For more information about Rob Carter's 'Faith in a Seed', go here.
I was slow in noticing the wonder of plants, and in this I do not believe I was unusual. When one is young, it is the furry things with faces, the creatures that dart about looking for food, driven on by their appetitive souls, that attract attention. At this stage, the plants are only the stage-setting, the animals the protagonists.
But in my case the innatention to the vegetal order continued well past my first youth. I long took Aristotle's greatness as a philosopher, for example, relative to that of his disciple Theophrastus, to consist principally in this, that whereas the former wrote books on the generation, parts, motion, and history of animals, the latter only came up with a couple of books about plants. It strikes me now, however, that this lack of interest would better be described as a severe case of phytophobia: I insisted plants were uninteresting, but what I really meant is that they are positively threatening.
"Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret," said Horace: you can drive nature out with apitchfork, but she always comes back. This does not mean what I long thought it meant, but let us proceed as though it did. The Roman poet intended to say that innate character (the 'nature' of an individual being) cannot be supressed, but what the dictum long said to me was rather more literal: that nature, or rather Nature, cannot be beaten back for long. In appealng to 'Nature' here, what naturally comes to mind is of course the world of plants. Animals can be contained, more or less (other than insects and other microanimals, which, modern taxonomy be damned, no one really thinks are animals anyway), but the order of plants, as Lord Shaftesbury already understood incontemplating an early modern English garden, is sublime. The stated goal of the Jardin Royal des Plantes in Paris, by contrast, to assert 'controle totale sur le monde végétal', cannot but appear as so much absolutist and unsustainable hubris.
My fear of plants is deep-rooted. When I was little, growing up in a depressed, post-agricultural exurb of California's Central Valley, I dreamt of perfect cities somewhere far away. When I first went to San Francisco, the nearest so-called city, I was disappointed to discover empty lots overrun with weeds, and grass pushing up even through the cracks in the sidewalk. Nature, I thought, by which I understood vegetal nature, would take this place back in no time if we were to let our guard down. I set my sights on New York, imagining that it was there (if anywhere, etc.) that plants had been succesfully shut out. I imagined a city consisting in nothing but World Trade Center-like highrises, stretching out in all directions as far as one could see, between which one might hop by jetpack, never even having to descend low enough to catch sight of some invasive blade of grass. Kant once said there would 'never be a Newton for the blade of grass', and I wanted only that part of the world for which there could be a Newton, the world described by mechanical physics, the world out of which our architectural accomplishments have been built up. Our cities are not, of course, as I imagined them. I've been to all the 'real' ones, and I can report that Berlin is scarcely more than a willow grove, and when I'm in London I'm never quite sure when I'm in the botanical gardens and when I'm outside of them. It's a plants' world, I mean to say (at least the terrestrial part of the world is; under the ocean, the relative proportions of animal and vegetable biomass are reversed, which is really just to say that under the sea, where everything is by definition à rebours, topsy-turvy, upside down, one of the surest signs of the reversal of cosmic order is the preeminence of animals).
Rob Carter's Faith in a Seed, reminds us of many basic truths about the balance between nature on the one hand and human settlements on the other, but for me it was impossible to apprehend these truths without reflecting upon my long history of phytophobia. It struck me, in particular, that the three men Carter selected as subjects for his work, each in his own way, wielded a pitchfork and sought to do with it what the ancient poet had insisted could not be done.
You are not supposed to say 'seminal' anymore, but that is only because the people who think it is sexist don't know that it is really just the adjective of 'seed'. Thus to say that the work of Lawes, Thoreau, and Darwin was 'seminal', is not at all to praise them, as men, for their intellectual cum-shots, but only to say that things grew from them. One could put this in more mechanical-physical terms and say they had an 'impact', but that might be missing something. They changed the way we understand fundamental aspects of humanity's place in nature.
Thoreau opened up a line of very influential questioning of the value of modernity, at precisely the moment when conventional opinion was converging on the view that there was no problem (disease, war, etc.) that modern industry and industriousness could not solve. Darwin, well, Darwin is generally given credit for reinscribing human beings into the order of nature, following upon a few millennia of separation, and doing so at more or less the same moment that Thoreau was questioning the automatic inscription of modern men and women into, so to speak, the order of cities. Whether Darwin really did what he is given credit for doing is not so important (there were of course Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Charles's own grandfather Erasmus, who were all saying things with fundamentally the same metaphysical import as that of The Origin of Species, even if the details about the mechanism of natural selection were still missing).
Lawes appears as something of an outlier, though in fact he left a far greater mark (or stain) on the world than the other two. In creating the first chemical fertilizers from superphosphate, more than any other single individual Lawes helped to advance the industrialization of agriculture. That is, he brought the human activity of cultivating and growing, a practice that had by then been well established for 10,000 years or so, under the purview of the men who were principally interested in building, automating, and controlling, a cluster of activities that had enjoyed tremendous advances across only the previous few centuries. Chemistry, the discipline in which Lawes primarily worked, may be seen as a sort of bridging science between mechanical physics (for which, again, there is a Newton) and what we now call 'biology'. Here, entities that are ordinarily seen as homogeneous masses, the clumps or lumps or heaps that nature produces in such abundance, are shown to be made up out of 'building blocks': a telling term, for it reveals how someone such as Lawes, in applying chemistry to nature, can take a clod of dirt and reconceptualize it in fundamentally architectural terms.
