Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Secret Lives of Flowers (June 4, 2017)

So this year as we celebrate our annual flower communion, we are going to take some time to get to know these plants a little better

One of the hardest things for humans to remember about plants is their roots. Because we don’t have any underground parts, we forget that for some plants as much as half of their body is underground.

This is the season when a lot of people are planting a seedling in your garden. Did anyone here plant any seedlings this year? It’s a good time to see what roots look like [Here I removed the seedling from its pot to show the roots. You can do the same thing at home.] you can see that this plant needs more room to grow.

Have you ever dug up a plant in your garden, to move it to someplace better? I always try to get all the roots, but the big roots we see are not all of the roots- there are also really fine root-hairs. I bet however hard you try, some of the root hairs are going to get broken or bruised when you dig up and re plant a plant. When you see a plant wilt after you re-plant it, that’s most likely because too many roots and root hairs were damaged.

Why does that matter? What do roots do for a plant?
  • bring up water from underground 
  • collect nutrients and minerals
  • anchor the plant
  • some roots store food and water in their roots- like carrots and beets
  • contractile roots- pull plants like lilies and dandelions deeper into the earth
Did you ever wonder how plants know to grow their stems and leaves up and their roots down? Apparently they sense gravity- and the roots are the part that sense gravity. If you cut off just .5mm of the root tip, it can’t tell which way the roots should grow, until the “root cap” grows back. So that’s another important thing roots do- they sense gravity.

They also do some things that roots do to help their eco-system:
  • roots loosen and aerate soil,
  • as they grow and die they build humus,
  • They hold on to the soil, preventing erosion- why should we care about that? Because it takes 1,000 years to make an inch of topsoil- the kind of soil that plants can grow in.[i]
So roots are very important, not only to the plant but to us too!

Stems and Leaves
So plants take in water and nutrients through their roots which travel up the stems to the leaves through vascular system- that’s the same word we use for the human body for our blood vessels.

One of the other ways plants are most different from humans is that they can eat sunlight. This is called? (photosynthesis) Both leaves and stems help with photosynthesis, but for most plants it mostly happens in the leaves.

The plant takes in carbon dioxide, through tiny pores in plant leaves called stomata. Just like humans breathe through their lungs, plants breathe through their stomata- carbon dioxide in, and oxygen out. Sunlight is absorbed by a green pigment in plant cell called chloroplasts – that’s where photosynthesis happens.

Since sunlight is so important to plants, a plant needs to know where sunlight is and move towards it. Darwin did a simple experiment to try to figure out what part of the plant sensed light. He took 5 seedlings
  • the first he did nothing to, so he could see what a plant would normally do
  • the second he cut off the tip
  • the second, he put a light-proof hat on the tip
  • the fourth, he put a kind of neck warmer on the middle
  • the last he put a transparent hat on the tip
The ones who had no tip, or whose tip was blocked from the light did not grow to face the light, and all the others did. So a plant “Sees” light with its tip and the middle part of the stem bends towards it- “photo tropism”[ii]

Plants also need to know when to grow and when to make flowers and seeds. They don’t have clocks or calendars, so how do they do it? Let’s say you had wanted to bring chrysanthemums, a flower that blooms in the fall, to flower communion today. Botanists figured out that plants are measuring not the length of the day, but the length of the night. So if you had a bunch of chrysanthemums in your greenhouse, and every night you interrupted the dark with a flash of light, the plants would think it was summer, and not yet time to bloom. Then if you stopped 2 weeks before flower communion, the plants would sense the long nights and think it was the fall, and start blooming.

Here’s something else that’s cool- plants know the difference between blue and red. The kind of light they grow toward is blue light, but the kind of light they need to tell the season is red light.

What part of the plant is sensing these flashes? Well those mean old scientists took all the leaves off a plant, and the plant did not respond to the red light. But when they shined the red light on any 1 leaf, the whole plant responded. So the leaves are the part of the plant that “sees” red light.

Flowers, fruits and seeds
Most plants have some things in common. (I say most, because every time I think something is always true, I learn about the exceptions) First they are babies, little sprouts with just 2 leaves, then 4 leaves. They add leaves and roots and grow in size and when the nights are the right length, they start to flower. That’s why if you go to a farmer’s market around here in May, the farmers don’t have any fruits yet- just greens like spinach. Then, when things are just right, the plants begin to bud and flower. Not all plants have flowers, only “angiosperms” – about 95% of plants are angiosperms.

