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  • Sherin Thomas

Mono no aware, Life awakens Again

Written for Ours, Scientifica for the NUS Science Journalism Club

There is a feeling of awe tinged with sadness and beauty that manifests when one recognizes the ephemeral nature of things and the existential transience of life. You feel it as the serenity of night is broken by the cry of a nightingale or as you see the last leaf about to drop, leaving behind a cold, barren tree – a tragically lonely sight. It’s a feeling that comes when a pleasant party or celebration draws to an end, when a beautiful, full blossom of sakura flowers which blooms intensely for the briefest of moments lay like a layer of soft, pink snow on the ground, wilted, decayed or trampled upon. It is the ache you feel when seasons change, or even when you miss your family and loved ones. That moment captures both what is sorrowful and beautiful about life.

This warm feeling in your heart is called mono no aware. A complicated and challenging Japanese concept-metaphor to put into words, mono no aware can be translated as the “the bittersweet poignancy of things” or the “ahhness of things”. Its roots are embedded in Shinto beliefs and it is also influenced by Buddhist principles. The phrase can be translated in the following way. Mono means “things”, no denotes the thing which an object possesses, and aware means emotions or ‘feelings’. Simply put, mono no aware is the quiet, seamless resignation to nature’s unfolding. It is the notion of accepting the impermanence of life and acknowledging the beauty in perishability, and it stems from an intrinsic awareness that all life will eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon. The inevitable nature of the finitude of existence is contrasted with the never-ending streams of change in life which continues to exist despite the constant death of objects and experience. This notion, while a profound source of sadness, also gives our experiences a singular beauty and mingles our experiences of emotions like joy and gratitude with an agreeable and bittersweet melancholy. Such melancholy, rather than causing signs of desperate nihilism, is a call to appreciate beauty and life while it lasts and to engage in animated, vital activities in the present moment. We exist ephemerally and the recognition of this impermanence is therefore bittersweet, tinged with grief and pain, and yet it is also accompanied by the realization of the beauty that exists in change itself.

In the current Covid-19 pandemic we are experiencing, it is hard not to think of an instance we have not felt mono no aware. When we see empty stadiums which were packed with cheering crowds only months ago, when we see empty, silent streets that were once filled with bustling activities and the sea of people moving about their lives or when we see the death counts rise when receive our daily update about this pandemic, there is a strange pang of sadness and melancholy and pain that comes from the recognition of the finitude of life that inevitably shades the other emotions we feel daily. As we recognize the fragility of our experience, we begin to revel in our newfound aching desire for the impermanence produced by things living in uncertainty. When we learn that life is lived through fleeting moments of beauty that will soon vanish, how much greater the desire to more fully enjoy them in the given time we have them? And each moment we move on from these experiences, we find that life awakens again.

These thoughts were in my head when I was recently reading a paper published in the journal New Phytologist about the subtle, profound, deeply fascinating things flowers do after suffering an injury. To summarise the finding, when flowers suffer an injury that shifts them from their ideal pollination position, they right themselves by rotating various flower parts through peduncle bending, pedicel bending, pedicel rotation, and bending/twisting of sexual organs and thereby restoring themselves to their original positions. You might think that this is self-evident and an obvious observation to make. Of course, flowers would attempt to shift their positions back to their optimal arrangement on the plant to improve pollination! You might be taken aback to find that this is the first documented instance where the responses of flowers to accidents have been reported. It is also the result of a decade of work by ecologists Scott Armbruster and Nathan Muchhala. As they write in their paper, while countless studies have been made on how animals adapt for survival and fitness by recovering from many mechanical injuries, less emphasis has been placed on how plants respond to mechanical stresses and injuries. It is also rather distressing to find that “virtually no research has addressed the response to accidents involving flowers” even though “flowering stalks are often subject to accidental collapse, as when a scape blows down in the wind or coarse litter falls onto a stem, causing irreversible bending without severing the vascular system”.

That is quite an oversight.

Such events, as the authors note, tend to push the flowers in orientations that are not amenable for pollination, even if the flowers are otherwise unharmed. It is a fact, long-established by naturalists such as Darwin and Sprengel, that the orientation of flowers relative to the gravitational pull is an adaptive trait and is important for pollination as the ability to fly pollinators to land on flowers and their movement is influenced greatly by the position of the flower relative to gravitational lines of force. Papers have also shown that flowers oriented in an optimum position have higher visitation rates by pollinators as compared to misoriented flowers and reduces the likelihood of visitation by resource thieves and poor pollinators.

To elaborate further, there are two ways in which floral misorientation can reduce the reproductive fitness of the plant. Firstly, misorientation of the flower causes the pollinator to land in an inappropriate orientation relative to the position of the flower, thereby reducing the efficiency of pollination because the stigma of the flower makes contact with an incorrect position relative to the average expected place of pollen placement in other flowers of the same species. Secondly, the misorientation of pollinators also have reduced access to nectar, thereby reducing the “attractiveness” of the flowers to pollination, or because the pollen from the anthers of the flower is placed in an incorrect location on the pollination as compared to the expected location on the pollinators where other flowers of the species typically make contact. To put it simply, the reproductive fitness, or the ability of the flower to pass on their genes to subsequent generations, is lowered. As such, the adaptive accuracy of flowers concerning pollination can be used to understand the effect of floral orientation on the reproductive success of the plant.

