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Tolstoy on wildflowers and other plants ­— and today

A moving reminiscence about man’s relationship to nature opens one of the less well known novels of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.
The scene in Hadji Murat seems worth relating, remarkably relevant to the trends in threatened plant and animal life in our time.
In the novel, an old man is walking through a typical Russian farm scene. The first hay cut is over, farmers are beginning to reap the rye, the meadows are blooming with new flowers.
The man picks a nosegay to take home — “milk-white ox-eye daisies with their yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip shaped; cornflowers, bright blue in the sunshine; almond-scented dodder flowers” and others, lovingly described as he picks them.
He notices “a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson kind” in a ditch and sets to work to pluck it.
It resists: the stalk pricks on every side, even through the handkerchief the old man has wrapped around his hand.
After his nearly five-minute effort, “breaking the fibers one by one,” the flower is all frayed, no longer seeming “so fresh and beautiful.”
He throws it away “feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed it.”
His musings about the thistle and other plant life continue.
“What energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!” he ponders.
He must cross ploughed fields belonging to a landed proprietor, of such large size and so well furrowed that, as hard as he looks round “for some living thing in this lifeless black field, there is not a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen.”
To the right of the road he finds another little clump of the thistle, crushed by a cart wheel.
Two of its three branches are broken, one sticking out “like the stump of a mutilated arm,” the other hanging down “with a soiled flower at its tip.”
The third still stands erect, although “twisted to one side as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, and its bowels drawn out.”
Although its brothers around it have all been destroyed, this one hasn’t surrendered.
“What energy,” the old man remarks at conclusion of the scene.
“Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.”
The most recent Red List Index for Plants indicates that 22 percent of all wild plant species face extinction, as do one in five of the world’s mammals and one in eight birds.
This year’s 252 candidates — American plants and animals proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as needing protection ­— include more than 20 from Tennessee.
One would wish that these, the whorled sunflower, Short’s bladder pod and fringeless white orchid among them, like Tolstoy’s thistle, can resist the destructive forces that now take down one or other of the non-human earthlings every few minutes.
Nov. 20 is the centennial of Tolstoy’s death.