From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 23, 2005

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower #1

First in a series of my overview of the history of plants and their important influence on man.

There Is No Escaping the Power of Plants.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower... " is the first line of a poem written in 1934 by a young Welshman named Dylan Thomas. This powerful evocation of the life force that inhabits all living things motivated me to present an overview of the history of plants and their important influence on man. This will occur in several installments. Begun in 2000 after a favorite poem and an idea merged and germinated, it is still growing. This first installment is an introduction.


This very old apple tree, missing nearly 90% of its trunk, still leafs out, flowers and produces some apples each year as a testimony to the thin band of conductive tissue its 'green fuse', so to speak) that says volumes about the vitality of living plants. I've been watching it for twenty years.

Man is a product of the plant world. He tenaciously clings to it and conversely cannot free himself of its grasp on him. After the sun, it is to the plant world that man owes his very survival. Unable to look directly into the sun himself, plants, seemingly defying man, face directly into it and flourish.

By doing so, plants have populated and transformed our planet, making even the farthest reaches of land and sea hospitable to all kinds of life. In constant struggle with the elements and many unimagined enemies, plants continue to survive. In so doing, they nourish us, heal us, delight us, inspire us, and, sometimes, even kill us. What power!

In order for plants to have evolved and accomplish such survival and procreation advantages, they have employed all of the natural environment: the sun, the soils of the earth, the seas, animals, races of insects, and the weather. Plants occupy millions of niches and provide homes for countless other forms of life. Plants may be the minutest of microbes, and, at the same time, the world's tallest living creatures.

Plants begin as tiny bits of protoplasm in a primitive earthly oceanic stew. Some billions of years ago, some of the first true plant cells living in that stew left to colonize solid ground. This attempt to enter into a new world must have been greeted with a fair degree of hostility. It was necessary to create a more favorable and beneficial environment for success, so, by producing oxygen, plants quickly began to transform both themselves and their surroundings. From that early time forward, they have adapted to deserts, mountains, and plains. They have adapted to extremes of heat and cold, light and darkness, drought and excessive moisture. Some live for only minutes or hours, some live for 5000 years or longer.

Plants have become the foundation for all existence: humans and animals, societies and civilizations. Their roots, stems, fruits, flowers and leaves sustain the entire animal kingdom. No progress, no simple singular cellular growth is possible without help from plants. They even united and formed communities with like characteristics.

In order to obtain them, man has embarked on voyages of discovery across continents and oceans. He has opened up the world creating roads, sea lanes, and air routes. Some 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age receded, man began to adapt and transform the land , and with this came the desire to grow his food and count on a surplus. This led to the development of farming, the arrival of which was neither sudden nor simple.

In Egypt, 3,500 years ago, emmer and flax were grown, and the sickle was invented to harvest them. It wasn't until the sixth century that the mold board plow enabled heavier soils to be worked and virgin soils to be exploited. Then, through crop rotation came soil enrichment and improved yields. The result of these established practices was the emergence of new civilizations accompanied by power and influence that was previously unimagined.

The control and improvement of growing conditions for plants has involved more money, labor, skill and ingenuity than probably any other human activity. This is especially noticeable during the industrial revolution with the first applications of modern science to food production. Yet, most food plants grown today are fundamentally the same as those known by people 4,000 years ago.

The greatest part of land used by people is given to growing food. Today most of the food we consume is grown in various parts of the world. Food has been a main item of trade between advanced nations for 500 years. People have cherished their dependence on the land, From biblical times, self-sufficiency has been an ideal. The reward, in addition to nourishment of the body, is nourishment of the spirit. It is the deep satisfaction that comes from the work, peace, meditation and freedom of growing that sustains and pleases.

All beings are derivative of plants. Cut off from plants, we would die as quickly as our Paleolithic ancestor. Consider the grass that feeds the cattle that supplies the milk and meat; the starchy staples; the vegetables and fruits; the herbs and spices; the yeast and fungi; the cereal grains; the wild plants that nourish the rabbits, fish, birds, deer, etc.

Some or all of these wind up on our plates. They are all plants transformed by organisms which themselves derive from plants.

Today, as hundreds of years ago, Native Americans create healing rituals in sweat lodges mode from willow branches. Today we know that it is the willow bark that supplies the principal ingredient in aspirin. Who hasn't heard of digitalis or quinine? Modern medicine continues to explore the remarkable abilities plants have to heal and cure. Of the estimated half-million species of plants, little or nothing is known about nearly 97% of them. Ethnobotany is gaining increasingly more attention year after year from researchers in a variety of related fields.

What the Incas of Peru accomplished with their native plants far exceeded anything the dazzling gold artifacts offered to the distracted Spanish conquerors. They were simply too blinded to see the true treasures.

In addition to feeding, healing, sheltering and warming us, plants also inspire us. Plants figure importantly in all cultures as reflected in their language, literature, art, religion, and music. Powerful symbols throughout the world are seen in holidays, marriage ceremonies and funerals. The beauty, symmetry, and wonder of plants fill our lives with a positive sense perception. I would be hard put to find a human dream of infinite beauty and peace that doesn't include plants: Heaven as a garden; paradise as Eden.

Man is delighted by plant colors, textures, flowers, taste, and fragrance. Plants soften our landscapes, reduce eyestrain, buffer and absorb noise, provide us with oxygen and cleanse our air. They house and nourish the birds and butterflies, and scores of other living creatures. The tree of life is a universal symbol. It rests in the dark cool soil and emerges through the earth with its branches reaching skyward, ready to embrace all life.

Every being, in the end, returns to the soil in which plants themselves will be nourished in partnership with the sun.

line     to be continued...   ( next #2 of 7 )     line


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 23, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.