Botany in Popular Culture: Saga of the Swamp Thing

From the swamps of Louisiana comes a fictional character that is entirely composed of vegetation, has the appearance of a monster, and the consciousness of a human. He is called the Swamp Thing. Created by Len Wien and Bernie Wrightson, the Swamp Thing made his first appearance in the ninety-second issue of House of Secrets in 1971. He was then given his own series, which after 19 issues was handed off to up and coming author, Alan Moore.

Moore was an established comic book writer in the United Kingdom, but this was his first time writing for an American imprint. The work Moore did on Swamp Thing left a lasting impact on the comic book industry and helped establish Moore as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. While Moore wrote more than fifty issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, I am narrowing this post down to the first volume, which compiles issues 20 – 27.

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When Moore inherited the character, the Swamp Thing was thought to be (and also thought himself to be) the vegetable form of Alec Holland, a scientist who blew himself up while experimenting with a bio-restorative formula he was developing. Because Moore had some plot lines to dispense of before he began his own telling of the story, it only made sense to have the Swamp Thing killed off in the first issue so that he could reveal who or what he really was.

The beginning of issue #21 finds Dr. Jason Woodrue examining the Swamp Thing’s corpse. Woodrue is a villian that goes by the name Floronic Man and is himself a plant-human hybrid. The men who killed the Swamp Thing got Woodrue out of jail so that he could help them do an autopsy. During the autopsy, Woodrue makes a startling discovery: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.” In the explosion, Holland’s body was completely incinerated, but due to the help of the bio-restorative formula that followed Holland into the swamp, the swamp plants fashioned themselves into a new creature with the form of a man and the consciousness of Holland.

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The bio-restorative formula is key because it allows the Swamp Thing to regenerate. Woodrue knows this and takes advantage of it. He moves the Swamp Thing’s resting body back to the swamp. Conveniently he finds Abby Cable there, one of the Swamp Thing’s good friends. Woodrue informs her that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland, news that is difficult for her to take. As the Swamp Thing awakens, he must also come to terms with the fact that he is not who he thought he was. Meanwhile, Woodrue/Floronic Man harvests and eats a tuberous growth protruding from the Swamp Thing, which enhances his powers to control plant life.

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Floronic Man is upset with animal life, particularly humans for the collective destruction that they have caused plant life. He is determined to take revenge for the harm that has been done to “The Green.” He causes plants to grow up rapidly and consume buildings and cars and wrap around humans to kill them. Amidst his mayhem he explains his vision of “another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans. Those long, green centuries where no bird sang, where no dog barked. Where there was no noise! Where there was no screaming meat!!”

The Justice League is called in, but there isn’t much they can do. This is a job for the Swamp Thing who, while wandering through the swamp coming to grips with his new identity, senses trouble in The Green. He then realizes that Floronic Man must be involved, at which point he arrives on the scene and gives Floronic Man a good beating and a stern talking to.

Floronic Man is obsessed with the idea of plants taking over and destroying all other life. He has clearly gone mad, threatening to make the plants “pour out oxygen” so that “all the animals will die.” He is convinced that only plants will remain and that “it’s the only way to save the planet from those creatures.” The Swamp Thing rhetorically asks, “And what will change the oxygen back into the gasses that we need to survive when the men and animals are dead?” That seems to shut Floronic Man up. Schooled by logic, he slowly loses control of the plant life he had recruited to do his dirty work, at which point the Justice League swoops in and picks him up. The Swamp Thing retreats back to the swamp, embracing his new identity – elated to be alive and feeling at home in the swamp.

The final three “chapters” of the book are focused more on Abby. The Swamp Thing is around, and he definitely shows up for some fight scenes, but Moore seems to be working on developing Abby’s character. After all, she and the Swamp Thing have a future together. In one fight scene, a demon rips the Swamp Thing’s arm off. At which point, the Swamp Thing nonchalantly picks up his arm, reattaches it, and resumes fighting the demon.

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Throughout the book, Moore’s writing and storytelling is exceptional. A brief recap such as this cannot do the book justice. Moore’s prose must be read to be truly appreciated. The Swamp Thing is a fairly minor character in the comic book world, and one of the very few that brings botany to the forefront. Thanks to Moore and the artists that worked with him, Saga of the Swamp Thing gives this great character the exposure and legacy it deserves.

For more authoritative reviews, check out the following links:

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Botany in Popular Culture: Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular

Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s animated sitcom, Futurama, is replete with social commentary. Set in the 31st Century, it’s not surprising that much of that commentary involves environmental issues. Episode 13 of season 6 – a special, holiday season episode – addresses a number of such issues, including extinction, global warming, fossil fuel depletion, and Colony Collapse Disorder. The episode is broken up into three, distinct segments; each has its own storyline, but all – apart from being environmentally themed – center around traditional (in the fictional world of Futurama) holiday celebrations. Hence, the title of the episode: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.

