Nam Hyo-chang | Chief Director, Institute for Forest Studies
Certain sounds reach my ears only when I turn off my computer or smart phone. The gurgling sound of flowing water in the valley, birds chirping, the sounds of the insects in a field, squirrels frolicking and feeding on the ground, and even the sound of trees breathing are transmitted throughout my body. Beyond the power of modern civilization, the absolute silence of a forest restores my gentle soul. The actual reality of nature unfolds as if it were a virtual reality. I am awakened to the fact that I am the master of my own life, and I can hear and respond by my own will.
A small patch of land, previously occupied by shepherd’s purses and whitlow grasses, eventually gave way to horseweed and daisy fleabane, and now, in the summer month of August, other flowers are spinning their tales such as evening primroses, green foxtails, and lilies. Whether I want it or not, the season once glorified by a profusion of evening primroses, lilies and cosmos is now passing. However, to read the stories imprinted on this patch of land is totally up to me.
Where have all the flowers gone that once embroidered the brilliant spring? Why do insects like butterflies and bees reign for only a specific period, and why do different birds appear only at certain times of the year? It sounds paradoxical that mobile beings (animals and insects) live their lives depending on immobile beings (plants). Looking at a patch of land cultivated by nature takes my mind on a journey across the universe.
Plants can probably exist for ages without becoming extinct because they know their limitations. Plants appear in their own season because they have an innate wisdom that is exquisitely tuned in to the changing seasons. If their timing is off, they die. Thanks to their precise ability to read the duration of seasons, we see spring flowers on certain days of spring, and summer flowers in summer. That is why we cannot see the blossoms of the evening primrose, arrowroot, trumpet creepers, and mimosa tree in spring, nor the blossoms of the shepherd’s purse and whitlow grass in fall.
To live a life confined to a specific place for a specific season… How inconvenient and seemingly threatening to survival such a life can be! Considering the unpredictable and whimsical weather, aren’t their lives somewhat ascetic? The hardships of plants do not end there. Having no means of escape, they also have to endure the attacks of insects that gnaw away their leaves or even devour their trunks. However, such limitations only propel them to develop the power to resist capricious weather, as well as defense strategies and other tricks to ward off voracious insects.
To me, it is just awe-inspiring to observe the remarkable abilities plants have developed in the process of evolution. Extreme drought in spring has forced wild plants to create their own means of storing water, and they even produce substances to protect them from strong ultraviolet rays. They produce tannins or flavonoids to prevent insects from eating their leaves or trunks. These substances make insects stop growing past the caterpillar stage or make them sterile to prevent further reproduction. In some cases, these substances make insects that eat the leaves in spring feel sluggish, and they eventually die. Some of the more well-known substances produced by plants are: salicin (an ingredient in aspirin) which comes from willows (a tree whose medicinal qualities were well-known to many civilizations); opium from poppies; xylitol from birches; nicotine from tobacco; and caffeine from coffee beans. Fortunately, we humans can use these substances to our benefit.
Of course I’m not saying that all immobile plants should regard all mobile creatures as enemies. On the contrary, there are times these seeming enemies surely need each other. Why are leaves green and blossoms a variety of colors? The reason is simple; it is because they use the property of light. Plant leaves reflect the color green, and specific flowers reflect a specific color. White flower petals look white because they reflect all colors in the spectrum of visible light. Green is the most common color in the world. That may be why animals are rarely enticed by green. On the other hand, butterflies, bees and birds can distinguish colors and respond to them. These tendencies are largely known to any plants that produce colorful flowers.
If we forget about civilization for a moment and give a respectful ear to nature, we may escape spiritual poverty.
In the sizzling heat of late summer, arrowroot vines finally blossom, their passionate flowers reminiscent of scorching heat.
Like some plants that have vibrant colors, some animals also have luxurious colors. Perhaps they learned this trick from plants? Flowers have vibrant colors and emit a distinctive fragrance that is recognized by other creatures. Thanks to such diverse techniques, plants can co-evolve with the organisms that visit them. Isn’t this remarkable instinct for chemistry a gift that evolved from their inability to move about? The world is inherently neither loving nor compassionate. Still, joy and happiness await those who patiently endure the trials and tribulations of life. Perhaps plants are proof of this in the roundabout way they skillfully use their colors and fragrances.
Never was a generous moment
promised to trees
Neither by the wind
nor by the sun
nor by the earth.
is inculcated by the trees themselves.
It is the life of trees.
The earth is all about chemical elements. They influence the mass of the earth, the waters of oceans and rivers, the rocks that form the mountains, and all the plants and creatures that call these places home. Though there are obvious differences between plants and animals, everything originated from the same basic elements. The only difference is in the sequence and the process of synthesis. Plants evolved a solid substance called fiber while animals evolved flesh and bone. The basic unit of life is the cell. Animal cells are round while plant cells are more square or rectangular. Animal cells are enveloped by pretty flexible membranes while plant cells have an extra wall that is hard and encapsulates the cell. These hard walls consist of plant fiber and cellulose.
Forests instill tranquility. Beauty reveals its clear presence in stillness.
The human body contains about 60 trillion cells. Because our bodies consist of cells enclosed by a flexible membrane, we can move freely and bend our bodies. On the other hand, plant cells are rigid so they have a very limited ability to move or bend. In terms of energy efficiency, plants do not consume kinetic energy, and thus they must be more frugal. Because they cannot move once they take root, plants definitely have different lives from animals. To escape from cold or heat, animals can move about; plants cannot. Prey animals can flee from predators, but plants cannot.
For any annual plants to survive this way, what is most critical is to know when to flower and produce seeds. In other words, timing is everything. When a plant receives exactly the right amount of sunlight, they know it is time to flower. And that is why we see spring flowers in spring and fall flowers in fall. Of course there are exceptions like the dandelion which lives year-round, taking advantage of all the seasons.
No matter how much the world changes, there is one thing plants never fail to grasp. As they are well aware that the earth revolves around the sun, they survive by following basic rules, regardless of any adverse circumstances. By synthesizing water and carbon dioxide, two of the most common substances on Earth, plants produce the most essential substances for all life. They are alchemists in the true sense of the word.
Why do I feel happy whenever I see a plant? Because plants whisper to me, and they blossom to reveal all the beauty of the world. They encourage me to look at them and feel calm and to notice detail. The truth of the world resides in a small flower.
Even caterpillars nibbling at the leaves
Create trees that will live a thousand years
When they grow to fly.
The singing travelers that visit trees
Do not stop at eating the fruit
But sing songs that cultivate the forest.
Where all life grows interconnected,
That is a forest. That is the world.
All sorts of different colors
Are bound together and bloom together.
That is the world. That is a forest.
Each with its own color, own fragrance, own shape and size.
But different trees band together and live together
Because they want to be a forest and the world.