If you get hold of John King’s fine book Reaching for the Sun: How Plants Work, be sure to read the startlingly titled last chapter, “Getting Dead.” These pages are quietly designed to dislodge a bit of our complacency about how all life ends. Most people assume that death comes to plants in much the same way it comes to humans, as the extinguishing conclusion that arrives in one of a few ways in a fairly predictable time frame.
King sets us straight. “Some kinds of organisms appear to be immortal.” Bacteria divide in two; pieces of sponges become new sponges; such clones never “die.” Buffalo grass sprouts underground stems which may have been growing for the last 15,000 years. As for individual plants, the oldest known specimen is a Bristlecone Pine named Methuselah in California, coming up on its 5000th birthday. (That means it sprouted when the Egyptians were building the pyramids and has breathed the same air as all the history ever since. Methuselah in the Old Testament lived a mere 969 years, and his age was mythic. The tree of the same name has lived almost 5000 years and is real.)
King’s point is that dying is not the looming Grim Reaper for plants that it is for us, and that once a plant has done its best to meet its primary directive of reproduction, dying varies greatly depending on the environment. Most plants fall into one of two categories. Some live one or two years, bloom once, and die. The grains and vegetables that we eat are examples. Such plants die through senescence, a built-in program for decay in all or part (autumn leaves) of the plant. Other plants, including trees, shrubs, and perennial flowering plants, produce seed repeatedly. These multi-blooming plants are more like us, King explains, than the blooming-once plants; they produce seed often and they don’t die by program. Instead, they–like humans–get worn down, worn out, infected, failing. They and we get old, in other words. Death from attrition and vulnerability, not design.
Reading King’s chapter, I found the fact of dying becoming less monolithic than it has seemed in the past. We think of life and death as a pair, like salt and pepper, but it’s not that simple. Death, the noun, is always “dying,” the verb, always a variable process for “getting dead.” Dying seems less conspiratorial to me now, and more part-euthanasia, part-scavenger, coming around for different purposes, with many different procedures, sooner or later or almost never.