The Senescence Scene

Senescence is generally defined as the condition or process of deterioration with age.
loss of a cell’s power of division and growth.

Somehow that sounds depressing. As though that is it. It’s all over folks. I doubt any living form, humans included, want their final season expressed that way. I’d like to believe that everything is valued, vital and vibrant till the very end. Yet, each year, as fall makes way for winter, senescence is a word that comes up to describe the state of affairs in the horticultural realm.

I get it. The word in itself is only meant to define a stage in life with scientific accuracy. I myself have used it often. But recently, walking around gardens and woods, I remembered that in cell biology, this definition continues by saying that although a cell in senescence is no longer capable of dividing, it is still alive and metabolically active. Now, doesn’t that instantly cheer you up?

Look around in the garden, at this time in the north-East when nothing seems to be happening and all the deciduous plants have ‘died’ back, there is in reality a wonderful undercurrent at play. The same anticipation suffused tension that is palpable when the baton is being passed in a relay race, is underway in the garden. The lack of snow and mild temperatures this season have extended the time we get to view the beauty of plants in senescence.
First, take an overview of what lies in front of you. There is an almost abstract beauty in the shapes of the plants and trees. The stands of withered plants provide seasonal interest in their sculptural forms and the palette of earth tones is an artist’s delight. Is there really that large a range of shades in the color brown?! Many of the flower heads retain their shapes and impart an ethereal loveliness in their faded hues.

The dried flower heads, curled, wrinkly leaves and mysterious seedpods evoke the imagination. But even more than that, they epitomize life. Yes, life! While most of the organic matter will get broken down by microbes and the elements to enrich the soil that will nurture plant life, the seedpods signal the very birth of life. This is not just the end but also the beginning.

Look closer at those seed-bearing forms. There is such a variety in their representations; each of which, in its exquisite design tells how its seeds are dispersed. Feathery, fluffy, papery packages are primed for air mail. The wind carries them to destinations near and far. Then, there are those that hold appeal for birds by hiding within edible fruit. Distributed after digestion is complete, the seeds set up home when and where conditions are ideal. Some plants, like mothers who cannot let go, drop their seeds right around themselves.
Seedpods are also miniature instruction manuals illustrating sound  form-follows-function design. They hint broadly at the interdisciplinary nature of art, physics, engineering and architecture. And at the very heart of it all, is the lesson in biology. The circle of life. There is no beginning without end and no end without beginning.

A tiny seed is enough to remind us of the marvels of nature. It contains all the information it needs for its life purpose and, goes about doing just that. Waiting patiently for the right time and making the most of wherever it finds itself, a seed fulfils that commitment to the very best of its ability. It shows how to live bravely and die just as bravely. There is a strong yet gentle lesson in there for us.

“To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a flower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour”
– William Blake

Lots of images below to celebrate senescence! :

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

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