Sensitive Plants

Nonfiction by Emily Jaeger

There was no sign that said “Don’t touch the plants.” So we touched. I told my friend, Touch every plant. She petted the cacti. I stuck my finger inside a pitcher plant, swashing the bug juice. Because we could! A touching free-for-all. I rubbed my face through the hanging air plants.

And there, three years after the cow field where I had first seen it, was that plant again: Mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant. In the herbarium, with its own clay pot and safe from a shit-ton of cows, the plant had grown wider, taller, more like a shrub than the way I’d first seen it: a twisty strand in the grass. With one finger, I showed her how to make every leaf bow.

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Mimosa pudica, a plant native to South America (where I first saw it), revealed itself to European scientists—was columbused—by at least the 1720s, when the French scientist Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan observed how the plant’s leaves would snap shut at nightfall (even when indoors).

Soon the Europeans noticed (columbused again) that the plant’s slender leaves folded at a touch. The plants were not just Circadian—predetermined dance—they seemed to mimic conscious decision. They could say no, even if the no was constant or as compulsive as a Circadian rhythm.

Mimosa, then, is from the Greek mimos—an actor or mime. Pudica describes the motion itself: the instant reflex to cover up. In Greek iconography, Aphrodite hides her cunt behind a cupped hand, an instinct from birth, despite the empty sea as her one witness. Only later did the flinch serve for protection, when the boys snuck into her shrine at night to cum against her statue’s body. Her pubis, carved and then hidden beneath her marble hands, was unknowable to mortals.

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In Latin, pudor simply means shame or modesty.

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Weak with nice sense the chaste Mimosa stands,
From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands.
                                                            —Erasmus Darwin

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As a woman with vaginismus, certain moves are compulsive. My vaginal muscles spasm shut in anticipation of penetration. And sometimes the impulse spreads across my body, until I flinch in anticipation of a hand on my arm.

As a writer (with vaginismus), certain moves are also compulsive. One is to hide behind images. The Mimosa pudica’s frilly purple blooms are a safe beauty. My perfect metaphor to climb inside—because a sensitive plant, or poet in this case, doesn’t become sensitive from nothing.

Darwin, what I have learned about rude touch is that just as often as it comes unwanted, it can come from loving hands. Well-intentioned. Welcomed touch can be just as rude. Though memory is ruder.

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First I played alone in the tub of lukewarm water, dumping cups of it on my head, squeezing floaty animals until long streams shot from the hole in their rubber undersides. And then someone who knew how to bathe would return and sit by the edge of the tub.

I hated being washed, the washcloth’s coarse hairs shuffling against my skin. And then the dreaded part for both washer and washee: between the legs. Scrubbing hard enough to clean it fast, get it over with before anything could be misunderstood or suspected otherwise. It was dirty—somehow? Then my bather gone again, the drain gurgling as the water filled its throat.

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To everything perfunctory that I wanted to be dear—a song:

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I’m told that with consciousness comes shame.
Or just the will to impose shame.
 
I’m told that to cover, close, fold, bow, cup is a shame dance that even plants know.
Or just to mimic shame—just to be made a mime.
 
Darwin, what do I do when I don’t want to withdraw?

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The cow field, grass buzzed down by a hundred hungry mouths, was empty. As we plodded, halfway across a different girl grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the ground. What? I asked as she knelt and showed me a weed. She drew her finger along the stem, the shaft of a gray-green feather. And the leaves, as if racing her fingertip down the spine, folded into themselves. The plant held closed. Don’t touch, she said, pushing my hand back, wait. And we waited the few seconds in the glinting sun for the thing to open again.

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I didn’t know what it was called, that plant, but I loved to touch it. To startle it into slumber.

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I learned to bathe. I learned how to be afraid (of men—my desire and non-desire for them), the harm that is so easy to commit. I learned to close my body without even wanting to. To pretend that I have sex. To pretend that I want to. To pretend that I don’t want to. I learned to furl and furl and furl and furl until I can’t anymore, until I am all shame dance and stillness at once.

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In captivity, the Mimosa pudica is a garden curiosity. Desirable for its rapid movement, its ability to turn away. So, it isn’t uncommon—I’ve found a Mimosa pudica in every herbarium since I learned the name—but it’s often alone. Plants in herbariums often are.

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Alone—a single work of art, a specimen, a check mark.

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Recently, the Mimosa pudica has been taken up—columbused for a third time—by plant neurobiologists. Monica Gagliano, an Australian scientist, suspected that the Mimosa’s closing might not be compulsive so much as learned. She loaded the Mimosa pudica onto a mini drop tower and let it fall. A free-falling plant carnival. While the Mimosa pudica closed its leaves during the first fall, and perhaps the next hundred, the plant eventually learned that the ride was harmless. It could land in its foam bed, lift up, and ride again and again with no damage to its leaves or stem. Eventually the plant stopped closing its leaves.

It wasn’t that the plant had become desensitized: a plant that fantasizes that it lives in a land without falling, a plant that won’t sleep, or a plant that can’t be shocked anymore. The plant would still spring closed to rain, fingers, rattling. Rather, it learned it would be caught. Even after a month sitting still, the plant remembered. Took the freefall, open.

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Here there are rows and rows of Mimosas in plastic pots with well-sifted soil. When the scientists leave, the fans turn on or a wind sneaks through the greenhouse door or sprinklers begin to mist, and they sway into one another, shivering and shimmering. Closing and opening each other.

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I want to shed my shame dance. If it’s possible to change a reflex, a vaginal blink. I want to shed shame. Before thought, I want my body to know: It’s just the sea, the foam calling me. Open.

Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press). Her poems are published in B O D Y, TriQuarterly, and Passages North among others. The 2017-18 Olive B O’Connor fellow at Colgate University with an MFA from UMASS Boston, Emily has received support from LAMBDA, TENT and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Her poem “Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph” won an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.