I wish that I could say that my Aloe plant achieved consciousness on a Thursday, then I could follow up with “I never could get the hang of Thursdays” and my inner geek. who is a die-hard Douglas Adams fan, would be satisfied. But it wasn’t a Thursday. It was a Tuesday. A Tuesday in February, and it was the day that my aloe plant ceased being simply a largish houseplant and became instead a sentient creature with a slightly twisted sense of humor, the ability to cause actual physical harm, and a decided thirst for world domination. It had, not to put too fine of a point on it, achieved consciousness.
No one can argue that plants are not alive. They grow towards sunlight, they shrink away from things that hurt them, they produce offspring in the form of nuts and seeds and various pollens. They also communicate with each other and with the world around them. Yes, I know that scientists say that the communication is done via chemicals released into the soil or air that warn other trees and plants of danger. But if you listen carefully, you will come to realize that we also hear them on a subconscious level; the low subsonic drone of trees thinking there slow, deep thoughts, the murmuring chatter of growing grass, the laughter of flowers. We may not consciously “hear” them, but we certainly feel their effects. There is a reason why taking a walk in the woods helps us to focus and relax; a reason why walking barefoot in the grass makes us feel expansive and alive; a reason why flowers bring a smile to our face. Whether we realize it or not, we are hearing them, feeling them, experiencing them and those feelings and experiences become more intense the more immersed in nature we become. But houseplants are not entirely natural. Houseplants exist on another level altogether.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they are disconnected from the living earth, and instead are limited to the earth available to them in their pots, or maybe it is because they live in such proximity to humans, but houseplants can take on distinct personalities. Usually, these personalities are subtle and usually undemanding. Take my ivy for instance.
I’ve had my pot of ivy for the last eight years. It was a housewarming gift from a close friend, and it has been cherished and repotted as needed. It gets watered regularly, fertilized occasionally, has thick, shiny, healthy leaves, and grows so fast that I occasionally have to prune it back so that it doesn’t get “strung out” and become ropey. But the pruning seems to just make it healthier, thicker, and makes the new tendrils stronger with more leaves and less stem. In short, it is not an energy intensive plant. It is happy. Content. But my aloe plant, that is another story altogether.
My aloe plant was also a gift; a gift from another good friend, given to me when I was at a very low point in my life and going through some severe medical issues. It was intended as a healing gift (aloe is a medicinal plant which is good for cuts, burns and for use in various balms). It is a succulent, and its demands are far different than my sturdy, no-hassle ivy. It is water intensive, requires a special kind of soil, direct sunlight, and, strangely enough, constant interaction.
I learned quickly that, just like a small child, aloe plants grow much faster and stays much healthier when given what they need, and that includes direct exchange of energy. If I ignore it, forget to wipe off the dust, over or under water it, fail to move it into direct sunlight, or fail to tell it how good it is doing, then it droops, loses plumpness in its leaves, and can even start to rot at the base. And it doesn’t take well to ‘pruning’ at all. You can’t ‘cut back’ an aloe like you would an ivy. When you ‘cut back’ an aloe, that leaf stops growing altogether. Of course, there are times the leaves HAVE to be cut back due to damage, but aloe plants don’t appreciate it even when it is necessary. They will sulk and mope for days afterwards.
On that fateful Tuesday morning in February, I walked into the kitchen just after 5 a.m., half asleep and in desperate need of caffeination, only to get the creepiest feeling that I was being watched. It couldn’t be the cat. I’d just left him sleeping on the bed. I looked around myself, nope, no cat. Besides me and the cat there was no one else in the house, was there?
After checking that the back door was still locked and bolted, I went about making myself coffee and toasting a bagel.
“You never feed me.”
The voice was clear, not menacing exactly, but disappointed, sulky even, and sounded as if it were coming from directly behind me. I jumped and spun on my heel, spilling coffee grounds across the counter and floor as I did so. Nobody there, not even the cat.
“I could have used those”
That voice again. I stood stock still in the middle of the kitchen, half filled coffee scoop in one hand. What the devil? It must be a dream. That was it. I was still asleep and this was a dream. Ok then, go with it.
“What could you have used?” I asked.
“The coffee grounds. Are you stupid or something?”
“Or something,” I managed, then continued “what would you need coffee grounds for?” I was still standing in the same spot, but every time I heard the voice my eyes would shift, trying to pinpoint exactly where –
“For my roots of course. As fertilizer. Eggshells would work too. Ground up of course. Even a little milk now and then. And you do realize that you’re using the wrong soil for me?”
“I’m what?” My eyes were on the plants now, a table full of them by the kitchen window. An avocado pit putting out roots in a glass of water, a jade that had been undergoing careful leaf selection to make it bushier, a daughter of the original ivy, and the newly repotted aloe plant in its mega pot. “Using the wrong soil. I’m a succulent.”
Ok, so it was down to the jade or the aloe. Since the jade looked fairly contented in its pot, my money was on the aloe. I took a few tentative steps over to it and touched the end of one of the aloe’s leaves.
“You talkin’ to me?” I managed, then yelped, damn, the point of the leaf was sharp. It had actually drawn blood.
“Robert DeNiro you are not” said the aloe glumly.
“How do you know who Robert DeNiro is?” I stammered.
“Oh please, come on lady, I live here to, you think we don’t listen to your music and movies? What else have we got to do?”
“What was it you were saying about soil?”
“You’re using the wrong kind” said the aloe with a sigh. “Jade and I need a lighter soil, one that doesn’t retain water. Some rocks would be good too.”
“Yeah, in the soil, for drainage, like you did for your container garden outside.”
“I’ll get on it” I said cautiously.
“See that you do” said the plant grimly.
A grim plant. Riiiiight. Yeah, it had to be a dream. So thinking, I turned around, coffee unmade and wandered back into the bedroom. I could smell the toasted bagel. It had popped up and was waiting for me to apply cream cheese, but I didn’t care. This was a dream after all. I was going back to bed. Finish this dream cycle. Then wake up and start over again. So saying, I slid back under the covers, careful not to disturb the still sleeping cat, and drifted back into a pleasant, less menacing dream about dancing bagels.
When I got up again 2 hours later, accompanied this time by the cat who was winding himself around my ankles in a quest for breakfast, the sun was up fully, the birds were singing their morning chorus, and all was right with the world. Well, almost right.
Scattered across the floor were the coffee grounds from my earlier dream. And a still barren bagel was sitting toasted, and now hard, in the toaster. And the aloe plant. Looking at me.
So, it hadn’t been a dream. Or had it? Maybe, just maybe I am going crazy. Or not. But on closer inspection, that is definitely blood on the tip of that one aloe leaf. I will reserve judgement. And pick up a bag of succulent soil. And Band-Aids.
Just in case.