It is possible for a plant to sprout in one’s eye sustained by tears alone. I carried out this process using a begonia seed and a silicone punctal plug, a device that collects tears and is commonly prescribed to block the drainage of lachrymal fluid in individuals with dry eyes. I placed the seed within the plug’s cavity and inserted this into my lower right tear duct with a corresponding ophthalmological applicator. After two weeks of remaining still and indoors, the seed produced a miniscule sprout. I titled this process Inoculate, a term that is now used in the context of medical immunization, but which originally described the horticultural process of grafting a bud or shoot of one plant into another, deriving from the Latin root in oculus—in the eye.
At its core, Inoculate is an experiment with (and of) one’s self, in order to transform the eye into a site of corporeal integration with a seed. In his essay Nature (1836), U.S. Transcendentalist philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of himself as a transparent eyeball—“I am nothing, I see all”—to describe how the limits of the self can become lost in the observation of nature both vast and small. “The ruin or the blank,” pronounced Emerson, “that which we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye.” By placing a seed within the organ of vision, Inoculate aimed to dissolve normative conventions of physical boundaries of the body and externalized ideas of nature, creating the conditions from which to foster a sense of integrative subjectivity.
Begonias are among the horticultural flowering plants most widely sold by catalogue seed companies worldwide. Yet centuries before, the Aztecs already treated eye conditions with begonia roots (known in Nahuatl as Ohua-xocoyolin). The earliest depiction of a begonia is in the Libellus de medicinalibus indorum or the Badianus Codex (1552), the first herbal book of the Americas created by Juan Badiano and Martin de la Cruz, Xochimilca and Mexica scholars who survived the first wave of epidemics caused by the Spanish invasion. Approximately one hundred and fifty years after the initial decimation of indigenous communities in the Americas, the term “begonia” was coined by French botanist and Franciscan monk Charles Plumier after its colonialist extraction from present-day Haiti. However, African plant knowledge on begonias traveled through the Atlantic slave trade much earlier.
Prior to carrying out Inoculate, I was not aware that Begonia semperflorens—the specific species of begonia I used—was itself a hybrid strain. Only later did I learn that this species was the result of horticultural cross-breeding of plants from the Americas. Present-day cultivation of Begonia semperflorens began in 1825 after a fugitive sample arrived at the Botanischer Garten in Berlin amidst a package of other plant specimens sent from southern Brazil. Classified under its present binomial name by German botanists Christoph Friedrich Otto and Heinrich Friedrich Link, “wax begonias” are now one among hundreds of different species distributed across tropical and sub-tropical regions (although ultimately all Begoniaceae are of Africa origin). Barely larger than a particle of dust, these tiny seeds are sold in packets often holding thousands at a time.
Inoculate made use of a Begonia semperflorens seed because its size was slight enough to fit a silicone punctal plug, one of the smallest micro-molded, medical-grade prostheses available. This device collected the tears that allowed for hydroponic growth using the biofilm of my own eye. This repurposing of lachrymal fluid in Inoculate mirrors the incidental use of aqueous bodily secretions by Scottish physician Alexander Fleming in 1921. While examining bacteria in the laboratory, he allowed tears and mucus to drip into a petri dish. Shortly after, Fleming observed that the area where these had fallen was clear of microbial cultures. This serendipitous discovery led Fleming to identify lysozyme, an element in the complex microscopic profile of enzymes, lipids, and minerals in tear film and may have helped sustain the begonia seed during Inoculate.
As with Fleming’s investigations, Inoculate was also a form of embodied research that rendered the eye into a culture medium. Using one’s own body for the purposes of invention can be considered within the historical tradition of self-experimentation. Practitioners from different fields in art and science alike have long tested hypotheses, prototypes, and treatments on themselves, achieving discoveries as the first volunteer of their particular explorations. From the outset, Inoculate was framed as a self-experiment in ocular germination—an attempt to place a “germ” in my lacrimal anatomy to see if it would grow. This visual image harkens to early diagrams by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius in De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543), whose deconstructed illustrations of the eye emphasize the common Latin etymological root of “lens” and “lentil.”
Unquestionably, Inoculate was an experience of heightened physical awareness and synesthetic effects caused by the modification of my visual and bodily faculties. I did not wear glasses during the duration of the process, an external prosthesis I have relied on from a young age to compensate for acute myopia. Instead, I favored the use of a perforated eye shield. This was to prevent myself from inadvertently touching my eye and dislodging the seed, as well as to provide the Begonia semperflorens with mottled light, a recommended condition to encourage sprouting. I did not intend for this wearable safeguard to become a screen. Yet even with my limited visibility, I found myself enjoying how the pinholes could focus eyesight and reshape my domestic landscape, a visual enclosure that paralleled my broader reclusion indoors.
Throughout the duration of Inoculate, I faced a skylight in my apartment that provided autumn daylight. Only rarely was the sun so intense that I had to close my eyes or turn my gaze away. Yet favoring light capture meant I would see very little during this process. “The privilege to scrutinize was scarce upon my eyes,” wrote the nineteenth-century U.S. poet Emily Dickinson. I was not able to visibly discern my surroundings, which I recognized mostly from spatial memory. But I gradually became more aware of the fluctuations of light throughout the day—what U. S. literary theorist Angus Fletcher labelled “diurnal knowledge”, or the recognition of one’s bodily rhythms in connection to the sun’s presence and absence. I also remember the glimmer of the full moon, which on one occasion felt even stronger than actual sunshine.
From the moment I implanted the Begonia semperflorens in my tear duct opening, I lay down on a table layered with blankets, a makeshift bed which offered elevated exposure to the window above. Time began to feel more fluid. The most substantial memory I have of Inoculate was growing accustomed to this position, of how to stare and wait in place. I moved very little, standing up periodically to drink water, have some light food, and use the lavatory, although these interruptions were infrequent. More common were intrusions of sound; the less I tried to see, the more I was able to hear. I became more sensitive to my hearing threshold. Minimal sounds such as the vibrations from the refrigerator, the tinkling of the heating pipes, the murmur of neighbors talking, or the weight of footsteps in the staircase outside became starkly amplified.
After the first week of Inoculate, I allowed myself to make intermittent inspections in the mirror. I had no direct feeling of intracorporeal plant growth. In actual fact, it was impossible to trace any progress with the seed at all. Only on the twelfth day did a diminutive glimpse of green appear—a delicate stem with a small leaf emerging from the rim of my eyelid, rising to photosynthesize. I immediately began to document myself with a camera I had at my disposal. This successful outcome brought an overwhelming feeling of exuberance, one that has diminished little since. Inoculate prompted an intimate proximity with nature through the ocular germination of a seed: a living unit that U.S. historian Courtney Fullilove refers to as a “deep-time technology” capable of sprouting even in dislocation.
Soon after this discovery, I became aware that my repeated blinking and the weight of my eyelid was flattening the fragile plumule. This, along with the restricted dimensions of the silicone punctal plug, would not allow the seedling room for further cycles of ocular growth. I took a final photograph of the begonia sprout and removed the plug with the ophthalmological applicator used for its original placement. Outside of my eye, what now became also visible was the seed’s radicle, a root tendril clustered snugly underneath the small stem in the interior chamber of the plug. The culmination of Inoculate was at once an ending and the beginning of a new stage for the project to communicate ocular germination—an experience that poses more enduring alterations to one’s sense of self than those apparent at first glance—to others.