"You nurture these plants as if they were children." She did not say this with approval.
He nodded. As her neighbor, he had known her for fifteen years. He was sympathetic to how she'd recently gone through divorce. Her tone was often hostile for no apparent reason but he didn't mind. He could see that she was trying to be social, to make small talk, and to break out of her old habit of keeping to herself.
His garden lay a few feet inside the gate to his back yard. Anyone passing by could see him. He'd left the latch of the gate open as an invitation. She was the first neighbor to drop in.
In his cultivated plot, the center consisted of his food plants: corn, tomatoes, melons, and beans. He'd surrounded them with spice plants that the local rodents didn't like to eat. It seemed to keep them away fairly well, although it had taken years of trial and error to find spices they really didn't like.
He surrounded the garden with a border of flowers and butterfly bushes since the neighbors seemed to like seeing those.
"I do nurture," he agreed. "Except when I am harsh and cull the plants."
"All things cooperate and compete." With a gesture, his hand trowel swept the air over the garden. "Mostly, different species compete."
"Plants just grow. They are innocent. It's not real competition at all."
He frowned. "When a person doesn't realize that all things compete, I would hope it's because they are removed from nature."
"Why would you hope that?"
"Because otherwise it would mean that the person was in a position to see how life is and yet deny it."
Last weekend, she had also come to visit, and she'd sat in the grass for a talk. She seemed to regard him as a refuge from her social strife. The woman's husband had grown critical of her habits near the end of their relationship. Her mother and her sisters had always been harsh, even more than her husband had been. Perhaps she was comfortable with being reprimanded, too, because he noticed that his gentle rebuke made her shoulders relax. She folded her arms and leaned back in thought.
"I don't see plants as having rivalries," she finally said, "if you know what I mean."
"I do know what you mean. But when I look around, I see that plants, animals, and people are not so different. We are all social. We cooperate and compete. Even solitary animals, creatures who travel alone for much of their lives, are interdependent with others."
"Now that everyone's gone from my home, I get out a little and I see that." Her husband had left her the house. That had seemed to her like a great blessing at first. But her children had also decided they wanted to leave. Now they stayed with their father in an apartment on the other side of town while she roamed around her four-bedroom house on her own.
"If you stay out more, you'll notice more." He liked the idea of her getting outside. He was sure that she would discover the park, the pond, the public pool, and her other neighbors, the ones she'd never talked to before. She could witness more of everyone else's joys and struggles in life. "Herbivores eat meat sometimes and carnivores eat plants. Every day, I see that plants battle underground, consume one another at the roots, and even eat animals."
"I've never noticed any of that. Plants are dumb, to me. No brains."
"There's a fight going on right now between some plants. It has a clear winner and loser. Come."
He walked her across the grass. The woods brushed against the western border of his yard. There, he found the scene to illustrate his point. A half-dozen kinds of vines grew at the border with the great trees. Two kinds of them he let flourish because they fed him, the blackberries and the raspberries.
"See how the raspberry vine tries to flee the blackberries?" he said. In this thicket, the blackberries had strangled out everything else. No flower or weed had withstood the snarl of spiked stems and leaves. The raspberry bush had, in reaction, stretched out tendrils along the treeline. "It has lost the competition. But even though it is rooted to the ground, a vine like this can try to escape. Not all plants have that option. They stay and fight or, if they feel they are outmatched, they make babies fast before the oak tree growing above them crowds out the light and eats up the water."
She studied the vines for a while, arms crossed. Tears began to well up in her eyes.
"Poor dumb bush," she said. "I didn't realize I was in a competition either."
"Yes. I never knew your family well but I've seen you on occasion for years. I talked with your husband. I would say that he, too, didn't understand that competition always goes on. It's the nature of life."
"We were lazy together. Isn't that how it's supposed to be?"
"Perhaps. But social cooperation and rivalries go on all the time. They never stop, not even if you pretend they do. The precursors to life act this way, so even our chemicals are like this. Our partnerships are helped, I think, by recognizing the need to cooperate and compete."
"Sounds like vigilance. I thought that didn't apply to me, not with his attitude." She turned away from the scene with the competing vines. Her right arm swept out to indicate his house. "Your wife keeps herself beautiful. How come you don't get jealous? How come you don't have attitude? If I dressed nice or lost weight, my husband always got a jealous."
"Jealousy is a form of possessiveness. I think maybe it comes from a concern that we haven't kept an eye on cooperation and competition." He looked to his home. His wife, working at the kitchen table, noticed. She waved, smiled, and returned to her work before he could wave back. "There's more involved, too, but I think jealousy is sometimes a leap to hyper-vigilance spurred by the recognition that we haven't been paying attention."
"Attention to what?"
"To other people. To important relationships. To the rest of world. Everything."
"Paying that much attention sounds exhausting."
"If you keep an eye on how things really are, it's not too hard. If you stop observing and re-start, then I suppose each re-start could seem tedious. It would be like the way our seldom-used muscles grow tired fast."
"No," she said after a while. "I think you're wrong. Competition doesn't go on all the time. It can't."
He sighed. He turned around and pointed at the vines they'd left at the edge of the woods.
"Do these plants know they are in competition?" he asked.
"I doubt it."
"Maybe not. As you say, they might not be aware. But they're in competition regardless. All of us are, always, even if when competition is hidden from our view or even when we try to hide ourselves from it."