Cosmic Foliage, Astral Photoenergy and ‘Plant-People’
Nature is abundantly fruitful, bristling with development, brimful of verdancy and fertility. In Goethe’s 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants, we are treated to this view.
But given the beliefs of the time, all this progress was going somewhere. Organic evolution was invariably considered thoroughly progressive. An escalator, with the rational human on top.
Novalis wrote: “nature approaches man; and if she were once a wildly-birthing rock, then now she is a quietly thriving plant, a silent human artist”.
Here, mere existence, or merely existing, was confidently assumed good. Because if it was made by the perfect artist—or even just “approaches” any kind of artistry—then the existence of any one species must needs be better than its non-existence.
From this it followed that the sheer abundance of existence—the sheer quantity of organic forms, on display in Goethe, in their diversity and serial difference—was often cited as evidence of the overriding benevolence, even supererogation, undergirding this cosmos of ours.
But what happens when this plenty and progressivism becomes divorced, decoupled from, devoid of purpose? What happens when the artisan recedes from the picture—as the century following Goethe witnessed unfold?
When progressivism becomes decoupled from purpose, metamorphosis can seem moribund. This is how it seemed to the Victorian evolutionist, when Thomas Huxley feared—given the assumption of his generation that the sun is terminally cooling—that our biosphere would become the abode of “humbler and humbler organisms”, eventually degenerating into a vegetative state dominated only by “diatoms” and “lichen”.
And when plenty becomes decoupled from purpose, nature becomes overgrown, not a garden. Supererogation slides into superfluity, and Goethe’s germinal generosity decays into tangling tumescence. Suns and flowers, both are decadences of nature.
This is how it began to seem to some modernists. Take, for example, Alfred Döblin’s staggering, monumental, but under-read 1924 novel Mountains, Oceans, Giants.
The novel is a story of nature’s revenge upon advanced technological civilization in 2700 AD. Here, Döblin weaponizes a keen sense that—as the primal powerhouse of the entire biosphere—the photosynthetic kingdom is immensely, insanely pollent.
Written in the age that discovered radioactivity, the novel imagines nature biting back in response to being displaced by ever-expanding civilization. A plan to create more real estate by melting Greenland’s ice cap, using a newly discovered energy source, accidentally punctures a hole in the thin veneer of nature’s equilibrium, stability, or order. For reasons unexplained, this unlooses nature’s prodigal metamorphic powers in a mutative cataclysm which—blurring all lines between lithic, botanic, and organic—ripples outwards across the Northern hemisphere. The loss of Being’s Great Chain is dramatized, quite literally:
The tangle around Greenland knew no distinction between living and dead, plant animal earth. Plant grew on plant, held slowly swimming darting animals tight with tendrils, supportive efflorescences; the creatures became part of them. The plants had ubiquitous siphon-roots support-roots. From tendrils and hairs they built drinking-ducts feet jaws; were both plant and animals.
This vegetal-metamorphic orgy of “emergent Life” cascades, spilling outward from Greenland. A mutative “rampancy” that respects no boundary—whether of species or soma—but instead assimilates all into the tumefying biomass. All the while, pulsing and growing, it feeds on its own composted dead.
At length, the mega-malignance reaches Western Europe: strange beasts and growths wash ashore and begin invading. Huge networks of biomatter weave across countryside. They unlock and unleash, within everything they touch, latent phytogenetic capacities: namely, the weed’s unstoppable capacity to assimilate, continuously grow, choke, and overrun. Like fleshy-flowers, afflicted creatures grow heavy under their own weight: blossoming into mutated growths, their hearts become unable to support outsized appendages and new-bulbed organs.
Döblin’s is Goethean metamorphosis unchained from any prudent plan: made malignant. But, in the narrative, instead of hoping to reverse the unleashing of this energy, the humans seek to harness it and use it themselves. Vast towers are erected from the bodies of affected plants and animals, and an individual human implanted and biologically woven into the peak; these forming humanoid “giants” intended to defend unaffected countries from the threat of the spreading malignance.
