How to tell when something is alive

Re-Evaluating Vitalism As A Modality of Perception

The science on the subject of Life has shifted positions back and forth over the years. From vitalism, and its accompanying “life force” or elan vital

All the way through to the notion of the virus as a kind of non-cellular life

For me, practical experience has yielded a far greater wealth of information on the subject than any scientific literature that I’ve so far seen.

Here in the early part of the growing season (before it’s hot enough to grow most outdoor crops in Quebec), a large part of my business involves growing microgreens for sale in bulk to local restaurants. A microgreen is really just a seedling, except that I typically grow hundreds or thousands of them at a time in 11"x22" black plastic horticultural flats, with between 1–2 oz. of seeds, depending on variety.

The ideal life cycle of this product goes: soaking the seeds over-night > sowing them into the soil > growing them out for between 7–10 days > cutting the stems for harvest > delivery to restaurants > waste matter fed to pigs or chickens

These plants are not alive for a long time, and consequently, I am always in the midst of more or less all phases of the planting and harvesting cycle. As a result, I’ve become increasingly aware of the vitality of my crops — and perhaps even the “life force.”

Perhaps our science will one day be advanced enough to encompass it, but for now this is largely an intuitive and situational knowledge based on experience and observation. 10 days of growing done in controlled conditions of basically the same few species of plants does not throw you a lot of curve-balls. After a very short while, you eventually figure out how to succeed with very few problems (knock-on-wood). I kept a lot more notes at first, but now it seems less important. It’s down to basically, I soak & sow on these days, I harvest and deliver on these days, and in between I usually water the flats after I take my shower at the end of the work day.


In my time tending to thousands of little seedlings, I often wonder about the “animating force” driving all of this activity.

My life, the lives of my customers, the lives of the plants, the lives of the chickens and the pigs I give my cuttings and used soil to. What’s it all for? How to make sense of it all?

The best arrangement for this kind of microgreens business is having regular clients buying from you every week. But a lot of places I sell to do a small volume of business, or else just buy my product for the say-so to be able to include a local luxury item on their menu. So for them, it doens’t always make sense to buy every week from me — especially after I told them the good secrets to conserving harvested microgreens (dry, cold, closed container). And some of them have started purchasing every other week, and holding my product for up to two weeks in their cold storage.

For me, this is a bit outside the purpose of why I’m growing such a fresh product. I’d rather not store for two weeks and then serve a product which was never even “alive” to begin with for two full weeks. There’s something strange about it, something that strikes me more as intuitively wrong, or aesthetically unappealing — almost like a sour note or a bad lyric in an otherwise halfway-decent song.

But science can’t address this kind of thing, as it’s completely thrown out vitalism or anything linked to it — as Wikipedia decries it, an “obsolete scientific doctrine”, or in more modern parlance, woo.

We’re only allowed to talk about objectively measurable quantities. Nutritional values, chemical relationships. Taste is subjective, and therefore basically without value, unless it can be shown to directly impact ROI.

We accept that “life” exists and seems to operate according to certain behavioral parameters, but like electricity, we’re loathe to admit: we don’t really even know what it is.

If a virus is potentially a kind of non-cellular life — a life that exists outside of cellular structures, could that mean that “life” as a generality exists also outside of cells? Perhaps it’s “meta-”. It exists around cells and organs and organisms and ecosystems. And it passes through them like rain, and is transformed as it touches the processes initiated by those cells, organs and organisms?

I have a habit of trying to feed my cut trays with roots, seeds, trimmed stalks and soil of microgreens immediately after harvest to my animals. “Science” could perhaps be bent to say that such a practice is, at best, superstitious — that a few hours, or days even, won’t change much. But the grower knows differently. The grower sees the ebb and flow of life through organisms, and can easily sense — in a way no known instrument can — that feeding plants freshly cut to animals will impart the most “life” to the animals who will eat them. It’s obvious, but is it scientific?


And what about the so-called sixth sense?

Sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. Those are drilled into us in school as they form the base of our objective toolset for navigating shared social space: culture, society, civilization.

But what about those things we just know? Or those things we can somehow inexplicably feel, or sense? Cheerleaders of conventional “science” are happy to stamp such talk out in a dance of self-congratulatory skepticism. But we all experience strange things all the time that fall outside the boundry of what’s supposed to be “real.” Many of us have learned to shut off entire swaths of experiential states because they cannot be scientifically proven. But experience itself offers its own kind of “proof.”

I’ve noticed something in the behavior of chickens. It is slight, and I accept the probable brush-offs by those who will say it’s just an over-active imagination wishful thinking, false attribution or extrapolation on my part — but when I throw them handfuls of garden waste (weeds, etc) or kitchen scraps, they seem to have zeroed in on the “high value” items before they’ve hit the ground. Egg shells. Worms or insects in the roots of some weeds. They seem to know what is coming almost as soon as it leaves my hands. I’ve tried throwing fake decoy debris. They don’t go for it. Their attention zips off quickly. They might come back around and scratch through it for fun later, but it’s not that killer instint/moment of predatorial recognition that food is at hand and they must strike before their flock-mates.

I’m not saying that chickens have ESP. Probably they have an extremely high “frame rate” and level of motion detection in their “onboard computer” that allows them to make very rapid series of micro-calculations on their incoming sensory data and take appropriate actions based on them. We do too to some limited extent, but it seems self-evident that the POV experience of being a chicken is different form the experience of being a human. And yet certain things link us: things related to this tenuous thread we call Life.


I know people “like that” won’t believe me when I say that I’ve been able to touch objects and natural entities and through this physical interface acquire information about the “life force” of that entity. That is, at times I can tell if it is alive and if it is healthy…

Not all the time, but sometimes. When I am “tuned in.”

Science doesn’t seem to support such a viewpoint. And yet gardening, animal husbandry, and the business of being a living human does. How strange!

Maybe it’s time to revisit vitalism, the notion of a “life force” as not just a woo-woo concept, but as something central to the actual experience of being a being, of being alive, and standing in the stream and being a bridge for life to pass through.


Author & farmer Timothy Boucher is practicing an alternative form of small-scale agriculture in Quebec.