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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

The life-giving act of diffusion is a beauty to behold – not just for humans, but also for plants.
2018-07-25 00:00:00
Urszula Zajączkowska

Hidden Rivers

Hidden Rivers

The panicked scream that human beings emit as they emerge from those life-giving waters at the start of their land-based existence has to mean something. Why do we cry so desperately at the precise moment that we swap a liquid environment for a gaseous one; when we take a first handful of air into our empty lungs?

Air, as a diffused form of matter, is light and soft enough for us to simply inhale, to take in, to directly mix with our bloody and damp insides its very molecules: oxygen, carbon dioxide and water. That unbearable lightness of air causes a number of earth-crawling life forms real problems, due to a property that one might call magical, though is in fact – excusez le mot – completely physical. Diffusion rulez OK! Now there’s a phrase we should see graffitied all over the walls of the land. But we won’t, because it stinks too richly of scientific thought to work as a popular slogan.

Diffusion can be both beautiful music and a fantastic blend of colours. It is a balancing of intensities, a molecular French Revolution, an even defragmentation of the microscopic particles all around us. And it makes room for everyone. It doesn’t need a dose of energy to get going; just the vibrations that its own particles produce – Brownian motion – in the thermodynamic streams of the world’s energies. Diffusion takes place all by itself and is therefore hard to stop. It also happens at a dangerous pace – the rate with which gasses diffuse in the air is 10,000 times faster than in water. All that lives on land hides and shields itself from it. Under skin, bark, fats and scales; below hair, fur and waxes. I don’t want to overplay diffusion’s effectiveness too much, because in the case of a body made of hydrated, compressed matter (such as a leaf or a hand or a stem or an eye or a root) it always involves loss, evaporation and escaping particles, among which water matters the most.

The fact that a tree has a dry texture, that the fruit of an orange is shut up inside a spongy shell, and that we ourselves are rather fat-filled and skin-covered – when we fuse everything together, nothing spurts, nothing leaks, and yet everything within is soaked in water – this all shows how hard we work to protect our inner liquids. There is no denying that we, the living, are mostly walking-solution-containers. In the case of plants, which lack the mobility to search for springs to sip from, water had to establish a system of complex interior transportation routes. These were designed in accordance with even more complicated plans dreamt up by the process we call morphology.

Water is the medium that gives life to plants, in which other substances are dissolved, their make-up dependent on where water flows, where it finds itself. If it fills a leaf, then the sun will infect it, hitting it with a beam of precise photons; stirring up dyes and extracting water with sugar molecules. Then, sweet and probably warm, water will flow into every cell that needs glucose as energy – the cell in its living form. This stream of life-giving substances does not flow passively. It is controlled, organized and utilized – plants put the effort in to deliver sugar and further their own growth. These energy streams are channelled in phloem cells, found just beneath the palm of your hand when you place it against the bark of a tree. In young beech or fir trees, phloem cells are a few millimetres; in a violet flower, they are half a millimetre. They are alive, which means that they age. Our veins have similar cells. One way or another, they exfoliate inside, though their form and geometry remain unchanged. Phloem dies from old age in trees, or is crushed by the wooden cylinder growing from within. The branches, roots and tree trunk are actually growing all the time, creating new routes for water to be transported along, strengthening their construction in order to lift the light-thirsty crown and tie it with invisible strings of water from the roots.

This all started somewhere too, with the primal shuddering of hidden rivers of flora. For me, this first moment of water moving towards the delicate, juice-filled leaves as they emerge from buds and, almost straight away, become exposed to dry air with a sweeping explosion, impatient diffusion doing what it does best – this moment is truly moving and intimate. Every new leaf must at some point take its first breath. And it does so, come a springtime day.


Translated by Marek Kazmierski

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Urszula Zajączkowska

Urszula Zajączkowska

is a poet, artist and botanist. As a scientist, she researches the anatomy, biomechanics and aerodynamics of plants. As a visual artist, she creates short films. She has published two volumes of poetry: “Atomy” and “Minimum”. Some call her a conscious poet of nature.