Though the implanted are “human sacrifices”, these unfortunate souls—in their final words—speak of a kind of bliss as their individual identities dissolve into the “animal-plant matrix”. The bliss is a loss of the boundary of the self.
From Huxley to Döblin, the loss of the confidence in purpose—and in the cosmic inevitability of the anthropoid—entailed a removal of prior constraints on the space of evolutionary metamorphoses. The acknowledged possibility space for evolution widened. On other planets, people began speculating that strange forms of life and mind may exist.
As early as 1883’s World-life; or, Comparative Geology, the geologist Alexander Winchell was speculating on the extraterrestrial possibility of vegetal intelligences (as well as consciousnesses distributed within “abysses of the ocean” or even “plunged in a volcano”):
“might not high intelligence be embodied in frames as indifferent to external conditions as the sage of the Western plains or the lichens of Labrador”
Science fiction has maintained a steady preoccupation with the possibility of plant-aliens. Think of the species of hyper-intelligent plants that colonizes Earth, enforcing their Kantian-sounding ethics, in Kurd Laßwitz’s 1897 Zwei Planeten. Or, otherwise, think of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” and his radially symmetrical, vegetable-like “Elder Things”.
Perhaps the most interesting examples are found in Olaf Stapledon’s breathtaking Star Maker of 1937. Here, he chronicles the history of a species of “plant-men” who are of “dual, animal-vegetable nature”.
Stapledon explains that these “[v]egetable humanities” are split between “the two sides of their nature”. By night, they are active and acquisitive like animals: motile and uprooted. By day, they become sessile, like plants, and duly photosynthesize.
Stapledon points out that the former mode is what has allowed humanity to dominate its environment. But we humans know nothing of the “special kind of awareness [which] belongs to plants”. This is a species of mystical experience, convening with the source of life itself: solar ecstasy.
It is chronicled that, like humans, the plant-people embark on the upward slope of industrial civilization, and, through means of technology, begin to leave behind their daily dose of photosynthetic sessility. They become more animal, less plant-like. But, as they become embroiled in artifice and technics, this results in ‘spiritual malaise’.
Rejecting the consequences of technological modernity, the species turns back to its old mode and “industrial life vanished like frost in sunlight”. But, having “swung too far”, they fall “into the snare of a vegetal life as one-sided as the old animal life had been”.
They sacrifice their animal uprootedness, and, entering a state of intoxicated photosynthetic stupor, the entire species “passed from ecstasy” into extinction—“undone by the extravagance of their own mystical quietism”.
Stapledon explored the same theme elsewhere in his ‘The Man Who Became a Tree’, probably written in the 1940s. Here the narrator falls asleep upon a tree trunk (after absent-mindedly wondering whether his consumption of plants counts as cannibalizing “his distant cousins”). The narrator’s consciousness then empties into the tree, and upon welcoming and exploring this new phenomenology, he forgets how to move his limbs. He allows his human body to perish. Losing “his rooting in humanity”, his consciousness then identifies with the tree entirely—and, through it, the wider hive-mind that comprises the interconnected and intercommunicative whole of botanical nature.
As with his plant-people, Stapledon stresses the “novel ecstasy” and “mystical experience” that is drinking the sun.
By this time, scientists began understanding that the sun wasn’t going to age by shrinking and cooling, but instead by growing and heating. This created a sense that the vegetable world might, in the greenhouse of the distant future, inherit dominion of the Earth. Later, this provided context for Ballard’s Drowned World and Aldiss’s Hothouse (both published in 1962). In the latter, the sun has swollen, causing Earth’s ecosystems to explode into an energized noontime savagery, with skyscraper-sized trees and motile, predatory plants. Humans are being hunted to extinction and titanic spider-vegetables have woven webs between the Earth and Moon…
Aside from 1951’s Day of the Triffids, other novels that imagine human collapse in the tendrils of autotrophs include 1947’s Greener Than You Think—by Ward Moore—which imagines an artificially-engineered breed of grass toppling humanity by rapaciously reproducing.
By the early 1900s, and increasingly throughout, many no longer recognized purpose or prudence as baked into nature’s independent workings. This is why Georges Bataille, around 1930, linked the “garish withering” of a flower to the wasteful extravagance of the sun.
