Plants As Persons

Plant as person

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Viviana Couto Sayalero, rigel, Vadim L, and Ahmet Sali (CC0)

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December 19, 2020

Over the past decade, plant scientists have quietly transformed the way we think of trees, forests and plants. They discovered that trees communicate through vast underground networks, that plants learn and remember. If plants are intelligent beings, how should we relate to them? Do they have a place in our moral universe? Should they have rights?

Human identity cannot be separated from our nonhuman kin. From forest ecology to the human microbiome, emerging research suggests that being human is a complicated journey made possible only by the good graces of our many companions. In partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation, To The Best Of Our Knowledge is exploring this theme of "kinship" in a special radio series.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (left) and Anne Strainchamps (right)
Articles

Emerging science in everything from forest ecology to the microbiome is confirming that our relationship with plants and animals is deep. Ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer also draws on Native knowledge to explain our intimate relationships with plants.

Length: 
14:02
lonely plant
Audio

Once you acknowledge that plants are intelligent and sentient beings, moral questions quickly follow. Should they have rights? How can we think of plants as "persons"? Plant scientist Matt Hall sorts out these ideas with Steve.

Length: 
11:06
plant
Articles

Plants are intelligent beings with profound wisdom to impart—if only we know how to listen. And Monica Gagliano knows how to listen.

Length: 
15:48
The plants Brooke keeps on hand.
Sonic Sidebar

As a plant ecologist, Brooke Hecht knows plants. But then a few years ago, while at a professional conference, her young daughter who'd tagged along got sick. And that's when the healing powers of plants came to the rescue.

Length: 
8:03
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December 19, 2020
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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps (00:06):

Every day, we see dozens of other living beings. Humans, yes, but also dogs, birds, trees, insects. All our fellow creatures on this planet. Now what if we considered all of them persons?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (00:24):

Human people are only one kind of person. There are maple people, right? And there are oriole people and there are cloud people. And that changes everything.

Anne Strainchamps (00:41):

This is Robin Wall Kimmerer, plant scientist, award-winning writer and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. And this is her land. Seven acres in the southern hills of Onondaga County, New York, near the Finger Lakes.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (00:58):

We could walk up here if you've got a minute.

Anne Strainchamps (00:59):

Yeah. I'd love to.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (00:59):

So, I grow a big vegetable garden that I can eat out of most of the year and then the rest of my seven acre piece, I honestly think of as a garden as well. That's an old field and a little patch of woods and a pond and springs, almost a self-sufficient landscape.

Anne Strainchamps (01:33):

[inaudible 00:01:33] What are those?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (01:36):

They're little green herons.

Anne Strainchamps (01:38):

Oh.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (01:39):

They've nested here for years and their babies make these just awful squawk-y noises, so that's who we're hearing.

Anne Strainchamps (01:46):

I like that.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (01:46):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (01:48):

Robin calls this a generous landscape.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (01:55):

A lot of edibles, lots of berries, cordage plants. I really like to do basketry. So, I have willows and red buds and I grow things like nettles and dogbane.

Anne Strainchamps (02:08):

Look how beautiful.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (02:10):

Isn't it beautiful? That is sweet grass. [inaudible 00:02:15] for secret plants. Just take it and rub it...

Anne Strainchamps (02:19):

Okay.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (02:19):

Between your fingers. Pretty soon, the fragrance of it will start to be released.

Anne Strainchamps (02:24):

Mmm. That lovely grassy smell.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (02:28):

Yeah. Most of the medicines that I like to use, I want to have growing here. Heal-all and raspberries, which is women's medicine. Agrimony, which is a wound healer. Yarrow, which is a fever reducer. So, that's why I think of the whole landscape as a garden.

Anne Strainchamps (02:53):

A garden and a pharmacy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (02:55):

A garden, a pharmacy, a library. Yeah. There's something inherent about these lands that make you feel taken care of. What else could you say? All of the food, medicine, teachings. It feels like a landscape that loves you back.

