In the brief time between Christmas and the New Year, everything seems dead. In the northern Hemisphere, at least, it’s cold, wintery and grey, everyone has gone home for the holidays and the streets of student towns like Weimar and Jena are suddenly eerily empty. What can you do if you’re craving warmth and life during this week? Well, I personally decided to go to the botanical garden in Jena to look at some plants, and ended up thinking a lot about crying, tears, and what it means for us as humans to observe nature and project our own baggage onto it.
Ah, plants. They’re all around! On the street, growing between cobblestones, hanging from bookshelves in messy WG-rooms… They’ve been around a long time, obviously. As have we. And it’s safe to assume that plants have always had a special meaning for the people that interact with them; from houseplants to the trees in your favorite park, they are something like silent companions, a reminder that not everything was made by human hands, and that there are things that grow and change without us, and live on after we’re dead.
Crying is also a fundamental part of the human experience, and sadness is something we like to project onto other beings and things, be that out of a desire to connect or just out of our self-centered view of the world. I recognize sad faces in power outlets, in air bubbles in slices of bread, and, of course, I recognized tears and “sadness” in the plants at the botanical garden in Jena. I saw heart-shaped leaves and droopy flowers, and thought of how plants and tears are connected on so many levels, which led me to my theme of Chlorophyll Tears.
A common first association for us is the classic image of the Weeping Willow, a tree that literally has the word “weeping” in its name. Its sad, long, limp, drooping branches grow downwards, as if it just couldn’t be bothered to try anymore (we all know that feeling). What I didn’t know, is that there is an entire category of trees that also have the word “weeping” in their names, like the Weeping Flowering Apricot and the Weeping Atlas Cedar, that also share these same characteristics. They can also be found in graveyards, which brings me to the connection between plants and death, and, by extension, grieving.
I realized that there are a lot of examples in fiction of characters in stories who die and are buried under trees. In the original story of Cinderella, for example, her mother is buried under a Weeping Willow; in the new stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio, Gepetto’s human son is also buried, and a tree is planted on his grave. In Sleepy Hollow, there is literally a tree that is called “The Tree of the Dead”, under which the Horseman had been buried many years before. These are just some examples, but it is definitely something we see often. In this way, some trees become a “designated crying place”, a place to sit in the shade and grieve the loss of a loved one.
It also seems as though the tree symbolizes a continuation of the life the person has lived; in a sense, they “live on” through this plant that now nourishes itself from the decomposing corpse. In their project, “Capsule Mundi”, designers Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli created a burial method that has exactly this intention; a type of egg-shaped “pod” where you could be buried, onto which a new tree could attach its roots and grow in your absence. It’s also hard to ignore the presence of flowers at funerals and memorials, as well as stories like that of the “forget-me-not”, which reference grief and attribute the blue color of their petals to tears. Death is every living thing’s final destination (except for maybe that immortal Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish). Therefore, it’s somehow poetic that the plant kingdom also takes part in our human rituals, provides comfort and brings beauty to the sad happenings of life. In many ways, death connects us all, regardless of our taxonomy.
But enough about us, what about them? Do plants feel pain? Do they grieve? Cry, even? I suppose that’s what we want to know about every living thing, or sometimes even non-living thing. Typical humans, projecting their own feelings onto completely nonsensical contexts. I, for one, have been googling for as long as the internet has been a thing, always trying to find out if my pets could feel the same things I could, if they cried too (I was a crying enthusiast as a child, and, honestly, still am). I never had my own plants until I started university, and then my thoughts went to them. Do my houseplants get sad? Do the trees in Germany get cold in winter, and cry, just like us, international students from tropical climates?
As it turns out, trees do, in fact, emit ultrasonic sounds (A.K.A. screams?) when they are distressed, for example, when they don’t have enough water. The xylems that carry fluids from the roots to the leaves start picking up air particles when there is no water left, and after a certain point this can be deadly. There are scientific projects in motion that aim to pick up on these frequencies that we cannot hear, so as to quickly water trees at risk of dehydration.
These ultrasonic sounds are, of course, sounds, however, could they be categorized as crying? In a way, the dehydrated trees are suffering, and are expressing their suffering. It’s a natural occurrence; they can’t control the sounds they make. They react to a circumstance that brings them pain, and so do we, when we cry out of sadness. We also don’t always have the intention of crying; we sometimes also cry alone, we make unintelligible noises, too. In that sense, I suppose trees do cry… And we can’t hear them.
So as an exercise, I’d like to suggest you check up on your houseplants, and on the trees you see on your way to work or class; offer them a kind word, a gentle pat, a cup of water, and tell them it’s ok to cry; if you’re a crybaby like me, they’ve probably seen you cry a lot too.