After decades of keeping community with plants, I seem to perceive their presence not only in every place on our planet but also in the stories of each and every one of us.
At first, I figured that a heightened perception of the vegetable world was the normal consequence of my sensitivity to these silent beings. And that, as happens to anyone who develops a strong taste for something, I had started to notice the object of my interest everywhere I went. Anyone who has fallen in love knows what I am talking about: that strange sensation that everything in the universe, no matter how distant or marginal, appears to be related in some way to the object of our affection. Every event, every song, the weather conditions, the stones in the sidewalk you’re walking on, everything has a precise echo in your own little love story. I remember a delightful novella by Guy de Maupassant, which I read as a young boy, about a lady who, every time she fell in love, and she did so fairly frequently, radically transformed her world by placing at the center of her own interest the profession of her new lover. She fell in love with a lawyer and spoke only of civil codes and trials; with a pharmacist the world was composed solely of medicines and drugs; with a jockey it was all horses, saddles, bridles, and reins. I am sure that each of us knows of analogous cases. It is one of the reasons why somebody who’s in love is unbearable.
So I started asking myself if it wasn’t because of some kind of green infatuation that, like the lady in Maupassant’s story, I couldn’t see anything except plants all around me: in every place on the planet, at the start of every human story, the basis for every event. I have thought about it and I think I can assert with a certain degree of assurance that the answer is no. I am reasonably sure of it. That I live with plants, study them, and that they are undoubtedly the center of my interests is not related to their appearance at the start of every story. It is simply a consequence of their enormous number and of their being the source of life on this planet. This is an indisputable fact. How could it be otherwise? We animals are only 0.3 percent of our planet’s biomass, while plants are 85 percent. It is obvious that every story that takes place on our planet has, in one way or another, a leading role for plants. This planet is a green world; it is the planet of plants. It is not possible to tell a story about it that does not stumble across its most numerous inhabitants. That plants do not show up in our experiences or, if they happen to creep into them, they only have a role as colorful extras, is the fruit of our total removal from our perceptive horizon of these living beings on whom all life on earth depends.
When we succeed in looking at the world without seeing it simply as a playground for humans, we cannot help but notice the ubiquity of plants. They are everywhere and their adventures inevitably intertwine with our own.
The English composer Sir Edward Elgar was once asked where his music came from. His answer was: “There is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” The same thing applies to plants. They are, like music was for Elgar, literally all around us, and to write about them, all you have to do is listen to their stories and tell them, each time using as much as we require.
That is how this book came to be, by taking, here and there, stories of plants that, as they intertwine with human experience, bring both together in the narration of life on earth. Just like what happens in a forest, where each tree is linked to all the others in an underground network of roots that joins them together to form a superorganism, plants are the nervous system, the map (or plan) on which the world we live is built. Not seeing this plan, failing to use it in planning our world, believing that we humans have by now placed ourselves above nature, is one of the gravest dangers to the survival of our species.
Ever since I can remember, I have had an irresistible attraction to paper. When I was three, I fell in love with my nursery-school teacher and right after that with paper.
This second passion has persisted unaltered and intact from my childhood, accompanying me since well before I started taking an interest in plants and such. One of my earliest memories of emancipation is tied to paper. To be more precise, to paper in the form of comic books.
At the time, I believed comic books came directly from the generous hands of my parents or other adult relatives, who at more or less regular intervals, and for reasons almost always related to birthdays or the achievement of some hoped-for result, bestowed on me, solely of their own volition, one of those fantastic illustrated stories. Sure, I was aware of the fact that comic books came from those places of wonder called newsstands, those sacred structures to which only adults were admitted and so for me were as inaccessible as if they were located on Mount Olympus.
Then one day—I must have been seven—during a vacation in Rome, there appeared before me, totally out of the blue, the first secondhand comic-book stand of my life. Children the same age as me, with or without their parents, adult men and women, all allowed in to revel in the marvels of print, without discrimination of any kind. Not even income. The one hundred lire required for the purchase of a comic book (four hundred lire for five) was well within the range of my financial possibilities. In fact, I always carried with me a thousand-lire bill entrusted to me by my father “for any eventuality.” I never had any idea what an “eventuality” might be before that day. I invested the thousand lire in twelve (consecutive) issues of Comandante Mark. It was a magic moment.
