The Plague-Ground – Plants Have Ears Too

This week in Barcelona, a string quartet played to a full house of plants.

The 10-minute concert was put on to reinforce how important art, music and nature are as life opens again across Europe.

It was a weird and brilliant idea to give out all the tickets not to people but to plants who after the concert were shipped off to hospitals across Barcelona.  The photo above and the concert itself were seen not only by millions of people but also by untold numbers of plants who happened to be close to their owners’ computer screens. Listen to the applause at the end. It’s blended with the rustle of leaves.

The critics called this the best of pandemic performance art.

The creator, Spanish conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia, said: “Nature has crept forward to occupy the spaces we have ceded.  Can we broaden our empathy?…. Let’s start by using art and music and inviting nature into a great concert hall.”

But I saw and heard something very different.

To join me, I’ll ask you to shift your view of this experience completely.

Ask yourself as I did: What if the concert was not about us at all?

What if it was about the plants?

We’re all viewing those plants as just so much dead weight, marginally sentient placeholders for people, which is who music is really, always and only for.

But what if that cute Bougainvillea in the third row was actually listening to what she heard? And that well-dressed Majesty Palm couple and their daughters in the Royal Box at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. They all seemed to be leaning in.  And did you spot that Giant White Bird of Paradise humming along to the Puccini?

Plants used to be at the bottom rung in the hierarchy of humans and animals and…things.

Flora, not fauna.

But that view, that plants don’t have feelings, don’t feel pain and can’t think is as outdated as the view that animals don’t have feelings, don’t feel pain and can’t think.

In fact, we know now that view is ridiculous. For heaven’s sake, dogs can smell cancer and possibly COVID-19. Hummingbirds have episodic memories like us. And dolphins can “display culture”, again like us.

But plants? Really?

I remember back in the 70s The Secret Life of Plants was published. It sold zillions and was mocked by critics.

Then in 2015, the German forester Peter Wohlleben wrote The Hidden Life of Trees. It sold zillions and wasn’t mocked. Wohlleben claims that trees are social animals, perhaps even more than we are. They also have the capacity to communicate with – and heal – other trees.

I interviewed Wohlleben when he spoke at the Toronto Public Library a couple of years back

As he told us: “Every tree is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”

Gosh, that sounds like the very people who would have gone to this very concert in Barcelona.

Are plants trees?


But those 2,292 seats in the opera house could just as easily have been occupied by small trees instead of big plants.

Perhaps next time.

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16 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Plants Have Ears Too”

  1. Marilyn Linton

    Thanks, Bob. I liked your column on Plants and their possibilities. It made me think of a book which I highly recommend — The Overstory by Richard Powers. It will make you think about trees in a new way!

  2. Jennifer Laity

    The central them of The Overstory by Richard Powers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, is trees. Step by step through the narrative the humans recede and the trees, in all their shapes, sizes and varieties, become the protagonists. Meanwhile, my roses have become bilingual in French and English as I converse with them after binge watching French titles on Netflix. Sadly they can’t tell the aphids to bugger off.

  3. Well I certainly talk to my plants. I like to think they are listening. At the moment I have a whole out of control garden. It’s a bit cacophonous.

  4. Bob, you are an astonishing writer and one day I must take your course but I want to alert you to your sort of namesake Frank Ramsey a most astonishing and delightful man on multiple levels. Really! I have to been chowing down on Frank, The Apostles and other most extraordinary creatures for these last few months. I present a genius supreme whose brother was an extraordinary Anglican who became the head of the communion.

  5. BTW if you do not talk with plants and other wonders of our world you live in a very sad world indeed. By talk I mean commune.

  6. Thanks Bob for this interesting view of the concert. I loved the concert but your article made me listen and view it in a totally transformed way. I loved The Hidden Life of Trees too. Thanks Bob!

    1. Jamie — Thanks for introducing me to my namesake (though not my spell-sake). I didn’t have a clue about him, and only the tiniest one about Wittgenstein.I’ll dig more deeply into both. Cheers. Bob

    2. I’m trying to get The Overstory in audiobooks. Three friends (you first of course!) have recommended it to me.

  7. Michele Carroll

    Hey Bob, I’m picturing A string quartet playing in the forest amongst the trees while smallish groups of socially distanced humans sit together in their bubbles. How glorious would that be?

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