The creator of the “plant-men”, Stapledon always desired some holistic meaning in the cosmos, but he also acutely felt that modern knowledge had made this implausible. Aside from providing explorations of the diverging trajectories which evolutions and civilizations can take, it is for this reason that his cosmos-spanning fictions are just as much also an exploration of the myriad ways that reaching ‘the Absolute’ must be frustrated or fail. In the absence of any personal deity to underpin positive meaning, this is why Stapledon resorted often to the mystic regression found in imagined ‘return’ to vegetative, pre-individual impersonality.
A refusal of animal wakefulness, a return to the plant’s solar somnolence. After all, Georges Buffon had once said that “le vegetal est un animal qui dort” and C.W. Hufeland wrote that “Schalf ist des Menschen Pflanzenzeit”.
However, in the face of the loss of a holistic design—and its assurances of prudence and purpose—we need not turn to mysticism and, like the “plant-men”, overdose on “extravagant quietism”.
But the other option also takes a leaf out of the plants’ book.
By Stapledon’s time, the Russian cosmist and rocketeer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, had already become convinced that intelligent creatures must steer their own organic metamorphoses, and that the direction of future evolution would be decidedly plant-like.
Tsiolkovsky thought that, as life once left the sea, it must also emancipate itself from gravity and the penury of being planet-locked, coming to live in the void of space. But this would require vast metamorphic changes. In the vacuum, the only readily available fuel is “solar rays”. But Tsiolkovsky prophesied “special appendages” that serve the same photosynthetic purpose as the “green parts” of “plants”.
“[S]uch a creature may be called an animal-plant”, he conjectured. Their skin would be translucent, and “glass-like”, to facilitate their solar feast. Crucially, this evolutionary ‘vegetization’ would not be at the price of intelligence or self-consciousness.
Tsiolkovsky imagined these beings speaking to a human visitor:
“We are fed and developed like plants—by the action of solar beams […] Do you see the green appendages of our bodies looking like beautiful emerald wings?—They contain grains of chlorophyll, similar to that which leaves their characteristic colour […]”
He even did calculations on their metabolism, and how much sunlight would be equitable to “10 pounds of meat” for a human. Indeed, in becoming photosynthetic, civilized beings would only gain in hallmarks of intelligence, like autonomy and compassion, given that a species that lives directly off starlight would be able to convert energy to work without the messy, and immoral, meditation of a food chain. Indeed, it is for similar reasons that Tsiolkovsky’s compatriot, Vladimir Vernadsky, urged that planetary civilization shift its energetic regime, and become an “autotroph”: like the plant, not fettered by the compulsion to consume other beings.
Having liberated themselves from the penuries of gravitational rooting and predatory diets, Tsiolkovsky imagined these glassy plant-beings would next embark on fixing perhaps the greatest problem of all: the squander and prodigality of a sun that shines its wealth into space without purpose or photosynthetic uptake.
“Our bodies depict in a small way the organic life of Earth”, the plant-beings explain. As the biosphere itself already persists in the vacuum, so too do they. As autotrophs, they are, themselves, self-sufficient wholes. He imagined them filling the circumstellar void of space, crowding around the sun like phototropic cosmic foliage:
“They [will] surround all suns, even those without planets, and use this energy in order to live and to think. The energy of stars should exist for something!”
Tsiolkovsky was aware that only less than a billionth of the sun’s total output is currently intercepted by the Earth; and far less, through the intercession of photosynthesis and food chains, is channeled toward intelligent means. He was convinced that it is the obligation of mind to find a fix to this improper situation.
Instead of the waste fertility of this cosmos scaring us into dejection—feeling that we have lost the prudent universe once promised to us—we should wake up to the fact that we were never in line for such an inheritance.
If we want the photoenergy of the stars to exist for something, then perhaps we will have to make it so. The choice, perhaps, is between the mystical acquiescence of Stapledon’s “plant-people”, or the metamorphosed magnanimity of Tsiolkovsky’s. Perhaps we ought to learn to photosynthesize.