SEI Opinion

Grieving With Plants, Dancing in the Leaves

Working with plants for the entirety of her career, Rosanne Quinnell from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences reflects on the power of the plant world to soothe, connect and regenerate the human spirit in troubled times, despite our modern culture’s botanical blindness.

By Associate Professor Rosanne Quinnell, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney
Published 06 April 2020

I don’t think I’m having an existential crisis but likely it is quite normal for everyone’s thoughts to wander to death from time to time, to remember those who passed away from us, to think about what it will be like to pass away. Given the global COVID-19 crisis these thoughts of death and dying have gone beyond fleeting musings. We have all be touched by death.

Whenever my thoughts wander to death, invariably my thoughts feature the botanical world. When my sister passed away, twenty years ago now, my mother was able to coax one of the white roses from my sister’s wreath into a healthy plant. I recognise that some might view this as dark. Thinking about how my mother was able to see the potential for a whole plant in that small piece of rose brings me peace. And in general, plants soothe me. I have begun scratching at why I have this sensation of peace when I stop to engage with the botanical world. Wondering what it is about plants that I find so reassuring.

Our very existence is contingent on plants that provide food, nutrients, oxygen, medicine, clothing, shelter. Further to this, we can learn an enormous amount about solar energy capture and CO2 sequestration from plants. Beyond even that, plants feature in our lives in a raft of other ways. Our emotional and cultural wellness seems deeply intertwined with the botanical world. We give flowers at happy occasions; roses are gifted on Valentine’s day, chrysanthemums on mothers’ day, a hurried purchase of carnations from a petrol station on a birthday. Flowers are integral to our commemorations. We offer lilies for death, rosemary for remembrance. Trees planted as waypoints and avenues for those who did not return from war; the Australian War Memorial offers a link to be able to purchase one of the progeny of Gallipoli’s Lone Pine. Similarly, sunflower seeds from the field in the Ukraine where MH17 was shot down were sent back to Australia to respectfully commemorate those who lost their lives so far from home. There are many more examples. In each example, I am fascinated by how plants offer us ways to express what our words cannot. Plants providing gentle, beautiful expressions of love and grief, joy and hope. Observations of our closest relatives have shown them to demonstrate generosity (food sharing), but not, from what I can tell, flowers. Certainly having plants present at our cultural ceremonies to show our most human of emotions is important to us; I wonder whether these floral gestures are part of what makes us human.

Despite plants being critical for our physical survival, and helping us to communicate our feelings, many humans fail to see plants. I wonder when it became normal for humans to not be able to recognise and/or appreciate plants? Does it start when we are little? I have looked at flashcards that teach children to speak and I feel myself getting cross when, for example, the picture of the African savanna with a lion in it is only labelled as ‘lion’. I recall seeing images spruiking national tree day where the inclusion of a bird in the tree branches seemed to be obligatory. Is it true that most people will only pay attention when an animal is present? A study out of the US provides some evidence to confirm that our (human) attention is skewed to animals rather than plants.

And using plants to express is the paradox. Despite the fact that we live on a vast southern continent with its own unique flora, the cultural botanical traditions from the northern hemisphere don’t seem out of place to me. I have been privileged to have been Welcomed to Country; Wiradjuri, Bidigal, Gadigal, Worimi, Jawoyn, Larrakia, and on every occasion have been introduced first and foremost to the plants, considered as brothers and sisters. As a plant-lover, I can’t tell you how much it pleases me that plants are in the forefront of the introductions. Maybe it is worth noting is that my background is Celtic with forebears coming to Australia only about 150 years ago. Here I’m relying on a fuzzy memory of things my mother told me years ago. My mother, too, was a lover of plants. She would be moved to tears (literally) if she found an off-cut of a plant (a sprig) on the footpath. She would take it home, coax it to grow, usually with success.

When I tap into discussions and debates about climate change, and the political situation in Australia, I am struck by the focus on short term media cycles, fiscal timelines, and 3-year political terms at the expense of our long term survival. Clearly our environment has become an emotional space. For some, thinking about the natural environment elicits anger, outrage, and blame. But when I think about the natural environment, in particular, plants, my mood is eased.

“The images of plants resprouting after the bushfires speak to moving on from grief… these shoots carry the hopes for a full recovery and disaster survival. “

The images of plants resprouting after the bushfires speak to moving on from grief and of hope. As bushland vegetation regenerates across our great southern continent, people are posting their photos of the re-growth – bright green shoots emerge from charred remains. As cell division gets back on track, these shoots carry the hopes for a full recovery and disaster survival.  I am in awe of this continent. And, sometimes when I look at our southern landscapes I like to edit out the buildings, the roads, the poles and wires, dams, so that I can imagine what our country was pre-contact, pre-colonisation, pre-invasion. That humans still are able to survive and thrive in remote areas speaks to the remarkable sophistication of Indigenous knowledge systems and the resilience of the cultures derived from and integrated with the land and the sea.

I like to think of the time when we will reintegrate with the land, and have a fascination about our reintegration with plants. When we die, we decompose. Our molecules disassembled and become available for use by the macro and micro soil biota. Carbon released into the atmosphere is refixed via photosynthesis; our nitrogenous waste is taken up by root systems. Even those who are the loudest climate change deniers will realise their full environmental potential when their bodily chemicals contribute to nutrient cycles to be incorporated into lignin, cellulose, botanical genomes. Incorporated into branches and leaves, I like to think of us dancing joyfully in the treetops together.

This piece is a re-offering of The Joy of Plants, published in Flora Foundation January 2020, and resonates with the von Humboldtian view of ‘romantic science’, as explored in this paper: Humboldt, Romantic Science and Ecocide: a Walk in the Woods.

Rosanne Quinnell is Associate Professor in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney. She has taught botany for close to 25 years and is deeply committed to improving student engagement with the botanical world, and to improving the botanical literacy of higher education communities. Her research background is in the biochemistry of symbiotic systems where the symbiotic relationships are sustained and maintained by effective communication between the partners. Rosanne is currently recruiting members of the University community to join the citizen science project University BioQuest – see website for details and contact Rosanne for more information.