If accurate positioning of a flower is indeed important for the reproductive success of the plant, it would then stand to reason that plants would have evolved some mechanism to properly orient the flowers if it becomes wrongly oriented by an accident or an injury, at least in plants with flowers that last long enough for the reorientation mechanism to manifest.

It should be noted that this adaptation would only be present in flowers that are to be kept in a horizontal position to be pollinated, as compared to flowers kept in other kinds of positions.

Take a look at these flowers.

Figure 1. A radially symmetrical clematis flower. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2. A radially symmetrical toad lily. Notice how the bees can pollinate the flower from many directions. See the arrows.

These flowers are considered to be radially symmetrical, which means that any line drawn through the center of the flower will divide it into two halves. In these flowers, pollinators can land on them from many directions and angles. The authors reasoned that the attenuation in the reproductive fitness of the plant is relatively lower as compared to bilateral flowers which depend on a specific orientation for pollinators to land on. These flowers, as can be seen here, have a single line of symmetry that runs down the middle of the flower, parallel to lines of gravity.

Figure 3. A bilaterally symmetrical larkspur. Notice how the bee has only one place to land on the flower.

As such, it is proposed that bilaterally symmetrical flowers would be able to better respond to injuries that misorients the flower and knock them out of the orientation that optimally ensures pollination and engages in corrective mechanisms to reorient their flowers. This is because bilaterally symmetrical flowers generally have more accurate stigma contact and pollen placement on pollinators. Such mechanisms would thus restore the adaptive accuracy of the misaligned flowers and improve the reproductive fitness of the plant. Armbruster and Muchhala tested this hypothesis by either observing what happens to a flower after it suffers an injury in the wild (for instance, after a tree branch falls on a flower and misorients it) or by recreating this artificially by tying the flowers down and then photographing its flowers every six hours. They did for both 23 species of radially and bilaterally symmetrical flowers, from the bellflowers and heath in the cloud forests of Ecuador to the trigger plants of Australia to buttercups in Alaska.

There were two key findings in the paper. Radially symmetrical plants observed in the study, as the authors note, “had little capacity to reorient their flowers” after mechanical injuries relative to bilaterally or laterally symmetrical flowers, which indicates that in the evolutionary history of these plants, they did not need to do engage in these corrective mechanisms to improve their reproductive fitness. Additionally, the paper notes that there were generally four mechanisms in which flowers realign themselves and they are peduncle bending, pedicel bending, pedicel rotation, and bending/twisting of sexual organs. Some flowers may utilize two or more of these mechanisms to reorient their flowers.

Figure 4. A bilaterally symmetrical geranium flower that twists itself to reorient the flower in its optimum position. Source: New Phytologist

This paper is thus a reassuringly novel study on the delicately careful dance of evolution. For millions of years, plants have to deal with all sorts of random injuries and accidents that affect their chances of survival and reproduction. Those that managed to adapt to the accidents can survive and better pass on their genes. Strangely, it is also a love letter of sorts to Darwin who studied extensively on how a flower is optimized for pollination and reported on their co-evolving relationship which exists pervasively in the wild. He would watch how the bees would land on scarlet kidney bean plants and climb the petal of its flowers to reach the nectar. He noted how the pollen-bearing organs of the flower were always in an optimum position for deposition on the pollinator. It was a beautifully simple co-dependent relationship: the flowers depended on the bees for pollination and the bees depended on the flowers for food. This observation led to his prediction that an orchid with a deep well of nectar was pollinated by an insect with a longer tongue-like proboscis to reach the nectar. His prediction later turned out to be true. As Darwin wrote, “Thus I can understand how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneous or one after the other, modified and adapted most perfectly to each other, by the continued preservation of individuals presenting mutual and slightly favorable deviations of structure”. Sound familiar?

There are some caveats to the paper though. Out of the 350, 000 (at least) species of plants that exist on Earth, only 23 species of plants have been sampled, of which only 3 species of flowers exhibit radial symmetry. This severely limits how far the data can be extrapolated, even amongst bilaterally symmetrical flowers. In the future, the number of species sampled can be extended to a broader range of flowering species. Also, the extent to which reorientation increases the visitation rate of pollinators on reoriented flowers versus that of the flowers that remain misaligned can be explored. After all, science, at its most romantic, is an exciting exploration, a quest that you can join by keeping your eyes open.

Mono no aware. Is it strange to say that the simple beauty of the flower that has suffered a loss and responded in kind with resilience and tenacity has an allure that I've never noticed before? Every bend, groove, and twist is a reminder of the unavoidable transience of the world that exists. A quiet melancholy is attached to the way the flower, constantly beset by injuries and afflictions, strives to reorient itself in a hostile, impermanent world. There is also an odd sense of awe when observing the resilience of the seemingly fragile plant. Just as the plant accepts the ephemerality of life as it is, it also mounts adaptive measures to strive for rectification and improvement and we, through observing the ways in which the flowers partake in this process of change, recognise the beauty of change itself. That is mono no aware and it happens when life awakens again.

Nothing lasts forever. Not the floral orientation on the plant, not the cherry blossoms that are blooming when many of us feel that we are not. The beauty we experience in every moment of life will never be the same. It will end. It will pass. But that’s okay because life changes and it heralds the arrival of new beauty, perhaps of a different kind, that is yet to come because life awakens again.

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