Crazy River: Umwelt Series Part III

Featured Project

A picture containing text, fabric

Description automatically generated
Crazy River Umwelt Series Part III

A central theme in my Crazy River project has been highlighting the emotional toll of the climate crisis by putting under a microscope, so to speak, my own feelings about not only the impacts of the crisis but the knowledge that humans’ actions are the cause. This series of three on-line essays, thought experiments if you like, expands that project to change the POV to non-human actors that are inextricably bound with the habitat in the Western Catskills: the black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica). All three have seen their habitat change dramatically through climate change and human interventions. Using my imagination and research, I try to enter the umwelt of all three species, an impossible task, as Thomas Nagel pointed out in “What Is It LIke to Be a Bat,” for which artistic license may give us the best chance to accomplish. My intentions in doing so fall along three axes: theoretical, aesthetic, and spiritual, dimensions all essential to my own art practice. Part III looks at the umwelt–a term normally applied only to animals whose use in this instance I will explain later–of Japanese knotweed from the perspective of the Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism.

A picture containing grass, ground, outdoor, plant

Description automatically generated
Japanese knotweed growing through asphalt. Photo by LJ Krakaue. Source: Marin Independent Journal, “Japanese knotwood (sic), the Godzille of Weeds,” by Nanette Londeree, Sept. 21 2018

Japanese knotweed

Tantric Buddhism emphasizes the inseparability of Samsara (suffering) and Nirvana (release from suffering), as it views the experience of emptiness (sunyata) from a subjective POV. In other words, when engaging with emptiness, the enlightened mind sees Samsara and Nirvana as two sides of the same coin. How can Tantric Buddhism help us when contemplating the case of Japanese knotweed, one of the most ineradicable “weeds” we know? A key question when considering its relation to the dharma is: can plants be sentient beings? Because all plants are sessile, that is non-mobile, we tend to think of them as inert, but the amazing experiments that ecologist Suzanne Simard and others have conducted show that trees do communicate with each other sharing nutrients through root systems linked by fungi, and releasing volatile organic compounds that warn other plants of threats such as insects or diseases. Do these forms of communication qualify as sentience? Based on what we know, and we still have much to learn, the answer is a qualified yes: trees are sentient, but not in the way animals are. Since they do communicate, sense things, and actively alter their environments, the term umwelt deserves to be applied to plants, as well as animals, as we expand what we mean by sentience to plant consciousness.


Description automatically generated

Japanese knotweed line drawing (A) showing above- and belowground structures relevant to population spread. Visible on the rhizome is a lateral bud. Drawing created by Suphannika Intanon. The life cycle diagram (B) of Japanese knotweed, showing the 2 stages considered in the integral projection model and the processes affecting individuals in each stage. Arrows represent a one-year time step. Ref: Elucidating the Population Dynamics of Japanese Knotweed Using Integral Projection Models – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate.

Can we extend what we know about trees to Japanese knotweed? Bear with me. A notorious invasive in Europe, the United States, and Canada, its vast spread has depended on clonal rather than sexual reproduction, typically from rhizomes or cuttings which create colonies from the same genetic material, challenging the notion of a separate and discrete self typical of animals. A related example would be the “world’s largest organism” by mass, a colony of aspen trees in the Fishlake National Forest of Utah, whose clones spread out as much as five miles. As a single organism, it allocates water and nutrients, and sends distress signals to its constituent parts. It is not a stretch to think that Japanese knotweed may behave similarly.

Lacking a discrete self that we would recognize, what does Japanese knotweed consciousness look like, assuming we can ascribe sentience to its behaviors? Pratītyasamutpāda, or dependent origination, a philosophical concept that shares aspects of Morton’s “mesh,” can help with imagining that. In dependent origination something comes into being as a result of a causal connection to all the other things happening around it. It could not be without the existence of everything else. This means that our understanding of our selves as separate, unified, and continuous is mistaken, hence the doctrine of anatman or no-self. Our selves, body, mind, and so forth, are in fact composites undergoing constant changes that depend on entities and processes at work all around us. Japanese knotweed by its very nature, lacking a discrete self, is closer to the true nature of reality as Buddhists see it than humans, who have to work much harder, e.g. meditation and contemplation, to come to that realization. Japanese knotweed consciousness might have affinities to the human mind when its default mode network subsides and the psychological barriers to feeling at one with the world break down.

A picture containing background pattern

Description automatically generated
Hovey Brock: Dharmas, 2007, 22” x 33,” acrylic on paper

Is Japanese knotweed closer to buddhahood than humans? If so, the Tantric Buddhist tradition might assign the plant’s enlightened state to the vajra buddha family, whose energy originates in anger or aggression, one of the five obstacles the buddha families transmute into paths of enlightenment. It is an opportunistic, fast-growing broadleaf that favors disturbed landscapes and thrives in a wide range of conditions, crowding out other plant species in the process. It can even survive in urban environments, poking up through asphalt. For those reasons it has earned the “nuisance” label. Does that description remind us of any other species, such as…ourselves? As with white-tailed deer, we can see our reflection here, which should give us pause as we consider what is the most ethical stance to take in relation to other species. The dharma, and particularly dependent origination, reminds us that Japanese knotweed is here because we are. Human intervention has made Japanese knotweed ubiquitous as Europeans imported the plant from its native ranges of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, and planted it in their gardens as ornamentals. In other words, Japanese knotweed is a feature of the aggression found in the modern industrialized world that would attempt to remake everything in its image.


I hope these thought experiments looking at three species from the different vantage points of theory, aesthetics, and spirituality have suggested ways that we can broaden our approach to understanding what our true role is in the climate crisis, which is the point of my Crazy River project. I have kept the species specific to a habitat I have known all my life, which has given me a better understanding of the shifts underway over these 30+ years, e.g. the arrival of the blacklegged tick, the population explosion of white-tailed deer, and the proliferation of Japanese knotweed across the landscape. My question about our role is simple, the answer obvious: Are we to simply bend everything to our will, which so far hasn’t worked out that well, or are we better off imagining ourselves in a broader context that might give us clues as to how to act in a more responsive manner to the changes and obstacles we will inevitably encounter? Art has a role to play in gaming out the possibilities in ways everyone can connect with, hence this effort.

About the Writer: Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017