Repulsed by plants (Plant Portrait III*)

Jean-Paul Sartre's repulsive chestnut tree in a Parisian park is an image that has stuck with me. It struck a chord when I first read it in 1984, aged 24. I was reading my way through the alphabet - selecting a handful of authors whose surname started with each letter - and I was up to 'S'. I  liked Satre's novels a lot at the time and diverted for a while to read his Iron in the Soul trilogy.

Soon after, I took Sartre's Nausea with me on my first trip to Paris, rereading it as I visited the cafes and parks of his city. It didn't help me understand his philosophy any more or less but it was a fun thing to do (from my diary of the time I notice I read as chasers Patrick White's Riders of the Chariot and Donleavy's The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, having completed my alphabetic reading schema).

Embarrassingly, my diary at the time was full of Sartresque musings. My writing is always too easily influenced by what is going on around me, changing in tone and style depending on the author I am enjoying, or not. In recent years I notice dry and brutal passages as I savoured Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy and then obscure Will Selfisms as I struggled through Umbrella. The ratio of adjectives to nouns depends very much on who I'm reading.

I was reminded of that trip to Paris, of that book, and of that chestnut tree, by Damon Young. Well, by Damon Young's writing. His Philosophy in the Garden is a great hoot. At the top of his chapter 'Jean-Paul Sartre: Chestnuts and Nothingness', Young includes another quote I remember discovering back then, that Sartre "was allergic to chlorophyll" and that "lush green pasturage exhausted him". Satre was no biophile.

There is a bit of a backlash at the moment against the happiness industry, and rightfully so. Not that we shouldn't enjoy being happy or indeed pursue happiness with some vigour, but life isn't that simple; it's more complex, and more interesting.

I'm in no position to analyse what makes life worth living or the best way to cope with life's ups and downs. That's for psychologists and philosophers. I'm a botanist.

What interests me about Sartre's revulsion at nature and this chestnut tree in particular is that it's a feeling I'm sure we all have at times. True I remember it more from my twenties but on a Sunday afternoons (the best time for introspection I've found) it sometimes returns.

I'm not allergic to chlorophyll like Sartre, and in general I find plants and gardens uplifting, as you would hope and expect. But there are times in a flower show, in a forest, in a municipal park or even in a botanic garden when I long for something different. "What was the use of so many trees which were all identical?" says Roquentin in Nausea, before he riles against the "thought of the wonderful springtimes described in books, full of crackings, burstings, gigantic blossomings".

Yes it's misanthropic, but it's also a real and dare I say life-affirming emotion? While we should continue to celebrate our at times achingly attractive plants and gardens, let's not fail to notice they can be garish, monotonous, ugly or sometimes just sickeningly there. In the way we find botanical beauty in the most pedestrian, or suburban, of places, we should feel free to embrace the forlorn flowers that inhabit even the prettiest of landscapes.

I don't mean weeds, decaying trees or plants mundane through commonness. What I'm talking about are regular plants that on the day, in a particular light, in our particular mood, make us feel sad, sick or simply indifferent. You'll hear me talk about how important plants are to life - we depend on them for oxygen, food, medicines, clothes, shelter and for inspiration - but this doesn't mean every bloom is sacred. Or indeed that every bloom needs our assurance it is special and meaningful.

I'm no fan of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's noble savage view of nature but even he balances the ledger (in the contrary context of this post) by summing up botany as pleasantly diverting but inherently useless (again, thanks Damon Young). While I can't see Rousseau ever admitting plants made him nauseous in a Sartrean way, he puts us botanists in our place. That's the kind of philosophical provocation we need every now and then. Read from both sides of the ledger in Young's Philosophy in the Garden.

Images: Nice and nauseous trees from Kew Gardens and none of them chestnuts. 

*Plant Portrait is a partly ironic name for an ad hoc series of posts about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (loosely and with extreme humbleness) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.