Botany plays a particularly prominent role in the first segment of the episode. In the 31st Century, Christmas has morphed into a holiday called Xmas. In the opening scene, the Planet Express Crew has decorated a palm tree to look like a Christmas tree. Looking despondent, Philip J. Fry (a pizza delivery boy from the 21st century who was inadvertently cryopreserved and thawed 1,000 years later) laments, “Something about Xmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”  Just then, the arrival of Santa is announced.

In the 31st Century, Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot called Robot Santa, and instead of gifts and holiday cheer, he brings violence and mayhem. The crew begins to lock down the Planet Express headquarters in preparation for Robot Santa’s arrival. Disturbed by this, Fry demands to know how “this crazy holiday” is celebrated – “preferably in song.”  At which point, Robot Santa bursts out of the fireplace singing, “It’s the violentest season of the year…”

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After a few violent exchanges between the crew and Robot Santa, Robot Santa sings, “The one thing that you need to make your Xmas Day splendiferous / Is a pine tree – a pine tree that’s coniferous.” The crew agrees; they need “an old-fashioned pine tree.” But there is one problem.

“Pine trees have been extinct for over 800 years,” explains Professor Farnsworth. Apparently, they were all chopped down and turned into toilet paper during something called “The Fifty-Year Squirts.” Yet, the Professor exclaims, “There is one hope and, as usual, it’s Norwegian!” And at that, the crew heads off to Norway.

In Norway, the crew arrives at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where, as the Professor explains, “since 2008, the vault has preserved seeds of every known plant species in case of extinction.” They are confronted by a seed vault employee who asks why the crew is “pokey-poking about the seed vault – guardian of mankind’s precious botanical heritage there?”

The Professor tells the man that they are there to “rummage about a bit.” The crew notes that there is a Germ Warfare Repository that has been constructed right next to the seed vault and asks if there are any cross-contamination concerns. The man says, “No,” and then lets them inside where he brings them a container marked Pinus xmas. Amy notices some “splork” on the seeds and asks, “It’s not germs is it?” Again the man says, “No.” 

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The Planet Express crew at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being presented with the seeds of Pinus xmas.

Back in New New York, Fry plants a pine tree seed outside the Planet Express building. A year later, a sapling as tall as Fry has emerged. Fry declares, “Now that’s a tree worth chopping down.” At that point, President Nixon pulls up in his limousine and sees the tree. “That’s what my poll numbers need, ” he says turning to Vice President Cheney – both of them animated heads in jars. Cheney orders Nixon to steal the tree.

The tree is transplanted in front of the White House. During the Xmas tree lighting ceremony, the tree begins to grow rapidly. Apparently it was contaminated with a weaponized virus after all. It begins to produce cones which then fly off the tree and explode. Shortly after the explosions, more pine trees begin to emerge and grow rapidly, at which point Leela exclaims, “Wait! This could be a good thing. Reforestation has begun!” However, this reforestation is occurring at an extremely rapid pace, and before long all land on Earth is completely covered in pine trees.

Soon, all manner of wildlife is found frolicking among the trees. Again Leela exclaims, “Arguably, this could be a good thing. The planet has returned to its primeval state!” The Professor concurs, “All these pine trees are fighting global warming by producing oxygen.”

But the “good news” doesn’t last long. The oxygen level continues to increase and quickly reaches 80%. Ignorantly, Bender decides to celebrate his own laziness with a cigar. As he lights it, the entire planet bursts into flames. Robot Santa returns to announce, “Ho ho ho! Everyone’s dead!”

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Similar dark comedy ensues in the other two segments as the crew learns about the holiday traditions of Robanukah and Kwanzaa. Again, both segments explore important environmental concerns in the process. Al Gore’s animated head in a jar makes appearances throughout the episode. If you are looking for some added hilarity during this holiday season – as well as some bleak environmental messaging – you can’t go wrong with Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular.

Interesting fact: In 2011, this episode of Futurama won an Environmental Media Award for best comedic television episode with an environmental message. EMA’s have been awarded since 1991 to “honor film and television productions and individuals that increase public awareness of environmental issues and inspire personal action on these issues.”

Botany in Popular Culture: The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats

My obsession with plants means that I see botany everywhere – in the music I listen to, the shows I watch, the books I read, whatever. Just a fleeting mention of something plant related in any type of media will catch my attention, no matter how ancillary it is to the major themes. And that is the impetus behind this series of posts about botany in popular culture. Well that and, believe it or not, I do enjoy many non-plant related things, and this gives me an excuse to write about those things on a plant-centric blog.

