struggled with the big one, the magnificent gleaming gold and pearl perfume atomizer, knowing full well that I was wrapping what would undoubtedly become a treasured family heirloom. I checked the lock on the door, and for double safety hollered:


“I turned back to my labors until finally there they were—my masterworks of creative giving piled in a neat pyramid on the quilt. My brother was locked in the bathroom, wrapping the fly swatter he had bought for the Old Man.

“Our family always had its Christmas on Christmas Eve. Other less fortunate people, I had heard, opened their presents in the chill clammy light of dawn. Far more civilized, our Santa Claus recognized that barbaric practice for what it was. Around midnight great heaps of tissuey, crinkly, sparkly, enigmatic packages appeared among the lower branches of the tree and half hidden among the folds of the white bed-sheet that looked in the soft light like some magic snowbank.”

From “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913” by Robert Bridges in A Vintage Christmas: A Collection of Classic Stories and Poems:

A frosty Christmas Eve
   when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone
   where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
   in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me
   peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds
   ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above
   with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep
   that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching
   by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
   and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
   or the bright stars singing.