Backyard Musings

By William Jordan

Here's the premise: Life is intelligence. Not intelligent, but intelligence: that intelligence is a property like flesh itself and it exists in all living things.

To survive, the living must do the appropriate thing to cope with circumstances. What better describes the essence of intelligence -- the ability to size up causes and their effects -- than the ability to make the right response, do the right thing. Not the ability to make the right decision, mind you, because "decision" implies a conscious intellect. I am suggesting that intelligence need not be conscious -- that the essence of intelligence is deeper than conscious mind.

This may be an accepted premise to students of philosophy -- I wouldn't know. These humble insights came to me in that sanctuary of contemplation, the backyard garden. I offer three examples.

The first has to do with a Brazilian pepper tree that dwells in my yard's southeast corner. It has been well pruned over the years, made civilized, to fit the standards of the human creature.

Some months after its last pruning, I noticed fast-growing branches appearing at random spots on the larger branches. They reached upwards 10 to 15 feet, as straight and naked as bamboo poles, ending in a dense clump of foliage. The purpose of these suckers was immediately clear: to race into the openings where the canopy branches had been removed and plug gaps. It was their purpose to form a new canopy as quickly as possible in order to supply the tree with photosynthetic products, and also -- and this is the tree's reason for being -- to reach full production quotas on its miserable little peppercorns. Somehow the suckers could sense the regions of most intense light and actually aim at them. Then they would grow in an explosive spurt, stretching out into a straight shaft without foliage, to reach the light before the holes were closed by the neighboring foliage. Once there, they would exit the shaft-growth mode and branch out into twigs and foliage. Right-headed moves ... without the head.

Over by the west wall, beyond the pepper tree's influence, lies the garden. Here another demonstration of innate intelligence occurred. A number of butternut squash seeds from the compost bin volunteered to produce a crop. When the vines were several feet long, they began to produce blossoms where the leaves stemmed from the main vine. First came the male blossoms, then, as the vines grew longer and stronger, came the female blossoms. If they were pollinated, a fruit was set and an infant squash began to grow.

There was a curious and regular spacing to these developing squash, at least six or seven leaves between each, and if a female blossom were to appear closer than that, it would not set fruit but withered and fell off. This seemed to be a rule without exception. Again, the intelligence was clear. When a female flower was successfully pollinated and began to swell, the future squash needed the nutrient output of the nearest five, six or seven leaves. If another squash started to develop closer than that, it would, apparently, drain too much of the nutrient supply and neither squash would mature. So once a blossom had set and begun to grow normally, the plant somehow sensed the potentially debilitating competition between adjacent fruits and cut off supplies to the later born.

Finally, there was the lesson that ends the tomato season each year. The first fruits ripen in mid- to late August hereabouts, after waiting in what appears to be a fully grown state for several weeks, give or take. There are many more tomatoes on the plant, but they are small and undeveloped. When the large, mature ones start to ripen, they do it suddenly, simultaneously, as if they had all caught some sort of fever. The avalanche slows almost as quickly as it began, and at this point the small ones, the stunted tomatoes that seem to have been on hold, begin to grow and then ripen, and a second generation straggles in.

Eventually tomatoes that you would not have given a chance half a month ago turn red. Here in southern California, this dwindling procession can continue well into November. Once again a strategy is evident: Make sure you get the basic crop in; everything after that is a bonus. But if the weather turns bad, at least you have covered your bets and produced enough seeds to ensure the next generation.

Thus I rest my point. There is a sort of metabolic intellect down there in the fabric of life, an intellect which, among other things, has evolved over the eons to negotiate the complexities of energy economics, the getting, using and storing of energy that is the essence of life.

It is intelligence without reason. Or maybe it is reason without thought. Or maybe it is the chorus of all living things other than ourselves shouting the truth, that the power of reason we humans hold so precious is not synonymous with intelligence. Intelligence would do the right thing. It would not undo the earth.

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