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We should protect the planet’s plants

By Frances Lamberts

A moving reminiscence about man’s relationship to nature opens one of the less well known books of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. The scene seems worth relating, given the trends in threatened plant and animal life in our time.

 In the novel “Hadji Murat,” we see an old man walking through a typical Russian farm. The first hay cut done, farmers are reaping rye and the meadows are blooming with new flowers.

 He picks a nosegay to take home – “milk-white ox-eye daisies with their yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip shaped; cornflowers, bright blue in the sunshine; almond-scented dodder flowers” and others, lovingly described as he picks them.

 Noticing “a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson kind” in a ditch he tries to pluck it. Resisting, the stalk pricks through the handkerchief he has wrapped around his hand. After a nearly five-minute effort, “breaking the fibers one by one,” the flower is all frayed, no longer seeming “so fresh and beautiful.” He throws it away “feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed it.”

 His musings about the thistle and other plant life continue. “What energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself and how dearly it sold its life!” he ponders.

 He must cross ploughed fields belonging to a landed proprietor, of such large size and so well furrowed that, as hard as he looks round “for some living thing in this lifeless black field, there is not a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen.”

 To the right of the road he finds another little clump of the thistle, crushed by a cart wheel. Two of its three branches are broken, the third still stands erect but “twisted to one side as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, and its bowels drawn out.” Though its brothers around it have all been destroyed, this one hasn’t surrendered. “What energy,” the old man remarks at conclusion of the scene. “Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.”

Close to 500 species of Tennessee’s grasses, ferns, sedges, flowers, shrubs and trees are so rare in the landscape now as to require monitoring through the state’s Natural Heritage Program. One would wish that the Ladies’ Tresses, Barbara’s Buttons and others of our flowers and other plants, like Tolstoy’s thistle, can resist the destructive forces which threaten to take down so many of them, here and the world over.