(ESSAY) Bringing Up Baby: On Mother Earth's Plantasia
Oscar Mardell falls inside the awe of Mort Garson’s 1976 album Plantasia, considering its current relevance to the Millennial experience, and the magical passivity of losing oneself to internet algorithims. The Plantasia effect is explored through multiple films, as well as the controverisal work The Secret Life of Plants, in the context of our post-internet lives.
In Walter Lang’s 1957 film Desk Set, an early generation computer named EMERAC (Electromagnetic MEmory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) threatens to replace the library staff at the Federal Broadcasting Network in midtown Manhattan. Fears of ‘Automation’ were widespread upon the film’s release (in spite, or perhaps because, of the fact that President Eisenhower had publicly ‘deplored’ them two years prior). Here, however, they’re laughed off altogether: it transpires that the network is planning to merge with another company, and that EMERAC has only been brought in to assist the library staff with the increased workload; besides, the members of that staff have far too much of that elusive component which (in 1957 at least) no computer could threaten to replace – human personality. And none more so than the head librarian, Bunny Watson (Katherine Hepburn), who wields such a surplus of that component that even EMERAC’s inventor, Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), devoted though he is to his creation, cannot help but fall in love with her unruly idiosyncrasies.
But how do we know that Bunny is the one? What visual shorthand informs the viewer that she is so ripe with personality that she can’t be replaced by Sumner’s computer? To this end, scriptwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron specified that Bunny’s office should contain a philodendron. In Tracy and Hepburn (Viking Press, 1971), Garson Kanin describes Hepburn’s response to the plant provided by the props department:
Kate came on to the set, looked at it and asked, “What’s that supposed to be?” The prop man replied, “That’s the philodendron.” “Ridiculous,” she said. “That’s not a philodendron.”
Within mere hours, Hepburn had sourced a better specimen, a more philodendrony philodendron, which sprawls across three walls of Bunny’s office, and functions, therefore, as Tonya Rice writes at Goosepimply All Over, as ‘a character in its own right’. Indeed, it’s so much of a character that its mere presence in Bunny’s office serves as the infallible sign that Bunny herself has character – that she possesses too much individuality to be at risk of ‘Automation’. Human personality, Hepburn knew too well, comes free with decorative flora; the best lovers are the lovers of houseplants.
It recently dawned on me that I’m terrible at making conversation at parties, certainly these days. No one wants to talk about old films anymore, less yet computer history. That, and the dinky decorations – the pastel pinks, the Insta-worthy invites with the sans serifs – they always make me feel like I’m the weird mature guy, the awkward tag-along, so all I ever want to ask the other guests is ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Who do you know here?’ Forward, I know, but surely an improvement on the standard opener: ‘What do you do?’ feels so presumptuous; besides, I always manage to inflict it on the wrong person – some Social Media Strategist who’ll promptly take it on himself to tell me what it is he does.
I bought myself a T-shirt from the record store on Pitt Street. It’s off-white with long sleeves and on the front is a graphic from Mother Earth’s Plantasia – the 1976 album which Mort Garson wrote ‘for plants…and the people who love them’ (and which came free, therefore, with any purchase from Mother Earth – Lynn and Joel Rapp’s legendary plant store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles; and which was also, for less obvious reason, given away with any Simmons mattress from Sears). I figured it’d make the introductions for me. At parties these days, I find, increasingly, that I only want to talk to other fans of Plantasia. It’s been a useful way of announcing myself.
Those fans fall into two camps: in the first are the long-time listeners – devotees of what Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones (who reissued Plantasia in 2019) called ‘that DJ Shadow deep-digging culture’; in the second, the Johnnies-come-lately – the newcomers who encountered it as ‘one of those algorithmic YouTube sensations.’ It's easy to tell who’s who: members of the first camp always start with, ‘So, how’d you come across Plantasia?’
What’s actually at stake here? What’s being asked, I think, is not just ‘Have you spent your life at record fairs as well?’ but ‘Are you a Millennial?’ This doesn’t simply mean, ‘Were you born between 1981 and 1997?’ but ‘Does your affection for Plantasia predate these manicured messes? These boob bedspreads? Or are you complicit in what Mollie Fischer rightly dubbed in The Cut ‘The Tyranny of Terrazzo’’?
The question is especially loaded here in Aotearoa, where a Rhaphidophora tetrasperma fetched $27,100 on TradeMe this year. As Angie Martoccio put it in Rolling Stone, ‘If you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on cacti and snake plants you might as well serenade them to a concerto.’ Am I the genuine connoisseur? Or just a shameless opportunist with a mortgage on, and Mozart for, my variegated minima?
