Yesterday I was reading an article in Midwest Living magazine about all the things we love about Fall. The author noted wryly that every year about this time she hears the same thing: people lamenting that the trees are not as pretty this year as in past years. There was a late frost in spring, or drought conditions in summer and it affected the trees. And then suddenly, one day, we drive down the street and boom! There’s a brilliant display of autumn foliage, despite everything. Okay, we get it.
Life on our planet is divided into two kingdoms, the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom, and everything living, with minimal exceptions such as fungi and bacteria, belong to one or the other. I have a friend who is a botanist and she has more than once emphasized to me the preeminence of the plant kingdom on earth. Compared to plants, the animals are johnny-come-latelies, after-thoughts. Popular mythologies like to speak of the cycles of life, the circles of being, but that is an oversimplification, and really only jollies us along in our inalienable membership in the junior kingdom.
The fact is that all of the animals could die off and plants would endure; but if plants go away, so do the animals. Sure, if there were no bees many plants would move towards extinction, but we tend to overemphasize the importance of those particular plants, since many of them are the ones we eat. And birds and grass eating mammals are responsible for spreading the seeds of various plants, but they have at best a minimal affect; some species might wane without their animal enablers, but in general, the world would continue greening and browning in tune with the seasons.
Our popular mythologies also like to talk about Man’s Dominion over the Animals. Much has been made of this in history by way of justifying hunting, meat-eating, mass slaughter of food animals and more. But the interesting thing is that, while dominion over the animals has been easy, what we have fought tooth and nail for is dominion over the plant kingdom.
What is a garden but a place where we exercise dominion over a small plot of land? And a field planted with a food crop is a larger version of that, an area where we not only sow and hope to raise a chosen plant, but in which we hope to prevent the incursion of all other plant life. It is a business fraught with headaches and setbacks, and such is the history of mankind ever since what anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution began some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Our homesteads, our villages, finally even our cities are places where we have worked, with different degrees of success, to push back the relentless onslaught of the plant kingdom. Weeds are the advance troops of the conqueror, fighting back against us on every front.
And, if you think about it, the seasons are an expression of the natural cycles of the plant kingdom. It is plants that brown and die back when the days begin to cool, awaiting the sun of springtime. Demeter, she who ruled the seasons, was goddess of grain, not herds. Most seasonal deities in history have been vegetation gods. Sure, there are some seemingly instinctual, seasonal animal behaviors, such as hibernation, but these are purely learned responses to what the plant kingdom is doing: there’s nothing to eat, so we might as well sleep.
I have always thought that everything on earth exists around us and we are just along for the ride. Looked at in this light, it seems even more so. Our pride and our chest thumping over dominion of the animal kingdom is small potatoes in the end, and we are still just following along while the plant kingdom dominates everything around us. And the annual autumn display? Those glorious, defiant bursts of gold and red and copper on every hillside? They’re just a showy reminder of who’s in charge. Yeah, we get it. You don’t have to brag about it.