Since then, first for comic books and later for books, secondhand markets have been part of my daily life. I have followed some of them in Florence through changes of location and ownership and generations of operators, and although none of them has touched my heart like that first one in Rome, lots of other books discovered in secondhand markets around the world are indelibly impressed on my memory. Like the time at the Marché du Livre Ancien et d’Occasion George Brassens in Paris when I put my hands on a little book whose frontispiece bore the magnificent title Essai historique et patriotique sur les arbres de la liberté.
The market I’m talking about is one of those can’t-be-missed occasions for all those who share with me the insane passion for flea markets and used books and who live, or happen to be spending a weekend, in Paris. Every Saturday and Sunday, fifty to sixty bouquinistes come together in and around the park and market named after George Brassens, in the fourteenth arrondissement, to display their merchandise to a robust number of fanatical bibliophiles. We recognize one another immediately. It’s always the same crowd, we run into each other in the same places, all desirous, weekend after weekend, to begin searching the thousands of haphazard heaps plopped on the stands of the booksellers. There are those who for years have been on the lookout for the only issue they’re still missing to complete their collection of some obscure series from the turn of the twentieth century; others collect books on the most improbable topics, like coffeemakers (I actually met one such collector), Finnish history, Japanese weapons, or microorganisms of the soil.
For the most part, the crowd is made up of academics who, having studied enigmatic subjects for years, end up getting trapped in the world of their research. Okay, I’m not all that different myself, I admit. I wander around those same stalls looking for any book of any kind about plants and trees, if possible published before the start of the nineteenth century. Here, in years of assiduous rummaging, practically every Saturday morning of my adult life when I’ve had the good fortune to be in Paris, I have gathered an imposing collection of abstruse, forgotten, and absolutely marginal books, whose only common feature is their subject matter: plants.
The market opens to the public every Saturday at nine. This means that the truly passionate collectors are already there at eight, lying in wait. They meet in a coffee bar right in front of the market, all outfitted with enormous empty knapsacks that they hope to fill. There are embarrassed exchanges of greetings between people who have known each other by sight for years, who often know each other’s names and professions, but who have never really sat down for a chat. They drink their coffee and glance at each other suspiciously, especially if they are rivals with the same interests. It’s a sort of curse, whatever the subject of your search, there is always someone who is your direct competitor.
Naturally, I have my antagonist, too. He is an elderly gentleman, as tall and thin as a reed. He has a wrinkly dark complexion as though he had been left to dry for years under the desert sun, always dressed in what looks to me to be the same long, light-colored trench coat, summer or winter. Insensitive to the climate, like all good book hunters, rain or shine, snow or gale-force winds, freezing cold or stifling heat, he is always there. Every Saturday at eight. He roams the stalls with a slight limp that he uses as a weapon to conceal his ferocity. You think he’s got to be slow-moving, but instead, the instant something attracts his attention, he’s capable of scaling enormous piles of books with the agility of a young boy. I know this by now, but among the neophytes, his apparent fragility slays countless victims.
Fragility? He doesn’t know what it is. He’s as sturdy as the seasoned wood he appears to be made of. He’s got stamina, too, damn him! He never gets tired, methodically examines each and every pile, and nary a Saturday goes by that he doesn’t go home with a knapsack stuffed with ponderous tomes. I once heard a bookseller call him professeur and another Henri. So Professor Henri was all I knew about my adversary, besides the fact that he was a terror, a real tough nut, who adores botany and the French Revolution. And that he irks me. He seems to have a sixth sense for botany books. He burrows into a pile of books like a weasel into a rabbit warren, and he always comes up with something in hand. Whenever we cross paths among the mounds, it seems like he’s observing me with equal parts of disdain and amusement.
We eye each other from a distance, and at the start of the day we normally head for opposite poles of the market, hunting for freshly unloaded piles, spying each other warily, hoping to be the first to find something of interest to the other. A tough life, I assure you.