I stand still in the too-quiet courtyard, about to be calm, to lose myself in nature, when my eyes travel to the trees. Something is off. They seem lost, in a land that’s not theirs. For all we know they can be screaming. I shudder at the thought of something so mundane living in torture, but now I am drawn into a new world, a world where trees scream, where plants live in constant distress. For us, trees don’t scream. We see them, breathe in and exhale slowly, and think about our love of nature, like we would to a fresh-mowed lawn. If only we knew that the smell was the grass’s chemical distress signal. The quiet blades like soldiers in quicksand; all they can do is release the scent into the air, a battle cry of what’s to come for the surrounding troopers. That’s how they evolved, to warn rather than to fight. That gruesome smell is for me a welcoming summer scent.
My dad’s standing at the front door, his grey shirt drenched in sweat, a sign that the lawn was mowed. His white sneakers are stained green and caked with dirt. I reach out for the anticipated hug. I do miss him, just not the sweat. My head turns to rest on the outside of his left shoulder. I try to ignore the wet warmth which now heats my arms. All my nose can do is focus on the grass scent, and then release. The hug is over. Dinner will be ready soon. The grass’s odor is replace with thoughts of barbecue, its cry for help long forgotten.
I am ten, sitting amongst the others in the field where gym class is taking place. The gym teacher, his face flushed red from shouting, is busy barking instructions as my mind goes to the clouds. My body is still on earth, seated amongst the grass. My fingers run through the blades, occasionally plucking one up and peeling it the way I did so many times to string cheese. I do this for the entirety of the lecture, innocent to what atrocities my fingers committed. If I saw a human ripped limb from limb, surely I would be horrified.
Not only can they feel pain, but they can tell when they are getting eaten, too. A test was carried out at the University of Missouri on thale cress leaves. This plant’s predator is the caterpillar, who is notorious for munching on their leaves. As researchers replicated the vibrations a caterpillar would make as it munched on the leaves of the plants, the thale cress leaves began to do something most people wouldn’t assume plants were capable of: attempt to defend themselves. Like the grass, the thale cress leaf operates with chemicals and for the thale cress leaf, this chemical is mustard oil. When mustard oil is released throughout the plant, it becomes less desirable to eat for the predator. After the experiment, researchers found that the leaves that were exposed to vibrations similar to those a caterpillar would make produced more mustard oil than average, an attempt at protecting themselves. Yet we all still continue to plug our plastic forks into their raw hides.
Downstairs in Letch cafeteria, I am sitting with a friend, her straightened bangs swept to the left as she looks down, carefully munching her salad. As a seasoned vegetarian, she is fine with eating lunch with me, a mere omnivore. However, my eyes go to the prongs of the cheap plastic fork her hands wields as it punctures the lettuce. It looks painful. At least the meat of my hamburger patty was killed beforehand.
It’s a violent world for plants, misunderstood by humanity as we continue to bask in the “serenity” of nature. It would be a lie to say that I never felt that way too, almost forgetting about the trees and other plants that make up the background, almost oblivious to their being. Often the only things my ears strain for are the chirping of the vibrant birds, so that I can assume that everything else is in peaceful contentment. But that peace is just the silence our deaf ears hear. Still, I am human, and I can live with that.
Danielle Gonzalez is a Freshman at SUNY Geneseo and enjoys writing in her spare time.