Lawes's pitchfork is easily visible: he wanted to exercise controle total in the world of agriculture. Yet there is one important thing to note here. Superphosphates are part of nature's bounty too, and strictly speaking they are no more unnatural than, say, the techniques of crop rotation or irrigation that had long been in use. Agriculture is by definition a bending of nature to human will (it is on these grounds that some anarcho-primitivsts think, with some justice, that it is first with the Agricultural Revolution, and not with the Industrial Revolution or the demise of the welfare state or any such thing, that social inequality and all the other symptoms of demise really start to become apparent). Lawes only wanted to apply a new way of bending nature, not to go against nature. In older alchemical terms, the science of chemical fertilizers is a perfective art applied to nature; it is not contra naturam. And yet, here we are, with the earth now almost completely divided up into plots you can see from an airplane, producing mostly unhealthy food from seeds patented by multinational corporations, and if that's notcontra naturam, it's still rather hard to see it as perfective.
Darwin for his part was not bending nature, but only trying to make sense of it. One way of thinking about the sense he made is that he sought to replace the grid, favored by the older natural historians such as Linnaeus, with a tree or an arborescent model of the kinds of creature in nature. And yet he wanted this tree to be well-groomed, a sort of perfect, easily surveyable bansai. Botanists today will tell you that strictly speaking there is no such thing as a tree, that is, there is no significant biological boundary between the kind of plants with woody trunks, and the kind that appear more bush-like. The order of nature has itself proven rather more like a bush, where it's hard to see which ramification leads where, where new branchings are always ready to be followed out, where neighboring bushes appear to form one entity, but in fact do not, and so on. It turns out, moreover, that the bush of species has no permanent, stable parts. Rather, all of nature's kinds are always on their way to being something else, and species names turn out to be more like proper nouns, identifying an individual that comes into existence for a certain period of time before giving way to another. Yet Darwin wanted to hold onto species as real, enduring kinds. Unlike Lawes, Darwin did not want to impose more order than his predecessors had on the domain of nature that interested him. But to some extent he remained unable to anticipate just how disordered things were going to get, largely as a result of theseed he planted.
Thoreau, it is said, preferred not to relate, in his Walden, how frequently and easily he repaired to the general store of Concord when he was running low on supplies. As far as world-renunciation goes, other wise men in history have taken it quite a bit further (though Thoreau's case is probably an instance of a more general tendency among famous world-renouncers). Thoreau doesn't so much drive nature out with his pitchfork, as he drives out society. But that, too, comes creeping back, or rather, our lone transcendentalist goes creeping back to it, whenever he finds himself running low on grain or potatoes.
So here are these three peculiar men, each with a very special relationship to nature, and each strongly associated with a particular home, of which, to all appearances, each of them seems to have been very fond. Thoreau with his Walden cabin, Darwin at Down House, and Lawes at Rothamsted Manor: each edifice is now imagined as a monument to the ideas of the men who inhabited them, ideas that, again, involve a particular stance against nature (in the dual Latin sense of 'against',contra: either 'abutting' or 'opposing'). And now Carter proposes to miniaturize these edifices, and to have us watch as sprouts grow around them from seeds he has cultivated.
What exactly is going on here? I have said that each of these men was working, each in his own way, 'against nature'. Something that is against nature --and this by definition-- is art. Artists today will likely not want to hear it, but I'm sorry, that's just what the word 'art' means. Perhaps this point can be made clearer if we appeal to the notion of the 'artificial', an adjective that once would have been understood to contain our glorified noun. Art is what little human beings are able to come up with inresponse to the immeasurabilty, untameability, and indifference of infinite nature. Nature, if I may say, generally kicks art's ass.
From this admittedly premodern optic, the idea of turning the growth of plants into art is a puzzling one. Carter's art is not like the artificial disruption of vegetal growth that we see in bansais or in the Jardin Royale des Plantes. Instead, he plainly wants to show the plants doing what they do best, which is to say growing towards the sun unimpeded by human designs. And moreover, he shows these plants usurping human monuments of some significance to the development of the modern world's perspective on nature. So art, which is small, seizes upon nature to show the smallness of art. This is, if I may also say, a grand geste, and by it Carter wins one for art.
In the way I have been construing art, as artifice, as techne, there is nothing further from the semantic cluster that contains it than the cluster sprouting from that fine, archaic, Indo-European root,*gen, which gives us such diverse words as 'gene', 'genus', 'generation', the Greek and Persian words for 'woman' (gune, zan), the Russian word for 'wife' (zhena), 'gynecology', etc. It also gives us 'germ', and the Greek verb gignesthai, 'to become'. Germs become plants through generation, and in this they are fundamentally unlike the works of human artifice, which are made rather than generated. There is, again, a certain comfort in making. But in the end, at least on our planet, generation is the law of the land. Carter's art, to the extent that it reminds us of this law, while still not, by that, being diminished as art, is worthy of notice. Anyhow it forced me to confront my own lifelong phytophobia, and to see what I'd been sensing for some time already, but could not fully articulate without Carter as cultivator: that the plants are not the stage-setting, but the very protagonists of this dazzling show.