[This is a departure from my ‘normal’ posting. It is an attempt to get to the ‘heart’ of gardening, closer to the spark within us that drives us, the connection we share with the world we live in that has variously drawn us in to the ‘way’ that we have made for ourselves.]
We’re all familiar with the myth of the ‘green thumb’, those individuals magically endowed with the ability to mysteriously grow anything, but as gardeners we see this as the ‘lie’ that it is. I’ve told people that those of us with a ‘green thumb’ are simply people with the patience and interest to pay closer attention to the natural world and what is happening in it, that we are better observers. In Ransom Riggs’ fictional world of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, Peculiars possess powers beyond those of the rest of us, the non-peculiars, normal people. Some of these might strike us simply as bizarre abnormalities, e.g., an extra mouth on the back of one’s head, the power to command bees some of which live within your stomach??? while others put Peculiars more firmly in the realm of comic book super heroes, such as great strength, invisibility, the ability to create and control fire at will, or its opposite cold and ice…without the tights. In their world of such possibilities these ‘peculiarities’ elicit fear and, quite often, violence from the normals and worse from those who would take it all for themselves, hence the protective action of the Ymbryne’s. This is a fantasy story, which places it in a more magical world than stories of science fiction that tend to project our knowledge and capabilities into some future, utopian or dystopian world. In fantasy worlds the author creates a world and mythology where this is simply true rather than explaining such abilities in scientific terms, and knowing something of magic we accept it at face value. Such are the abilities of the character Fiona, who is gifted with the ability to powerfully direct the growth of plants, not unlike the character Poison Ivy from the DC world of Batman, though in her case her motivation is to help or protect her friends and others rather than Poison Ivy’s much more self-serving ends.
In Tim Burton’s recent film of this series of books, a visibly engaging though truncated disappointment for me, as I loved Riggs’ books, our introduction to her is when Abe’s first meal with the group is determined to be ‘carrot soup’, and Fiona extends her hands to the garden soil and draws from it a single enormous carrot, larger than her own small size, not a row of ‘normal’ carrots, but a carrot that would serve as a base for a meal of soup for a group many times their number, a cinematic act produced strictly for the audience’s entertainment. Another time she grows a tree in such a way that the group might escape via its branches from danger and, during the climactic ‘battle’ she aggressively uses her power to ensnare their foes, much as might Poison Ivy. This is fantasy…fantasy that is not that much beyond our common notion of people being endowed with a green thumb…or not. In a world like ours of ignorance, where people live their lives apart from the ‘miracle’ of nature, of DNA, metabolism, the photosynthetic capture of energy and the bio-chemical synthesis of the building blocks of life, it is easy to see where characters like Fiona or Poison Ivy come from. They are only a short step away from the world most of us live in. Life already is pretty fantastical, inexplicable, to many of us in the modern world. But it is not mundane magic that captures sunlight for the growth of plants. Plants do not spring from the soil whole and entire for me or remain dormant within a seed or wither away in response to the ‘magic’ in or absent from another’s hands. The soil and earth are not inert objects that we act upon.
I enjoy a well written fantasy, but I understand that that is what it is….When I watch a film such as this one or read the story on the pages of a book, I see the fantasy and later, when I think about it, I can see how far from reality it is. I worry about the millions of us who are more likely to accept the fantasy than they would be to bother learning about the complexity of the real world, that life is some how separate from the earthly limitations and supports of sunlight, water, climate, time and the incredible complexity of living soil and the absolute necessity for life of other life, for relationship. Plants do not merely grow…or not! They are not turned off and on like a light bulb or stored indefinitely until needed. There would be great cost to be met in ‘magically’ growing such a carrot. Let’s take a look at Fiona’s carrot!
A carrot, the portion of the plant that we eat, is a modified root, that has been selected from its wild form, Daucus carota, for its ability to store carbohydrates, by farmers and gardeners for generations. Year after year seed from the biggest and sweetest, the most palatable, have been saved to grow on the following year gradually ‘improving’ the size and quality of the carrot from the simple, small, almost woody, root it originally had. These storage tissues, grown over the season from a seedling, were utilized by the plant to power its explosive top growth the following year, which produces its large inflorescence that results, after pollination, in the production of the seed that will assure the next generation’s continuation… a process that requires more energy than was available to it over the course of its flowering through simple photosynthesis. Carbohydrates are an organic form of chemical energy, energy a Carrot stores for rapid growth later when it ‘retrieves’ it from its root, energy the plant requires for seed production. Seed itself is energy rich each one of which contains enough to provide a new carrot plant a healthy beginning before it is capable of meeting its own energy demands for growth.
