Book Review: Environment and Plant Life by S A Searle 1973 Faber
October 24, 2020
Environment and Plant Life by S A Searle 1973 Faber
The book is strange. It is science but is oddly devoid of much sense of humanity in the author. It is addressed to gardeners and to horticulturalists, arborists, and woodland estate managers.
The aim of the book is to demonstrate how plants are the products of their environments; and to break down this environmental matrix into broad constituents - soil – nutrients – heat – water supply and such – so as to show what the author believes to be the best way for a person to take advantage of environments so as to improve plants’ growth etc.
Excuse the pun but the writing in the book is extraordinarily wooden. Many generalities are approximated by way of broad calculations, and which aim to supply criteria upon which adjustment calculations of those criteria allow assessments of one’s own particular local plant environment(s).
A fairly typical example is how the author offers the calculations surrounding groundwater temperatures and several set depths. He says – in so many words – that if you have the depth of the water source, you can calculate the temperature; whereas if you have the temperature you can calculate the depth of the water source.
His outlook on plant life I find disturbing and distressing. His broad aim is to reduce plant life wholly to being a product of the conditions of environment. He seemed to believe that this was the true way to proceed and to the minutest degree. It made me wonder how he saw a cloud of bluebells in late spring or an astonishing holly bush glistening in full array about late autumntime, about now at the time I am writing.
The outlook of the author was also without exception one of human utility – a thoroughly utilitarian approach asking at every turn what nature might be trained, or coerced, or coaxed into providing for men and women. His view of nature was as a storehouse of goods and services it can provide.
“Brandy for the parson; baccy for the clerk”
In the background was an underflow of a determinism in his thinking. He actually said more or less that ‘if we knew enough we could govern plant life absolutely, so as to get just what we wanted grown just as we like it grown” My paraphrase.
Despite this undertow of determinism there seemed to me to be no sense of lack of direction or faltering of purpose to the author’s expositions; which appeared to me to be remarkable and meant that either he was as hard as nails emotionally, or else he hadn’t thought through his position on Environment and Plant Life to its clear conclusions.
It was 1973 the year of first publication. I was 23 then. I was at university and I recall the intellectual milieu very well at that time – in academies and I was in West Wales. The restless student movements, often left wing politically, and aggressively socially disruptive. My personal impressions were very strongly received in me that belief in human beings as being spiritual creatures was a dead creed, and that political action was the solution rather than prayer, fasting, and attempting to live a life of goodwill and charity.
Whether my experience at university has any connection with this author’s outlook in his book is impossible to say; but it may just have some explanatory power that helps contextualise the book.
The broad sweep of generalities which the author uses gives also an impression he is surveying from a position where a panorama is set out before him, bringing into its scope the British Isles in all its variety and anomalies.
An instance of what I mean is this:
There were tables containing for each month of the year average soil temperatures at three crucial depth levels of soil; these tables were valid across the UK at sea level and at NTP and a few more normal conditionals. The reader was asked to use these tables and by them and some adjustments, being mainly calculations on altitude adjustments, and on soil covering types, to discover what the average ground temperatures were to be in the reader’s particular neck of the woods.
This example was just one of many, and the tenor of the book was such as to use such broad generalities and readjustment on them on which to base conclusions about how soil and its temperatures , water, air temperatures, heat generation etc affect, for good or ill, plants. This in general, with added some few interspersed specific discussions on particular plant types and plant phenomena.
There was as far as I saw, and I saw quite a lot of the book, no research data base on which the author was founding his claims; by which I mean no tables of say test drills into earth done at various select parts of the UK, and lists of data of temperatures and/or soil types examined and recorded from them. There was just no clear or attempted empirical base.
The author came close to starting from generalities to draw his general conclusions; and although he had an orderly mind and some vigour, he seemed just too blasé about the scientific method and his casual use of it.
The worst one might say of him is that he might just as well have written the book using only the calculations and thinking he had done at home in his armchair. That was too strongly felt by me - at least that kind of emphasis.
He also made a thought experiment wherein he laid out what he was trying to do. He imagined his readers asking an old fashioned but seasoned gardener why snowdrops bloom in the snow in January, why some trees lose leaves and others don’t in winter, why some plants do well here but not there etc. The old gardener would give the reader, he says, answers such as snowdrops like the cold, or some trees are hardier than others, or some plants prefer that sort of soil, and so on. But the author says that he himself wanted to explain these phenomena and not just to, as he saw it, perhaps palm his readers off with vague announcements.
Again I thought, how does this author see his science; that he feels it can pin down to the very minutiae why snowdrops bloom in January etc etc? And sufficiently to have explained their habit? I felt he was asking too much from science; that he misunderstood that there would always be things unknown and that there will always [and separately] be mystery to the meanest flower that blows.
The book then, it struck me as being pedestrian, and lacking in the spontaneous animation of vitality; although it was made in capable English and lucid enough to read, and the guy clearly knew stuff.
Pedestrian because over-ambitious, or maybe overreaching the mark of due respect for ‘things as they are’ and asking too much in expectation of and respect for science.
Even the evolutionists, by whom I think this author had been overpowered but maybe didn’t fully realise that he had been, have to resort to the word ‘random’ so as to establish a basis for their ‘Natural Selection’ to work by. Without that word ‘random’ the whole Evolutionary edifice falls down for them. Their hardline determinism otherwise means that, without ‘random’ there is no loophole, no escape route, by which change can get into ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and ‘Natural Selection’. But once ‘random’ is established by them it is then philosophically and metaphysically ignored, sidelined, I think because of its disastrous implications and consequences for their deterministic Evolutionary Theory.
This ‘random’ is the lifesaver for metaphysical thought. It allows in my view the bluebell cloud to retain its beauty and gorgeous majestic mystery; and allows for it to continue to possess that ardent and fulfilling-to-the-view vitality, emanating as an offering of the earth.
“Random’ is a difficult if not impossible concept to try to pin down and so talk reasonably about. Its existence as a word and a concept is I believe good evidence for there being a Divinity shaping our ends.