A few weeks ago I popped by my local Tesco. On my way back home I found myself behind a man out walking his dog. Due to the weight of my shopping my usual brisk pace was somewhat slowed down. This allowed me to observe the way the man and his dog interacted with each other and the environment around them. First, there was a stop for the canine to raise one of its legs and water one of the trees that populate the road on which I was walking. A few blocks further and still weighed down by my shopping I saw the dog and its owner make a second stop. This time for a number two. The dog, mind you, not the man. Again, the repository of this physiological need was a tree. Similar to the previous one, tall and with a strong trunk. I caught up with the pair as they were about to cross a busy road. Whilst waiting for the lights to change the man patted his pooch on its head. I asked myself silently: “I wonder if someone will be patting those trees we left behind”.
It seems to me that we humans have a funny – as in strange, funny – relationship with our environment. Especially when it comes to animals and plants. One of the reasons, I think, is because animals, pets mainly, are capable of interacting with us and responding to our actions. Imagine if those trees had been able to tell that dog off for peeing and pooing on them. This is a topic that has fascinated me for many years: motion versus stillness. Purely because when the need has arisen I have also behaved in a similar fashion to that dog. However, I would never dream of defecating on a cute kitty or using a guinea pig as the repository for my urine. Is it, I wonder, the lack of motion and conspicuous responses from plants and trees that leads us to believe that we can do with them as we like?
One of the most hilarious cartoons I’ve ever seen in my life was in The New Yorker a few years ago. Two trees were giggling together with a speech bubble above one of them reading: “They (humans) smell our gases, how sick is that?”. The anthropomorphic nature of the joke could not hide the fact that we would never consider two trees immersed in conversation, let alone cracking a very good joke like that one.
But whilst I am not suggesting that we start adopting bushes as pets and walking them in the local park (where they could be watched enviously by other bushes without the same luck) I do think that the way we discriminate against plants says a lot about our attitude as humans to our environment. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we know that our planet is in peril. More than half of plants and trees could see dramatic losses in the next half century and this could have a knock-on effect on animals as many habitats will become unsuitable for them. The collapse of eco-systems would have a huge impact on the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the lands we visit as tourists. Funny that the air we inhale comes from trees like the one pooed on by the cute dog I mentioned earlier. We are part of a universal chain and yet our actions are dictated by an individual mindset.
In the grand scheme of things the dog I saw weeing and pooing on those trees would have no more significance than a toddler running joyfully around in my local park. That is what animals do. But when you take into consideration that plants and trees are not at the front of our minds (unless you happen to be an avid gardener whose fruitful labour is evidenced by the photos you post on your blog or website regularly. Ta muchly!) and that we could prevent the danger they face by scaling down our carbon emissions and behaving more responsibly, then that dog takes on a more sinister meaning. We can crap (pardon my French) on our green environment all we want with impunity.
Coincidentally one of the songs I was listening to earlier on my mp3 player that day was The Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder but performed by Gilberto Gil. The first verse could not be more appropriate for what I witnessed later: I can't conceive the nucleus of all/Begins inside a tiny seed/And what we think as insignificant/Provides the purest air we breathe. All sung beautifully in a Brazilian accent. As for the dog and the man, forget about – up to a certain point - disrespecting the two trees. That I can put up with, muse over and write about. What I can’t stand is pet owners who do not clean up after their darlings. But I will leave that for another column.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 15th January at 11:59pm (GMT)