We all learned in grade school the rudiments of photosynthesis whereby a plant captures the energy within sunlight via its chlorophyll, energy used to split molecules of CO2 and water later recombining them into energy rich carbohydrates to power the growth of the plant itself. Energy is collected and converted from one form to another. It is a considerably more complex process than what we were taught as young children. These are the magicks of plants, their internal, not readily apparent, bio-chemical processes. Water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sunlight, soil nutrients and the various inter-relationships a plant has with other microbial life to do things like help gather specific needed nutrients, all have to be available within an acceptable temperature range, for growth to occur. The magic of the movie comes primarily in its compression of time in addition to the plants genetic expression. Were Fiona actually capable of this feat, selectively accelerating time to speed the carrot’s growth, her carrot would appear differently than the one filmed and its impact on its surroundings would be heavy if not destructive.
While the atmosphere contains ample CO2 for such a burst of magical growth, drawing more from further away as it is ‘consumed’ by the green top growth, this carrot’s ‘demand’ to create the carbohydrate needed to power the various metabolic process within the carrot, its synthesis of cells, compounds and catalysts that define it as a living organism and the additional to ‘store’ away in its root forming the ‘carrot’ itself, CO2 would not be a limiting material. Plant growth is a very water intensive process using it in its photosynthetic and metabolic processes as well as its ‘necessary’ losses through leaf stomata as it draws the water from the soil up through its tissues. Growth is limited by both water’s availability and its over abundance. Plants require it in proper balance with atmospheric gases in the soil. If a plant is ‘pushed’ to grow too fast it would draw the available soil moisture down to a point where it is insufficient and growth would stop. Such a magically grown plant would require a much more rapidly growing and wide spreading system of roots and fungal hyphae to bring it the water and nutrients that it needs. Normally, rainfall and irrigation would resupply the needed water over time, time which is also necessary for the organic acids produced during growth that in turn create the conditions that make various nutrients more available to the plant, assuring steady growth, but under this scenario feeder roots and root hairs would have to spread out much wider requiring even more cell growth and water consumption in the process, leaving the now much oversized carrot likely looking much ‘shaggier’ when pulling it from the ground, though most of the fine roots would pull away remaining in the now spent and dry soil. The growth of the magical carrot would speed the decline and bring about the probable death of surrounding plants. You can’t get something for nothing.
With the proper mathematical equation one could calculate the volume of such a carrot’s structure and from this, the amount of water, nutrient and energy it would take to grow it. Given the soil conditions and knowing the inefficiencies of carrot growth, its metabolic processes, one could also figure out how large of a soil volume it would take to provide these. Whether depending on science or magic the raw materials and energy are still required and, at any one time, only so much is available. It must either be brought to the process or be directly available. Requiring a carrot to go further in search of it requires more structurally of the carrot, more that is beyond its directions and limitations embedded within its DNA. This includes its ability to capture the needed sunlight.
The carrot’s top growth, that portion capable of the photosynthetic process, would need to grow much larger and not just large enough to look in balance with the many times bigger ‘root’, it would have to be more proportional to the increased volume of the ‘root’ and, on top of that, it would have to be capable of gathering all of the energy to grow this massive structure within a minute. Such an enormous structure would demand even more energy and nutrient to form. The energy conversion process within the plant is not up to this task. Tweak all of chromosomes you want to grow a larger carrot…there is still the limits of energy capture and conversion. There is no accelerator ‘pedal’ within a plant that we can step on to speed growth, no way to attach a battery for a boost. Science is looking to plants to learn how to ‘grow’ energy organically. We are far from knowing how to speed this process up or knowing whether its even possible to do so.
But let’s say that photosynthesis, the production of metabolites, enzymes and chemical energy captured within ATP could be accelerated to the needed rate, there are still the barriers of the Laws of Thermodynamics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, that it is only transformed. What I’m getting at here is that all that needed sunlight must be collected in a very short time span compared to the weeks that it would normally require. By my rough calculation a normal carrot that would take 8 weeks to grow, would need to collect and transform all of this energy in one minute, requiring that it be about 27,000 times as efficient and that would be to grow a normal sized carrot with everything else it requires instantly available!
