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.

TheSunsetTreeFrontCover

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.

sedums in a hole 2

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.

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Botany and Everyday Chemistry

What’s not to love about plants? They provide us with oxygen, food, medicine, fuel, fibers, and countless other things. They help filter groundwater and sequester carbon. They beautify our landscapes and communities. They provide habitat for wildlife and help reduce soil erosion. And the list goes on.

But there is more to plants than meets the eye. There is something deeper within – at their cellular and molecular levels – that is just as worthy of our fascination and appreciation as the blooms that beautify our yards and the fruits that fill our tables, and that is the abundant and diverse world of chemical compounds present in the botanical kingdom.

But how does one gain an understanding and appreciation for such a subject. Luckily, there is a blog for that. It’s called Compound Interest. Authored by UK chemistry teacher, Andy Brunning, Compound Interest explores the “chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.” Much of what Andy writes about doesn’t have anything to do with plants – fireworks, bacon, gunpowder, snowflakes, etc. – but a sizeable portion of his posts do (evidenced particularly by the Food Chemistry category). For example: Did you know nutmeg is hallucinogenic? Have you ever wondered why avocados turn brown so quickly? Why is it that some people have such a strong aversion to cilantro (aka coriander)? What makes coffee bitter, chili peppers spicy, and catnip so attractive to cats?

These and so many other questions are answered by Andy in a fun and approachable way. One thing that makes Compound Interest so approachable is the use of infographics to tell the stories and explain the science. Each post is accompanied by an infographic featuring photos of the subject, structural formulas of the chemicals, and short descriptions.  For example, this infographic explains why beets are red and why our urine turns red after eating them:

Chemistry-of-Beetroot

The infographics can also be downloaded as pdf files, like this one that explains the chemistry behind the smell of fresh-cut grass.

In this manner, the images and files can be easily shared with others. In fact, Andy encourages this practice, provided that the originals are not altered and that Compound Interest is given proper credit. He is particularly interested in seeing his infographics used in a classroom setting. Read more about the content usage guidelines here. Produced by someone who is obviously passionate about chemistry, these posts and graphics are meant to educate and excite people about everyday chemistry both in the botanical world and beyond.

Article: The Wildest Idea on Earth

Imagine living in close proximity to numerous national parks and being “enveloped by connected [wildlife] corridors” that lead to these national parks – or as Edward O. Wilson envisions them, “national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.” Wilson – a renowned biologist, entomologist, conservationist and Pulitzer Prize winning author – has this vision and believes that it can be accomplished within the next 50 years. Not only can it be accomplished, but it must be in order to thwart the ongoing sixth mass extinction event. To be precise, half the planet must be set aside, restored to its natural state, and protected in perpetuity. A series of large parks connected by continuous corridors – or “Long Landscapes” – is the way Wilson and other conservationists insist this must be done. Tony Hiss explores the “Half Earth” concept in a feature article in the current issue of Smithsonian entitled, The Wildest Idea on Earth (the online version is entitled, Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?).

Hiss, accompanied by Wilson, visits three locations in North America where this vision is playing out. Their first stop is Nokuse Plantation in the Florida panhandle, where businessman, M.C. Davis, has purchased tens of thousands of acres with the intention of restoring them to native longleaf pine forests, a plant community that has been reduced by 97% due to human activity. Intact longleaf pine forests are incredibly diverse – as many as 60 different species of living things can be found in one square yard – so protecting and restoring them is an ecological imperative.

Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Longleaf Pine – Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Later, Davis flies Hiss and Wilson to New England in his private jet. There Hiss discovers a seemingly accidental series of connected natural and restored landscapes nearly 200 miles in length. This corridor, and the land that surrounds it, highlights the need for private land owners to be on board with the Half Earth vision, setting aside their land for conservation in exchange for tax breaks and other incentives.

The importance of private land owners cooperating with this vision comes into play again when Hiss visits the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. This 113,613 acre ranch (just a small fraction of the land owned by Ted Turner) is a private ranch that “promote[s] ecological integrity” – it is a wildlife refuge that also turns a profit. Fortunately, the “D” sits within larger wildlife corridor projects – Yellowstone to Yukon and Western Wildway Network highlighting Wilson’s vision of current sanctuaries being incorporated into larger networks of protected lands.

Hiss notes that as these three projects grow and connect to “the great, unbroken forests across all of northern Canada,” North America will become enclosed in “Long Landscapes” with “additional and more inland routes to be added later.” The sooner these corridors and parks are developed the better, because as global climate changes, species will need to move north, south, east, or west as their ecological and biological needs dictate.

It seems a lofty goal. Humans, after all, have spread themselves across the entire planet, modifying every environment as they go – oftentimes to an irreparable extreme. But knowing this, and recognizing that we are only just beginning to feel the effects of climate change, drastic measures to preserve what is left of this planet’s biological diversity become imperative. Hiss’s article is encouraging in this regard. Yes, the places he visited were confined to North America. A more accurate picture could be constructed by incorporating greater international diversity. However, most promising is that the people he talked to were not political figures. Most of them weren’t even professional scientists. They were businessmen, working people, land owners, citizen conservationists. Wealthy, yes. But people who, at some point in their life journeys, saw a need and wanted to help. The story of M.C. Davis illustrates this best of all. If the information is put out there in a manner that people can relate to, they will latch on to it and offer assistance. For all whose goal is to protect half of the earth (or even just some small portion of it) for the sake of non-human life, this article should give some hope.

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois