A catchy and heartfelt folk song with a charming video and a scientific process in the title: It’s hard not to love Frank Turner’s Photosynthesis.
Turner is usually described as a folk/punk singer, having had his start in the English hardcore band Million Dead. He’s built his own career, though, on a more folk-influenced style of straightforward, honest songwriting. The lyrics to Photosynthesis, from his 2008 release Love, Ire & Song, are a great example, urging a sense of wonder and youthful spirit in the face of others giving in to a version of adulthood defined by settling and giving up on things you once loved. The perception that Maturity’s a wrapped-up package deal or so it seems, ditching teenage fantasy means ditching all your dreams is countered with a shout: I won’t sit down, and I won’t shut up, and most of all I won’t “grow up”.
And that’s where the kids in the video come in. It’s hard to take your eyes off them expressing equal parts wonder and skepticism as only six year olds can. The spirit of the song is well captured as their faces light up assembling the hi-hat cymbal or trying the drums for the first time. And just when you thought the whole thing was as charming as possible, there’s more. I chatted with Turner when he stopped in Edmonton this week, and with a sweet smile he explained, “It’s my mum who’s in that video. The lady in the pink, that’s my mum. She’s a primary school teacher.” Yes, the one beaming with pride. She arranged for permission from the parents and invited Turner and his band to lead workshops for the roughly thirty kids in her class, introducing them to guitar, drums, bass and violin. We get the pleasure of watching the results.
That still leaves the question of photosynthesis. This obviously isn’t a song about the chemical reactions that take place in plants’ chloroplasts, not directly anyway (unlike the They Might be Giants Song of the same name). The opening of the bridge, the climax of the song, holds the clue.
And if all you ever do with your life is photosynthesize, then you’ll deserve every hour of your sleepless nights that you waste wondering when you’re going to die.
It may be a bit surprising to see photosynthesis referenced negatively. It’s a fascinating and complex process. Turner was a little worried about that too when I asked, but he shared the deeper meaning he was after in using the metaphor, “Well, now you’re now going to castigate my low opinion of plants but it just means a method of existence that’s essentially passive, a way of being where you just kind of take in things around you and turn out things without really ever becoming an animal.” He added with a laugh, “I think I’ve just followed this analogy further than I’ve ever followed it before.”
Turner’s not alone in his perception of plants. In Life on Air: David Attenborough’s 50 Years in Television the former Head of BBC’s Natural History Unit, Keith Scholey, recalls the discussions that led up to the series The Private Life of Plants. Scholey wanted to do an ecology series about both animals and plants with plants playing a background role, “Plants, we thought, needed to come into the equation, but you can’t do too much on them because they don’t move. They’re a bit dull.” He was shocked when, over a lunch meeting, Attenborough was able to convince them to produce a six-hour series solely about plants.
There are surely many plant biologists who would disagree with the idea that plants are passive. David Attenborough obviously does too. Plants go to great lengths, exhibiting surprising strength and a variety of strategies, to actively create the best possible conditions for their photosynthetic leaves.
Picking apart the metaphor, though, isn’t the point. It’s a great song that’s really less about what plants are like and more about what does and should define us as humans, especially adult humans. Don’t give in and accept passively the parts of adult life that can become habitual, almost instinctual. Remember to exercise the choice to act out, to shout, to be curious and loud.
And just in case you were really concerned about Turner’s views of plants, he reassured me that he actually has a t-shirt with the chemical equation for photosynthesis. It was a Christmas gift from his brother-in-law, an atmospheric chemist who apparently also likes the song.