Only so much light energy strikes a given surface of the earth in a given time period. Plants harvest only a small portion of this. Two things have to happen here: more light must be ‘brought’ to the carrot, or its capacity to absorb it greatly increased. This magically grown carrot would become more ‘transparent’, more efficient, at collecting, trapping the energy of the sunlight that comes to it. If the carrot were to do this ‘perfectly’ it would essentially become invisible while it was growing, reflecting no light away for our eyes to perceive. The only way around this would be to have an impossibly large green, top growth to intercept more light. Temperatures would measurably drop as all sunlight would be converted to ATP none to heat. Its need for energy, were it magically successful, would might even create a relatively small ‘black hole’ around it, drawing in all of the available light it needed from its surrounding area. This entire volume of space would not just be invisible, it would appear as an absence, a void within the garden with light and ‘images’ of all other things in the area distorted near it over the period that it was ‘growing’. Simultaneously the carrot would be expanding beneath the soil, displacing it like an object set into a bath tub while the expanding crown of top growth increased the size of the ‘black hole’, all of this while drying the soil beneath our feet and depleting its nutrients, creating a ‘dead zone’ for all of the smaller plants within its root zone. The ‘bigger magic’ is that this is not how growth happens, that it is additive, rather than reductive. Life produces more, more complexity, more ‘depth’, but always within the limits of itself. Whether it takes centuries or minutes to grow the process remains magical. No matter how we may choose to break it down, to understand it, it remains so.
There is a ‘lie’ in the magicks of children and it is born out of their wonder and awe that they feel in the world, with which they animate it. Theirs is a forgivable lie they express through their joy. But it isn’t really a ‘lie’ rather it is their secret, a secret many do not see that let’s Fiona into this world to see it as it is, miraculous, where she can work her ‘peculiar magic’ and we are left to stare, stupified. There is no meanness in it no intent to do others harm or put them at risk. It breathes life into her world. It is the breath of life. It takes a world of wonders and turns Fiona loose unbounded recreating it in a fantastical way. I do not mean that this world is not real, a child’s harmless dream, it is rather, a world inspired by the wonders of the world we all live, wonders, that so many of us, have learned not to see.
Left on our own, growing into adulthood, facing its disappointments, we too easily lose the wonder and awe that we felt as children. All to quickly it can shrivel and be lost to us who had once been children. Magic takes effort to hang on to, a commitment to see and feel. Too often our adult ‘blindness’ abandons us to a mundane, truncated world, a world of utility, inert and in a sense ‘dead’, where the miraculous is beyond us reserved for those who claim to see. We learn this. They teach us, the realists, the practical ones, diminished, reduced to parts, telling us to grow up. And it is hammered into us. It is hard and breaks us driving out the magic. Lessons of survival in a world viewed through ‘economic’ glasses. We become ‘disbelievers’. We leave our childhood magicks behind rending the world, breaking it down, a world that is ‘less than’. We are taught that it is a childish thing. Stories like ‘Miss Peregrines’ tease us, make us smile, causing us to remember, before we dismiss them…or maybe, a bit envious, or angry we ‘rebury’ our own loss. But, for others of us, those who’ve never quite released our grip on this as a fantastical world, we remember when we were children, filled with wonder and chose to follow it as adults into a world imbued with these magics and became gardeners and scientists who would stay in this world the rest of our lives.
We aren’t escaping anything. We are remaining faithful, true to the world of wonders around us doing what we can to protect it, to understand it and to rekindle that ‘twinkle’ that so many others have lost. We are cartographers creating a map to show the way ahead, rediscovering a lost world that lies right in front of us. Fiona, and the other peculiars, are ourselves living in a ‘loop’, protected by the Ymbrynes, from a world that would consume them, literately and figuratively, by the Hollowgasts and Wights, following only their rapacious hunger for the life and magic it contains, instead of cherishing and protecting it as something of value to cultivate and share. It is a necessity for us all, the power of life, the recognition of its ‘beauty’, possessing the power of its own to ‘rescue’ and life itself. It is the ‘way’.
When we work in our gardens we wade deep into the magicks of life, listening closely, attuning ourselves, modifying our actions. We don’t grow 100 pound carrots. We learn what it can give us and what it asks from us in return. We aren’t children but the memories and the same fascination hold us. The magick is still there. We’ve learned to nurture and not to ask too much of it and so spend it draining it of its vitality and life. We give it the space and time to thrive and to reverberate with life to keep the magicks going. Whether we call it magick, or the vital energy of life, we are careful to protect it and not ask it for what it cannot provide. All around us we see land that is spent, land that has been neglected by those blind to that which binds us and we know that the ignorance of others will not shield any of us from the consequences of greed and indifference, so we share our secrets, our knowledge and plants in attempts to grow the seed in others, because we know, that ultimately, we are nothing without the magick! This world too is a fantastical one! Fiona lives within each of us. We band together to keep it ‘alive’ while performing our magicks in our own gardens, little islands from which we hope it may grow, spreading the wonder of Fiona’s carrot.