Let Us Now Praise Obscure, Useless Plants

God and I delight in piratebush like he delights in me. /

The intermittent silence broken only by my footsteps, animal calls, and rushing rivers; the green sunlight shining through the tree canopy; and the constant coolness of the wind blowing over my skin evoke a feeling in me I can only describe as nostalgia for Eden. Lucky for me I have easy access to over 2,000 miles of uninterrupted nature known as the Appalachian Trail.

I’m not a through-hiker trying to make 17 miles before sundown; I usually hike short sections of the trail at the pace of an elementary school nature walk. I do this partly because I’m easily winded and partly because in slowing down I find delight in nature. And that slowness is how I discovered piratebush.

One summer, I set out to spend a few days exploring a small section of trail. I had no real purpose. I didn’t expect to have some radical epiphany. I was only seeking quiet.

I got on the trail near a popular fly-fishing spot on the Nolichucky River. Only one fisherman stood in the middle of the wide, shallow bit of river. He looked somber and content, and I hoped the trail would be solely mine just as the water was solely his.

It was early and the fog hung heavy and low as I climbed the mountain on the trail’s countless switchbacks. After some time—hours or minutes, I hadn’t paid attention—I crested the first mountain of the day. It was high, but not incredibly so. The day was getting on, and the sun was directly above me, so I stopped in a small, dry clearing just off the trail to rest. At the top of a steep cliff, the clearing overlooked the Nolichucky River Gorge. Here the river bent in an unpronounced horseshoe, allowing me to see for several miles along the cliffs that towered over the river. The cliffs descended gradually, so mangled pines and hemlocks grew in patches all the way down to the edge of the river. In the shadow of each tree grew one or more rough, scraggly shrubs I had never seen before. Though they had woody stems, they were pale green all over—even the flowers. Several stems stuck out of each plant at odd angles and branched into multiple divisions like a strange sculpture made of drinking straws. The leaves were long, narrow, thin, and papery like flattened cigars. It struck me as a scalawag.

The plant puzzled me. I’d never seen it in the area. It looked like a sandalwood, but it grew in a strange pattern and the flowers looked different from other sandalwoods that I knew. I checked my book on common plants along the Appalachian Trail, but it wasn’t very helpful. As I scanned the cliff tops I began to see more of these shrubs scattered in the tree line. I followed them away from the cliff and found they disappeared about 50 yards from the cliff’s edge.

I didn’t know at the time that this plant, piratebush, is one of the rarest shrub species in the United States. I had encountered one of only about two-dozen known populations. What’s more, I didn’t know that this species is federally protected due to its rarity and the fragility of its ecology.

Just as I couldn’t know about its conservation status, I couldn’t see beneath the ground to the roots of piratebush. As I beheld its leaves photosynthesizing from above, it stretched its roots in the direction of the trees around it in an attempt to steal from their food stores. Piratebush really is a scalawag. Yar.

After a few hours of obsessing over the identity of piratebush to no avail, I moved on down the trail and eventually came out of the mountains to return to “real life.” But I didn’t stop obsessing over the plant. In the coming months I became somewhat of an expert on it. I began asking questions about disease in piratebush and their hosts and of the stability of the population. I revisited several piratebush groups and recorded information on their health and growth.

I wrote, published, and presented on the answers I found. I thought my findings were very interesting and it turned out that others did, too. But there were those who had no interest in piratebush. This confused and frustrated me. I thought piratebush was cool: Its appearance, its parasitic behavior, its rarity. And when others didn’t find piratebush interesting, it had me at a loss.

Many who seemed less than captivated by piratebush were unenthused because they thought it to be “useless.” Without a contribution to medicine or food, the benefit of piratebush to humanity isn’t obvious. Of the 400,000 or so known species of plants (estimates say that we have yet to discover another 80,000), we know a lot about 10 to 15 crop species. There’s not a lot of funding or incentives to research non-harmful hemiparasites like piratebush. But God declared all of those plants to be good: potatoes and piratebush alike.

God’s good world is an interdependent mesh.

Everything is synchronic. Everything exists at the same time and in some relation to something else. Though it’s often hard to imagine, every living organism exerts some influence on other living organisms, and the presence or absence of each organism has an effect on the direction all life on earth takes. There are many examples of this principle, from the influence wolves have on the ecological balance of Yellowstone to the role whales play in the lives of phytoplankton.

Additionally, everything is diachronic. The presence and actions of an organism affect all life that comes after that organism. The lives of willows, beetles, humans, and even piratebush reverberate throughout time, causing changes that last much longer than each life. A single individual may alter gene pools, the roots of a forest may change the area’s geology, and the absence of prey may modify the future geographic range of some predator. In this way, all members of any population, community, or ecosystem have a bearing on how the whole of creation will fare in the future.

As I made trip after trip out to the woods to learn more about the piratebush, I realized God is all-sufficient and had no need to create anything at all. He created because his love is boundless and overflowing. He delights in the piratebush just as he delights in me. Like my hiking, which isn’t important because it gets me from point A to point B but because of the quiet and the solitary pleasure I gain, the benefit of piratebush is that God delights in it, and I can, too. It’s important just because it exists.

Seth Ratliff earlier wrote “Can We Farm Mars? Should We?” and “Why Solar Power Might Get a Lot More Green” for The Behemoth.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 45 / March 31, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from March 31, 2016

    Issue 45: The fun in naming, how pyrite changed the world, and why it’s fine that piratebush didn’t change much of anything. /

  2. Our First Mission Isn’t Finished

    There’s plenty left to name in the sometimes silly, always vast field of taxonomy. /

  3. The Surprising Riches of Fool’s Gold

    Pyrite, the stone rejected as an imposter, is the cornerstone of the modern world. /

  4. Fetal Heartbeat

    “like the wings of millions of monarchs returned” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 45: Links to amazing stuff.

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