For what it’s worth, I’m among the Johnnies-come-lately. Plantasia was recommended to me by the algorithm. But this needn’t embarrass me. As Maël Renouard explains in Fragments of An Infinite Memory (New York Review Books, 2021):
Gone are the days when we used to feel a slight shame in saying we found something on the internet, as if it were an illicit or tainted source that an honest man couldn’t mention without losing face – for an honest man already knows what needs to be known and always has: culture is, so to speak, a part of his being.
Today, so much of ‘what needs to be known’ is only available on the internet that ‘culture’ can no longer be the exclusive preserve of ‘DJ Shadow deep-digging’; it belongs, increasingly, to the passive discoverers – not to those who go seeking, but to those whom the algorithm finds. And this passivity, I think, makes members of the second camp attuned to something which eludes Plantasia’s long-time listeners: the joy it yields of being something other than the listener per se – not the direct audience but the awkward tag-along, the additional presence who gets to listen in on what is otherwise a private serenade for Garson’s principal addressee – the plants themselves.
On the record’s original sleeve, a quote from Dr T.C. Singh (Department of Botany, Annamalai University) attempts to assure us, ‘It has been proven beyond any doubt that harmonic sound waves affect the growth, towering and seed yield of plants.’ In this, Singh is repeating the claims of the 1973 bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants – the work of dowsing enthusiast and former CIA agent Christopher Bird, and occultist and former OSS agent Peter Tompkins. In the liner notes to the Plantasia reissue, Andy Beta summarises that book’s claims:
plants can hear our prayers, they’re lie detectors, they’re telepathic, able to predict natural disaster and receive signals from distant galaxies… Perhaps the craziest claim was that plants also dug music.
In 1979, The Secret Life became the subject for a Walon Green documentary of the same name; its soundtrack was provided by none other than Stevie Wonder, and was both the first record to use a digital sampling synthesiser (the Computer Music Melodian), and the second pop album (after Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop) to be digitally recorded. By this time, however, it had long been dismissed by the scientific community (See, for example, Arthur W. Galston’s ‘The Unscientific Method’), and had become a byword for quackery itself. In Philip Kaufamn’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978), for example, Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) – the proprietor of a new-age mud-bathing house in San Francisco – is blasting Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.1 on the radio when her boyfriend, Stan (Jeff Goldblum), starts the following argument:
Stan: Nancy, shut the music off. Nancy: It's for the plants, Stan. Stan: Screw the plants. I hate the music. Nancy: It's wonderful for my plants. They just love it. Plants have feelings, you know, just like people. It's fascinating. This type of music stimulates the growth of the plants. They've done tons of experiments on it.
But we’re meant to understand that Nancy is delusional – or at least, misinformed. Immediately afterwards, a patron named Mr. Gianni (David Fisher) recommends that she read ‘Worlds in Collision by [Immanuel] Velikovsky’, a discredited thesis from 1950 which claims that, sometime around C.15th, Venus was ejected from Jupiter and passed near Earth, changing both the orbit and the axis of the latter and causing countless catastrophes which happen to match the cosmological myths of a disparate (and arbitrary) array of nations: India, China, Greece, Rome, Assyria, and Sumer (though the definitive rebuttal of Velikovsky’s theory would actually arrive the following year, with the publication of Carl Sagan’s collection Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Ballantyne Books, 1979)). ‘Oh, yes,’ replies Nancy, ‘I've read that many times. Have you read [Olaf Stapledon’s] Star Maker?’ This is the novel that Arthur C. Clarke called ‘perhaps the most powerful work of imagination ever written’; nevertheless, it remains exactly that – ‘a work of imagination’ rather than one of positive proof. The implication is clear: Nancy is not informed by science per se, but by the point at which it descends into fiction. Her relationship with plants contains plenty of ‘Romance’, but she is unequipped to comprehend the reality (at least, the diegetic reality) of vegetative take-over, which doesn’t thrive on Mozart but on that otherworldly scream (which Ben Burtt wrought by layering a cacophony of noises including, foremost, pig squeals).
