Melina Sempill Watts is a watershed coordinator, plant lover, and author. A life-long lover of plants, in a longterm, committed relationship with California's Mediterranean climate and floral and faunal communities, Melina is also the author of Tree – a book about the life and loves of a California Live Oak. In Tree – Melina channels the voice and lived experience of a California live oak tree, from the fall and germination (in blood) of its source acorn, through the length and adventures of its 250 year or so maturity.
A labor of love over more than a decade, the book is in some ways a fictional take on increasing scientific research into how plants and other more-than-human organisms communicate with one another over time and space in a far more than human-mode and pace. A student of history, of comparative religion, and of life – Melina Joins us in the NSPR studios today to share more.
“When I was young I definitely felt in relationship to trees - I felt that they were
living beings and that I could emotionally feel them and they could feel me.
And that they cared about my existence and wanted me to thrive and so
when I was lonely or isolated I would go be with trees.”
Melina Sempill-Watts, author of Tree
As a young person, Melina loved plants, but as a young adult she credits them – a field of kind grass specifically – with emoting to her in a time of need and literally saving her in that moment. Melina’s book Tree is a testament to her understanding of and love for plants of all kinds, starting with what she calls the most "charismatic mega flora" – a California Live Oak.
In writing Tree, Melina embraced “the AUDACITY of being interconnected with the lives of the more than human around us," she loving tried "to be a tree when writing the book.”
Melina Sempill Watts’ writing has appeared in Sierra Magazine, the New York Times motherlode blog, Earth Island Journal and Sunset Magazine, in local environmental venues such as Urban Coast: Journal of the Center for the Study of the Santa Monica Bay, the Heal the Bay blog and in local papers such as Malibu Times, Malibu Surfside News, Topanga Messenger and Argonaut News. Melina began her career in Hollywood as a development executive, writing consultant and story analyst working for such luminaries Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and Peter Horton and at Dreamworks. She has worked as a watershed coordinator, run a stable, shelved books at a library and created, marketed and ran Starfish Catering. Watts graduated from UCLA with a degree in history. She lives in California.
Follow along with Melina's work and journey at Change the World Books on Facebook.
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
After our conversation, Melina reached out to me with these thoughts:
"Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, born in the mid 1800s is the Indian equivalent to Leonardo Davinci, a polymath and genius physicist whose work on radio waves and electricity is still in use today. He was also a biologist, a botanist, an archaeologist and an early science fiction writer. He did research to see if plants could communicate electrically and concluded that plants experience pain; his research was denigrated by English and Europeans, convinced that his work reflected Hindu mysticism rather than science. Now...a hundred years later, similar research leads to similar conclusions: he was right. When I took Indian history at UCLA, I ran into his work and it gave me the confidence to think that some of my personal feelings about plants might be -- eventually -- verified by science. In the eighties, he was my beacon. In the nineties, modern science began to catch up to him.
"University of British Columbia scientist and professor, Suzanne Simard's has lead a lab the research from which lead to the theory of a fungal network used by plants to communicate underground via the world wood web, there are now layers and layers of research in the last twenty years looking at plant-plant communication via the world wood web, via plant pheromones (which we often experience as scent) and, as per Sir Bose, electrically. So, the plant-plant communication that occurs within Tree is in a mental space where magical realism and science collide."
"Critics sometimes talk about to what extent Tree is an anthropomorphic representation of a tree and of plants. To me anthropomorphic is a word that sets limits upon our capacity to understand the world; it implies that only human-human communication is valid and any attempt to understand the internal reality of other species is impossible. To which Dr. Jane Goodall might say, 'balderdash'."
"As a writer, what I was aiming for was an arbomorphic representation of a tree, using human language to try to articulate via science, via transcendent personal spiritual experiences of connection with plants, via imagination, what I believe a tree's experience of life to be. In no way was I interested in humanizing the tree's experience, rather I wanted to open us to the idea of what life feels like from the perspective of a tree. I focused on what being rooted means, on how photosynthesis and the transmission of water might feel, on how a tree's communications to plants and trees and mobile beings might feel, on how life itself is transformed by a slower perception of time, on the pleasure of growth, on the shock of trying to understand what eating and being eaten feels like, on what the experience of a desire to procreate, to connect, to cherish young, might feel like to a plant. Just as many people may never experience childbirth themselves, if a person is next to a mother giving birth, they can have a profound, horrifying and utterly joyful empathetic experience of what birth is," she ends with: "I believe that while we cannot actually experience a plants' world, or an animals' world, if we listen and absorb what is shared with us, we may see the truth in other being's existence if we are open to the possibility."
As you consider this season of February, I encourage you to stay wide open to possibility – to deep listening in these winter months – to growing into this long-term loving and committed relationship we are part of with this planet that carries us forth.
Part of the fun for me in this episode was listening to and following Melina’s own pathways of learning in her life – her research into and sharing with botanical and environmental science resources, with spiritual history and communities. SO much of our learning is self taught, self-directed and absorbed – throughout our lives. It is - as I offered out in last week’s episode about fire and the land – lessons offered to us by the world around us, the land, the library, other people, references and insights that come to us each and every day to activate our interest, curiosity and expansion. I can see Melina pushing open the door of that beat up trailer holding the treasures of the Resource Conservation District.
If this is a mode of learning in your life that you already enjoy or if it’s one of the elements of your life you’d like to fortify – I think you’ll like the coming few weeks of Cultivating Place as we embark on an exploration of some of the ways and means by which gardeners activate their own love of life-long-learning and intellectual growth in community and engagement. We’ll visit with a public garden and hear about their winter lecture series, we’ll talk to plant nerd groups, and public policy advocates.
There’s always more to learn friends – and if you didn’t already go explore the history of Bose, the work of the Simard lab, or read Richard Power's Overstory or Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees – these late winter months are the just the time to do it!
If you want more Cultivating Place in your life, you can subscribe to our newsletter! A View From Here is the email update I send out around the beginning of each month as a way of more direct connection to you all – it often includes botanical thoughts, information on upcoming events, book or garden reviews, and more. I share more about people, places and plants I’ve been loving but haven't been able to feature on the show. If you love the podcast, I think you'll really love what I have to share in the newsletter. Head to cultivatingplace.com/newsletter to sign up!
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