A flower is the part of the plant or organ plants use to have make baby plants. Many flowers are showy and beautiful; bright colors, strong scents and sweet nectar, because they are trying to attract pollinators like birds, bees and other insects. They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

When you go to the grocery story, it’s like a weird science fiction world where time doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables come from all over the world by truck and boat and train so that you can eat summer fruit in January, and September fruits in June. But if we watch carefully the world around us, we see that there is a progression of the flowers that is very similar but always a bit different every year. The pollinators, like the bees, count on this progression or they would sometimes have nothing to eat. In my yard, the first plants that flower each year are the snow drops. Then the crocuses.

Does anyone remember what they saw next this year? What is in your yard now?

What do you think you will see when the summer is hot? And in the fall?
They need the pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to make sure every ovary has what it needs to turn into a seed. Once the flower has done it job, it withers and the real work begins- making a fruit. Any mature ovary containing a seed is called a fruit. Can you give me some examples? It turns out that technically a nut is a kind of fruit too!

Today we celebrate not only of the profusion of beauty nature offers up each year at this time, but of the beauty of community. We bring our flowers, each special in its own unique way- some cultivated, some wild, some modest some flamboyant. Each of them is a special gift and all together the make something even more wonderful. Like in this community of persons; each of us is a special, unique gift, and all together we make something even more wonderful.

Flower meditation
Take a moment now to appreciate that flower in your hand. Some of you have more than just a flower, you have leaves or maybe a whole plant.

Is this a plant you’ve seen many times before, or is it new to you?

What does it smell like?

If you like, gently touch the different parts, are they smooth, or rough?

Do the parts feel different from one another?

How many colors does it have?

If you were going to paint it what colors would you choose?

How many petals does the flower have?

Can you figure out where the stamen are- the part that produces the pollen?

Can you see any pollen there?

Are any parts of the plant withered?

Are there any buds that have yet to open? Let’s just take another moment to mindfully enjoy and to gaze on them with gratitude.

Blessed be

End notes

[i] http://www.childrenoftheearth.org/soil-facts-for-kids/soil-facts-for-kids-11.htm
[ii] What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz

Emotions as Big as the World

Many Sundays someone comes up to the front of our sanctuary during Joys and Concerns, takes a rock and tells us about some joy or concern for the world. The birds are returning in the spring. The effects of global climate change, the oppression of people far away in a place we have never been. As one of your worship leaders I often feel torn about this. On the one hand, it’s my duty to make sure that worship takes about an hour, on the other hand, as your worship leaders it’s our job to encourage us to have a global consciousness. It’s important that we notice when the birds return in the spring. It’s important that we notice the strange weather we have been having. It’s a good thing when the plight of someone half way around the world touches our hearts. It reminds us that we are part of an interconnected web of life.

Every day we hear about truly horrific things around the world, and to be honest with you often when I hear about such things I don’t feel anything at all. Or sometimes they make my stomach clench up and I suddenly think of a chore I have to do in a different room. That’s why I was so surprised when a picture of a logging road through an old growth forest disturbed me as deeply as if it were an open wound on a human body. It made me sad and angry. I felt hopeless, and lonely and I felt like I was the only person in the world be upset by a logging road.

Our culture teaches us that this is not normal. First of all, we are not culturally comfortable with the difficult emotions. Perhaps you have experienced a loss or heartbreak and people around you tried to cheer you up with platitudes which imply that they would really like you to hurry up and finish grieving as quickly as possible? Psychologists agree that grief is an important process for healing loss. If we refuse to feel our feelings they don’t disappear, they creep into our bodies and into our relationships. The real need of our emotions and spirits to process our experience slams up against our cultural fear of having strong emotions. Even if we are determined to feel our feelings it’s hard to change cultural habits that are reinforced on a daily basis. For the past year this has been one of my most important growing edges; my whole life I have prided myself on being cheerful and positive. But eventually I realized that I was shutting myself off from parts of my own experience so that I could stay cheerful.

We have an additional cultural taboo to overcome as we grieve the “destruction of the world” – the taboo that only human losses should be grieved. Since I’ve been the minister here a number of us have lost companions who are dogs or cats, and so often when we tell each other this news we are apologetic- knowing that in our culture it’s not really proper to grieve too deeply the loss of any friend who is not human. All the more so, there’s a general rolling of eyes if you express deep emotion about the felling of a tree, or the loss of the coral reefs in the ocean. This comes from our cultures insistence that we are different, that we humans are separate from everything which is not human, anything that is outside our own tribe. And the reverse is also true; by severing our emotions from the living world we are able to do the things that separate us form the web of life. If it were sad to cut a logging road through an old growth forest, it would be harder to do.

Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and activist, was one of the first Western thinkers I was aware of to suggest that, in fact, we are all feeling this great grief for the world all the time. We all feel sad about the loss of forests and woodlands. We all feel sad about the extinction of species. We all hurt when people around the world die from curable diseases because they didn’t have access to treatment. Macy suggests that because it is culturally taboo to feel these things, we learn to numb ourselves. We all have to be able to drive past a quarry and see not an open wound in the earth, but a useful and productive industry. Our numbness helps sustain the status quo.

Macy, and now a growing number of psychologists are suggesting that before we will be able to turn and face these crises we are going to have to feel some of those difficult feelings. As individuals and as a culture we need to let our numbness soften, and let our hearts open to the rips and tears in the web of life before we can do want needs to be done to mend them.

Recently I learned a form of meditation that I have started practicing whenever the opportunity arises to change those old patterns. When I notice an emotion I take a moment to just feel it- not to judge it or analyze it or think about it but to just feel the sensations of that emotion. Then I make a conscious choice to welcome it- even if it’s despair. Even if it’s anger. I just say inside myself “welcome.” I greet it with compassion and curiosity. And after I have gone back and forth between those first two steps for as long as I need, I let the feeling go.

A few years ago I was sitting at a wonderful environmental conference called Bioneers, the founder of a group called Forrest Ethics about the cutting down of the last old growth forests on the continent- the Boreal forests in Canada. Her slides of the beautiful living eco system, and the ravages of logging opened my heart like a key in a lock. She explained that it’s hard to find out exactly what happens to the wood that is harvested when a forest is cut, but they had managed to follow some of those old trees through the paper pulp mill to the catalogues they eventually became. That’s right, catalogues. We were cutting down the last of our old growth forest to make junk mail. Notice how you feel when I say that. Do you feel numb? That’s okay. DO you feel angry? DO you feel sad? DO you feel despair? All those feelings are okay. Just notice. Where do you feel that in your body? Just breathe and notice. Well I felt so mad and sad that day that I went home and wrote up a cover letter explaining where the paper for those catalogues came from and that I did not want to receive any further catalogues. Then I ripped the back cover off all my catalogues and mailed them back to the companies. Later that year my RE program did a teach in on where paper comes form and wrote letters to Weyerhaeuser, a company that was logging the rainforest to make paper. Without that anger, without that hurt, I never would have had the energy to do the little things I could do.

So I would like to suggest that we can apply this same welcome meditation to our environmental despair just as we would to our grief about a lost job or ended relationship. If we are watching the news and notice strong feelings, we can drop down and just feel those feelings. And then welcome them. Here’s an important point- we are not welcoming clear-cutting old growth forests, we are not welcoming the death of the coral reef, we are just welcoming our feelings about those things. After we get clear and centered in ourselves and in those feelings, it may come to us that there is something we want to do to change the circumstance that unleashed those feelings. Usually this is where I focus my sermons- on analyzing the problems and encouraging us to do something to help them change. I promise there will be many more of those sermons to come. But today I want to just focus on this very important and often overlooked part of the work, which is to allow ourselves to feel the interconnected web, in all its joy and sadness.

As Per Espen Stoknes writes “My point here is that there must also be room and space where the genuine despair may be expressed and heard. Maybe my anger needs to cry without being impatiently and prematurely pushed and bullied into positive thinking, quick fixes and social movements. Yes, we must make haste. And yes, we must make haste slowly… with the kind of deep questioning that allows the heart and the soul time to follow.” [p. 179]

This is how I’d like to use the rest of our service today. I’d like us to have another time of Joys and Concerns, this time for any part of the web of life we feel connected to. And I’d encourage us to start our sharing by saying “I feel” – to help ground ourselves in our feeling. For example, “I feel angry and sad and hopeless when I see the way the living soil is treated in my neighborhood.” and I would encourage everyone else to just see how you feel as I say that. Even if you feel numb, that’s good to notice. Just be present with that.

I want to say a special word about anger. There’s a lot of anger in our political discourse right now- and that seems about right to me. But sometimes what we do when our feelings are too painful to feel is that we focus them “at” someone. I would challenge you to sit with that feeling of anger- focusing on your own experience instead of on blame. For example. I feel angry and afraid when I hear the EPA is being cut back. So I’m suggesting that we just feel whatever feelings arise in our own bodies.

And of course there is always room for our feelings of joy and connection; it is the joy we feel as the trees fill with leaves, that gives us the desire to stay connected with the web of life.

[At this point in the service we spent some time in contemplation, and then shared with one another our joys and concerns about the whole interconnected web of life. I encourage you, dear reader, to take some time to do the same. After reflection I encouraging you to share your joys and concerns with a friend, in prayer, in your journal, or on social media.]