Blog: Sticks & Stones & Poison Leaves

Luke Oram

In 1948, German experimental psychologist and professor of physics Gustav Theodor Fechner published a book called ‘Nanna (Soul-life of Plants)'. In the book, he put forward a theory that’s now infamous in the world of popular science. Fechner argued that plants, like humans, have souls and a desire for companionship and conversation. He suggested that talking to plants regularly would have a marked effect on their growth.

Since Fechner, this theory’s been really taken for a ride, from a New York dentist’s horticultural soundtrack to a recent project that read your tweets to fledgling foliage.

A lot of scientists have countered this theory by arguing that our voices provide nothing more than helpful vibrations, but a variation of the theory goes further, suggesting that constructive conversation would lead to a healthier, stronger plant, while insults and negative conversation would hinder a plant’s growth. Several experiments have proven this to be true.

I’m suddenly transported back in time to my exasperated mother, hovering over my brawling brothers and me, cake of soap in one hand, and the oft-quoted Proverb “Death and life are in the power of the tongue!” on her lips.

It’s an adage that’s always stuck with me. Maybe it’s my Western guilt, or maybe it’s the fact that the proverb makes such a striking connection between our words and such intense consequences. Even as a metaphor, death is a pretty harsh call.

I mean, there’s finality there. We’re not talking about words just hurting a little. We’re not referencing minor wounds. We’re talking about death; the systematic extinction of life.

The Proverb continues to serve as a follow-up warning: those who love it will eat the fruit. The Message’s translation says this of our words: they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

This is not a blog about the recent X-Factor bullying controversy. It easily could be, but the truth is, the whole thing’s been covered in more depth than some actual blood-and-fire conflicts overseas. However, I can’t help but think that somewhere within this recent war of words, we lost track of what our mother's Proverb was really trying to say.

Regardless of your views on reality television, what you witnessed was wrong. It was a volley of invective that had the power to kill (if you’ll excuse the pun). But our reaction to the bullying judges was no more life-giving. We traded shots with shots, we all threw poison back; the whole thing became a poisonous fog. There’s no good plant, no good dream that could thrive within the cloud over our country these last few weeks.

We respond so violently to situations like this because we are acutely aware of the added power that the words of celebrities and artists carry. They are spokespeople of a generation. When they speak, you listen. Every day, your media newsreel is full of artists whose words are quoted, vilified or lionised.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue. This proverb should be the mantra of any artist on a platform. Your artistic expression is your own, but, whether you like it or not, your words are public domain. They’re arrows that can destroy growth, stunt dreams or deconstruct heroes. They’re also life, empowerment, provocation and encouragement.

They were singing Sam Cooke’s “A change is gonna come” when they marched for Civil Rights. They threw the words of “Fortunate Son” at Nixon as they protested Vietnam. The tragedy of Londonderry will be forever remembered through “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”.

Artists: forget Fechner’s foliage, your words are constructing a new generation. Pick up your pen and realise the power it holds.