A more ambiguous – and, hence, unsettling – take on (terrestrial) plant sentience is offered by The Kirlian Witness (1979). The film’s plot is wildly convoluted, but runs something like this: Laurie (Nancy Boykin), the owner of a trendy plant shop in rundown Manhattan, is found dead by her sister (Nancy Snyder), a trendy photographer named Rilla. Using The Secret Life, Rilla teaches herself to communicate with one of Laurie’s plants, which reveals to her that the murderer is none other than Laurie’s shop assistant, Dusty (Ted Le Plat)– a young man who’s recently been made homeless (and deeply resentful) by the same gentrification measures which have made it possible to run trendy plant shops, or have careers as trendy photographers, in rundown Manhattan. YouTuber Codename Salad (Ian Tindall) calls this storyline ‘ridiculous’ and, on the face of it, it’s easy to see why: it simply feels absurd to have to ‘suspend disbelief’ in a narrative premised upon pseudoscience. But this is precisely the point. The unreliability of Rilla’s methodology forces us to ask questions of its conclusion: Did Dusty actually kill Laurie? Or is Rilla, like Nancy in Invasion, just delusional? Is he the exploitative monster? Or is she? As Steve Johnson puts it in Bright Lights: ‘The movie is so layered with ambiguity and obscured motivations, it’s hard to tell.’
In this respect, The Kirlian Witness is identical in affect to another landmark in synthesised sound: Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents (to whose soundtrack, Daphne Oram – though she remains uncredited – contributed the eerie sine tones). On the film’s source – Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of The Screw – critics Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royale have this to say:
The suspense of this haunting story rests largely on whether it is about actual ghosts and real evil, or is simply a psychological case-study of a disturbed mind. Critics have tended to argue for one reading or the other. Recently, however, critics have recognized that the choice of interpretation – the choice, finally, of which story we think we are reading – is irresolvable. As Roslyn Jolly comments, ‘critics have become increasingly aware that the irresolvability of the tale’s ambiguity puts on trial their own readerly skills and assumptions about meaning in narrative’ (Jolly 1993, 102). Indeed, critics have realized that this uncanny and unsettling suspense of interpretation is itself part of what makes the story so terrifying: The Turn of the Screw is suspended between two mutually exclusive readings. We are left, then, in a state of hermeneutic suspense, of interpretative uncertainty – unable to know, finally, how to read James’s story.
The same might be said of The Kirlian Witness: the ‘suspense’ of that story, too, ‘rests largely on whether it is about…real evil’ (Dusty’s murdering Laurie) ‘or is simply a psychological case-study of a disturbed mind’ (Rilla’s grief-driven conviction that her sister’s plant can communicate with her); here too, ‘We are left…in a state of hermeneutic suspense, of interpretative uncertainty’ – incapable of discerning if plants are sentient (and if Laurie was murdered by her employee, therefore) or if they aren’t (and if Rilla, therefore, is a madwoman wielding dangerous amounts privilege). Each would be ghastly enough in itself, but the situation in which either might be the case is vastly more unnerving.
Like The Kirlian Witness, Plantasia remains ambiguous on the question of plant sentience. In Mother Earth’s Hassle-Free Indoor Plant Book, the Rapps explain the matter:
As you lie back, surrounded by the Green members of your family, and listen to these melodies, you might be wondering – will talking to my plants or playing this music for them really help them to grow? Frankly, we do not know for sure that it will.
Once again, ‘We are left…in a state of hermeneutic suspense, of interpretative uncertainty’: we simply ‘do not know’ (at least, it’s understood that we ‘do not know’) if the record’s principal addressee is receptive to its tones or not. For The Kirlian Witness, this uncertainty is a source of profound unsettlement; for Plantasia, by contrast, it’s one of sublime awe. The very possibility that the plants might be listening (as opposed to some absolute certainty that they are or aren’t) is precisely what imbues the record with its sense of wonder. And for ‘the people who love [plants]’ the permission to listen in on this mysterious address is little short of a religious experience.
‘Love’ writes Katharine Hepburn in Me: Stories of My Life, ‘has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to give.’ When someone serenades a child, they are always ‘expecting to get’ something in return – even something as rudimentary as confirmation that the concerto has been heard. When that same person serenades a philodendron, by contrast, they can’t even expect that. Uncertain of whether the plant can hear them at all, they are only ‘expecting to give’. They are, in other words, experiencing true love – what some call God’s love – and it can only be felt, I maintain, for houseplants.
Yes, I know this love first-hand: I’ve dropped a few thousand dollars on Fiddle Leaf Figs and Hindu Ropes over the years. But it's still a thrill to experience it vicariously, to know it as a third wheel, listening in.
Words: Oscar Mardell
Image-credit: Image 1: Oscar Mardell, Image 2, 3, 4, 5, 6: Stills from films Desk Set, Invasion of The Body Snatches and The Kirlian Witness.