Light Gaps

It’s amazing the things a plant will do to try to get more light. I’ve noticed, for example, that where I live–where days on end can pass during the winter months without a verifiable sighting of the sun–houseplants will turn their leaves toward any last scrap of light the sky’s gray ceiling grudgingly lets through, contorting themselves with what looks like either stubborn determination or blind instinct till they’ve soaked up as much light as the day will give. I’ve seen it outside, too, when the weather grows warmer and the Morning Glories that climb the trellis by the walkway spread wide their spherical faces to receive the sun’s kiss each morning and then, at day’s end, curl in on themselves and bow quietly in honor of the sun’s impending departure.

Further away from home, I’ve seen it while driving past field after golden field of sunflowers in South Dakota, each plant’s regally crowned head turned in tandem toward the sun, tracking its movement across the sky with rapt attention. And I have seen it when walking through the woods. A tree will stop at practically nothing to get closer to any particle of light it can possibly get to, even if it means wrenching its trunk into the most convoluted and contorted shapes imaginable, all in a last-ditch effort to get over or under or around whatever obstacle stands between it and the light. Even individual leaves on a tree, I’m told, will adapt their shape and orientation over time to take advantage of available light. When a light gap appears–the opening in the leaf canopy that’s left after a mature tree falls–it’s impossible to predict how many plants of how many untold varieties will crowd in and bask in the sun-drenched plot, like a flock of eager beach-goers.

“Heliotropism” is the scientific name for this kind of solar-centric behavior, behavior that in some sense represents nothing more than brute reflex, evidence of a biological need so fundamental that its denial would mean the difference between life and death. Plants need light, so they move toward it. End of story.

But what if there’s more? What if the purposeful twisting and turning of organisms that I tend to think of as passive and inert tells an even richer, more eloquent story than my modern, empirically oriented sensibilities will allow? What if Origen and (later) Aquinas were on to something when, in their interpretation of scripture, they posited not only a literal sense but also multiple spiritual senses that layered upon one another to suggest a complex world of truth that resided in any given biblical text? Perhaps the same complex world of truth exists, and awaits our interpretation, in the created order.

Of the multiple spiritual senses that ancient biblical interpreters perceived, the moral or “tropological” sense would seem to have been the one that most directly addressed the practical relevance of the text for the reader’s life. From the Greek noun tropos, meaning “the way in which a person behaves or lives,” whose verb form trophe means “the process of turning” or simply “change,” the tropological sense of scripture had to do with the practical day-to-day realities of what it meant to live in the light of God’s truth.

What to make, then, of those heliotropic marvels, those sun-turners, like the Morning Glory that finds the sun and follows it, without wavering, till dusk falls, and then rests in preparation to do it all over again the next day, light willing? What of the tree that bends its very body just to get into a better patch of light? What of the common houseplant whose light-seeking ways are less obvious but no less real? (They require an occasional turn of the pot, after all!) Brute reflex and biological need, indeed–but there is more.

The tropological sense lies somewhere beneath the surface of things, inviting our careful observation and reflection, our wide-eyed wonder, even our incredulity. If only we will turn, and see.

Arika Theule-Van Dam lives in Allendale, Michigan, and works as a project editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press.