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The Mountain Goats are a folk rock band formed by John Darnielle in 1991. It could be said that John Darnielle is synonymous with the Mountain Goats, as Darnielle is the chief songwriter and at times has been the only member of the band. The Sunset Tree is the Mountain Goats ninth studio album and only the second album featuring songs that are primarily autobiographical. The album that preceded The Sunset Tree, entitled We Shall All Be Healed, was about Darnielle’s teenage years as a methamphetamine user. The Sunset Tree describes growing up with an abusive stepfather. Heavy topics are kind of the Mountain Goats’ thing.

Darnielle’s lyrics are highly poetic and often nebulous – the listener is left to fill in the gaps. Thus, the storytelling in The Sunset Tree isn’t always direct. However, the scene begins to unfold in the second track, “Broom People,” as Darnielle seems to be describing his childhood living conditions: “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,” “dishes in the kitchen sink,” “floor two foot high with newspapers,” “white carpet thick with pet hair.” He also sings of “friends who don’t have a clue; well meaning teachers,” and how he would “write down good reasons to freeze to death in [his] spiral ring notebook.”

“Dance Music” reveals more as Darnielle at 5 or 6 years old is getting “indications that there’s something wrong.” As he sits watching TV, his stepfather is yelling at his mom, then “launches a glass across the room, straight at her head, and [Darnielle] dashes upstairs to take cover.” He turns on his “little record player on the floor” and makes a discovery: “so this is what the volume knob is for.”

A similar scene unfolds in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” only this time Darnielle is the victim. He arrives home to find his stepfather asleep, so he sneaks up to his room knowing that if he awakes his stepfather, “there will be hell to pay.” But he does wake up, and he bursts into Darnielle’s room to find him sitting with his headphones on oblivious. The beating begins, and Darnielle sings, “then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face / hoping you don’t break my stereo / because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without / and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.” Darnielle describes being “held under these smothering waves” by his stepfather’s “strong and thick-veined hand.” But he remains hopeful that eventually – “one of these days” – he will “wriggle up on dry land.”

That sense of hopefulness can be found throughout the album. In “This Year,” Darnielle is a 17 year old longing to break free. The chorus repeats resolutely: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In “Up the Wolves,” he assures us, “there’s gonna come a day when you feel better / you’ll rise up free and easy on that day.”

But there is obviously some anger and frustration expressed as well. Later in “Up the Wolves,” Darnielle sings that he’s going to get himself in “fighting trim” and then makes a series of threats: “I’m gonna bribe the officials, I’m gonna kill all the judges, It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.” The song “Lion’s teeth” is a revenge fantasy. Darnielle envisions “the king of the jungle asleep in his car,” and since “nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth,” he takes it upon himself to wrestle the beast. He reaches into the lion’s mouth, grabs onto “one long sharp tooth,” and holds on. The chaos that ensues makes him realize he is “gonna regret the day [he] was born,” but since there is no good way to end it, he is determined to “hold on for dear life.”

The mood lightens during the last two tracks of the album. They seem to be about forgiveness, understanding, and letting go. In “Pale Green Things,” Darnielle tells of hearing from his sister that their stepfather had died “at last, at last.” Upon hearing the news, one of the first memories Darnielle has is of he and his stepfather going to a racetrack to watch horses run. In one scene he recalls looking down at the cracked asphalt and “coming up through the cracks, pale green things.”

It’s a poignant ending to an album full of dark memories. It’s also fitting, as it adds to the bits of hope scattered throughout. Seeing plants push up through concrete or sprout up in detritus collected in gutters and corners of rooftops or even just up out of the dirt in the middle of summer when the ground is hot and bone dry, all of these moments are testaments to the tenacity of living things. Life can, rightfully so, be described as fleeting, short, and fragile – easily snuffed out and erased. But the struggle for life is also fierce, enduring, and relentless. Darnielle’s story is one example of that.

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The “pale green things” that Darnielle saw also symbolize the struggles of the little guy, the underdog, the downtrodden – a tiny, fragile plant pushing its way past solid, suffocating asphalt. It’s a common theme in Darnielle’s music – his latest album is called Beat the Champ, for example. His song “Wild Sage” is also a sign of that ongoing theme.

I work with plants all day, and I am continually awed by them. Daily I am stopped in my tracks, practically forced by some plant to admire one or more of the fascinating features it displays. It doesn’t surprise me that Darnielle would use “pale green things” to express hope and resiliency. Every day I find some kind of hope in plants, that whatever tough thing we are going through, we can one day “wriggle up on dry land” – pale green things pushing up through asphalt, wild sage growing in the weeds.