There’s always something new under the sun. There are always surprises waiting for us in the most unlikely places. Recent studies are showing plants may be far more than the yard decorations and colorful picture elements we’ve taken them for. These beings that we’ve always considered to be merely ground cover are capable of movement, communication–yes, they can talk to their neighbors–and even arithmetic–some species need to know the hours of darkness and calculate if they have enough starch to survive the night. Charles Darwin recognized intelligent, purposeful movement in plants, and he even wrote a book on it. The scientific community ignored his findings for more than 120 years.
We don’t even know how intelligent plants are because we are not smart enough to communicate with them. The problem is they use chemical cues rather than auditory ones to talk to the plants and animals around them, and this is a language Rosetta Stone© doesn’t cover. Plants are as aware of our presence as any animal, more aware than many. They are even self-aware, which puts them way above most animals in intelligence, at least by the way we measure such things. There is also considerable evidence they feel pain. Any time plants are wounded, they emit ethylene, a familiar pain killer. There may another answer, but it seems logical to assume they emit a pain killer when they feel pain.
What are the implications of these discoveries? Well, one of the big arguments for the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is that it is kinder to feeling creatures, and that was a valid point until these recent discoveries. It turns out that even though plants don’t have faces, and even though their seat of intelligence may not be a brain per se, they do feel and they are aware. Harvesting fruit or grain may be just as painful for them as plucking off pieces of us would be. We raise many plants just to kill them so we can survive. There is simply no getting around the fact that for one being to live, other beings, whether they are animals or plants, must die. We are utterly dependent upon other living beings paying the ultimate price so that we may live. We are more closely tied to the rest of creation than we can possibly imagine.
Whether we are aware of it or not, almost anywhere we point a lens in the natural world, we are photographing a life and death struggle. The struggle may not be obvious. It may even appear completely harmless–a porcupine nibbling on a flower or a field of many species in bloom–but there is a struggle occurring. Of course, just to make things more complicated, at the same time as this struggle for available resources is going on, there is also a constant discussion or dialogue between the protagonists, establishing boundaries, making or breaking treaties, and deciding who to cooperate with and who to fight tooth and nail.
The idea that we are better or more evolved than other species because we don’t need to kill thinking, feeling beings no longer holds water. What’s more, the knowledge of whether it’s better to kill animals or plants to survive is forever beyond our grasp. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden to us, and consequently, just like every other plant and animal we see, all we can do is muddle through as best we can. For me at least, being a nature photographer helps. The camera lens makes me an intimate part of the ongoing conflict/cooperation, and makes it easier to rejoice in our connection to it. This is what makes the world go round.
Cathy and Gordon Illg have been full-time nature photographers since 2000. Now their livelihood is dependent upon their ability to share the magic of wild things and wild places with other photographers. Their work is widely published and includes numerous covers of magazines like Backpacker, Defenders, National Geographic Young Explorer, Ranger Rick and National Wildlife. Several of their images decorate the tails of Frontier Airlines’ jets, and they’ve done well in photo contests, the highlight of which was being flown to London to accept awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest. Both of their first two books, Dynamic Wildlife Photography and Worshipping With A Camera, have been well received, and they lead nature photography tours under the name Adventure Photography. Information on their photo tours and blogs can be found on their website, www.advenphoto.com.