The theory of evolution has been called into question in recent times. But regardless, when we focus on it we discover a world full of nuances and poetry where science doesn’t have the cold, stony appearance we sometimes attach to it.
I’m speaking now as a museologist, a bit outside the circle of experts, and as the person responsible for the Plant Odyssey project that Jardin botanique visitors will get to enjoy this summer. To build that odyssey, the project production team and I took off on an unforgettable adventure.
What we encountered was the changing and incommensurable notion of time with a capital T. How do we communicate the sensation of the billions of years that separate the first ocean life from the first land plant? How can we understand that certain plant evidence, like stems or seeds, are in the end quite recent, dating from…the last 350 million years?
The history of life
We were moved when we discovered that the history of life resembles a generous shrub, a tree on which the human species has no special place, just a place of its own. We’re all relatives in a life that started in the earliest days of the microbial world and then grew more complex over the course of brilliant adaptations and bizarre detours. All living beings, all related.
The coming of photosynthesis transformed life on Earth by freeing the oxygen needed for the development of a multitude of species. A very long time ago those bacteria, as plants would do subsequently, made human existence possible. When I was looking for imagery for our scenic painters, I came across – not without emotion – the photo of some algae covered in bubbles: it was tirelessly releasing that priceless oxygen into the ocean, towards the atmosphere.
We were surprised to learn that there was a time when the soil as we now describe it did not exist. Two or three billion years ago, the landscape was essentially mineral. Then mosses arrived, which when they broke down generated organic waste, setting the stage for the species to come.
We bowed before the chemical and mechanical genius of the leaves and the wood that quietly appeared in the flow of mutations and adaptations. A hot, humid climate ensured the supremacy of ferns and clubmosses for a time, but as the climate became more arid, the big trees less dependent on moisture to reproduce saw their time arrive.
The start of humanity
There was also this common shiver when we read the exhibition text that describes the coming of Homo sapiens, human beings. One species among so many others, but one that changed the world: Homo sapiens tamed the oceans and cut down forests, but also invented irrigation and permaculture. So we dared imagine the future by describing the projects that are in the process of changing the world in their own way.
Essentially, we enjoy telling our visitors stories. And the story of evolution is fascinating. It lies at the origin of the world’s beauty and diversity. The profusion of life and its creativity communicate the sensation of perpetual motion, discreet in the case of plants, but powerful and endless. Living beings are constantly changing in the secrecy of their genetic matrix, from the most glacial environments to the mugginess of the tropics. Our own existence is no more than a manifestation of that process, nothing more. And it will pass.
By the conclusion of this epic story we’d collected so many adventures in our exhibit-producer saddlebags! Discovery, humility, poetry, innovation… And a deep sense of reverence before the long history of the plant world. We have so many things to tell you about the evolution of plants, without really knowing all that much ourselves. Maybe the best thing will be to treat yourself to The Plant Odyssey and share in the sense of gratitude and responsibility that we’re filled with right now. Something to help ease the troubled gloom of the 21st century, this fleeting grain of sand that to us seems so vast.