“[Trees] do not dwell only in the present. They remember the past, and they anticipate the future.
“How trees remember, I do not know: I have not been able to find out. But they do. At least, what they do now may depend very much on what happened to them in the past. Thus if you shake a tree, it will subsequently grow thicker and sturdier. They ‘remember’ that they were shaken in the past. Wind is the natural shaker, and plants grown outdoors grow thicker than those in greenhouses, even in the same amount of light….
“Most trees, like most plants of all kinds, are also aware of the passing seasons: what time of year it is and — crucially — what is soon to follow. Deciduous trees lose their leaves as winter approaches (or, in the seasonal tropics, as the dry season approaches) and enter a state of dormancy. This is not a simple shutting down. Dormancy takes weeks of preparation. Before trees shed their leaves they withdraw much of the nutrient that’s within them, including the protein of the chlorophyll, leaving some of the other pigments behind to provide at least some of the glorious autumn colors; and they stop up the vessel ends that service the leaves with cork, to conserve water.
“How do the temperate trees of the north know that winter is approaching? How can they tell, when it is still high summer? There are many clues to season, including temperature and rainfall. But shifts in temperature and rain are capricious; they are not the kind of reliable signal to run your life by….
“The one invariable, at any particular latitude on any particular date, is the length of the day. So at least in high latitudes, where day length varies enormously from season to season, plants in general take this as their principal guide to action — while allowing themselves to be fine-tuned by other cues, including temperature. So temperate trees invariably produce their leaves and/or flowers in the spring, marching to the rigid drum of solar astronomy; but they adjust their exact date of blossoming to the local weather. This phenomenon — judging time of year by length of day — is called ‘photoperiodism.'”
“Deciduous trees… have evolved to deal with surviving cold months. In winter, the energy that a tree’s leaves are able to generate during short daylight hours is less than the energy required to maintain cell function in the leaves. In addition, the loss of water through transpiration exceeds the amount that the roots are able to absorb when groundwater is locked up in ice. So, in autumn, deciduous trees cut their losses. First, thanks to hormonal signals, they drain the sucrose from their leaves and send it to their roots and branches for storage. Then they seal off the leaves at their bases with a corky substance. Without water and nutrients, the leaves’ cells die. In the spring, the trees send stored sugar dissolved in water up the xylem to fuel the growth of new leaves and branches.”
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place….
January is a great month for hunting down those natural shapes of things that are most apparent only in the winter. For this post (and the next one) I scoured the trees for shreds of Japanese Maple leaves, those that still clung on and held an interesting form despite many days of rain, wind, and cold. Their tenaciousness is admirable — don’t you think?
Even though it was a cloudy day, there was enough sunlight breaking through so that some of the leaves — all but those in the last three images — got touched with a bit of backlighting, just enough so that they looked like the were glowing against the blue-gray skies.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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….”
“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, kudzusmothering 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!