Anne Strainchamps (03:31):

We share the landscapes we call home with countless other beings. Trees, plants, birds, frogs. In many cultures, they're considered relatives, our more-than-human kin. And now, emerging science in everything from forest ecology to the microbiome is confirming that. So, what changes when you see the natural world as kin? Well, that's exactly what Robin Wall Kimmerer has been writing about for years. It was a hot July day, the summer before the pandemic, when Steve and I first saw her place. We sat together in her front yard under an enormous maple tree. Our dog and her cat circled our feet and we talked about the personhood of nature and why that concept matters.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (04:28):

As people, as persons, when the crops are a person, when the trees are a person, when that deer is a person, you can't just take, right? You have to show respect to that person. You have to ask permission and you have to negotiate a trade. There has to be reciprocity.

Steve Paulson (04:48):

Personhood also suggests agency. Intelligence, maybe? It suggests... I don't know. Consciousness? Does it?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (04:57):

When I see that that aspen tree is a person, I mean it in all those elements that you just mentioned, that, yes, this is a sentient being, a conscious being, a being with its own intelligence. You know, Western science tells us, "Oh, you must not anthropomorphize. I'm not anthropomorphizing. I'm botanizing. That aspen is its own kind of person. It's not like they're human people. They're aspen people.

Anne Strainchamps (05:23):

The maple, that beautiful maple over there? Is there a way to explain its personhood using Western scientific language or not?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (05:32):

So, could I prove to you with scientific instruments the sentience of this maple? No. But the science is moving absolutely in the direction to have us understand the intelligence of plants. There are, of course, emerging tools that tell you all about the electrochemical gradients in this maple and what they respond to and the way... The sophistication with which this tree senses, behaves, makes decisions that are so sophisticated and beyond our... Even our knowing.

Anne Strainchamps (06:07):

I love your concept that our society has become plant blind, that our grandparents could identify many more species of plants, just sitting here in the backyard, than their grandchildren. We can [crosstalk 00:06:23].

Robin Wall Kimmerer (06:24):

[crosstalk 00:06:24] It was a matter of survival. We are hard-wired to know plants. We have this taxonomic part of our brain which is so good at discerning one thing from the next. And of course, we had to. When you think about the hundreds of thousands of plants that there are, you had better not be plant blind. You had better know which one of those is medicine and which one will really give you a stomachache. So, absolutely. So much of us, who we are, is a legacy of needing to know plants. And it's just this eye blink of time in the Industrial Age that we have become plant blind.

Anne Strainchamps (07:03):

So, when you say plants are our relatives, you're actually saying genetically?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (07:09):

I'd have to look up and remember what the fraction of our DNA that we share, me and that maple tree right there. It's over 80%. The chlorophyll molecule that powers everything in the trees is so similar to your hemoglobin. For me, the... One of the most powerful kinds of relatedness is that, as I'm talking to you, the carbon dioxide that is coming out of my mouth is, seconds later, being made into sugar by our maple companion.

Anne Strainchamps (07:42):

Seconds?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (07:43):

Seconds. The air that we are breathing right now is their exhalation.

Anne Strainchamps (07:50):

Which means that we and the tree are one being in a way.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (07:55):

We are indeed.

Anne Strainchamps (07:56):

Hmm. For you, you've been studying the Potawatomi language, [inaudible 00:08:01], and some of this he said is embedded in the language.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (08:05):

It is. If we think, for example, of that great [inaudible 00:08:10] climbing on that pole over there, I would say to you, "Hey Steve, look at it." Right? If Anne was over, they'd say, "Look at her." We have a different language for each other, but all of nature gets termed it. And in English, we have no escape from that. It is the manifestation of the worldview which objectifies nature. And in Anishinaabe [inaudible 00:08:40], it is not possible to speak of that robin or that strawberry as an it. It is not possible because we speak with a grammar of animacy.

Anne Strainchamps (08:52):

Is there an animate case and an inanimate case?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (08:55):

Exactly. Exactly. And it's a verb-based language, so... One of my favorite examples is that you hear the wind with an animate verb, but if an airplane went over, we would hear it with an inanimate verb.

Anne Strainchamps (09:13):

Oh. So, there are cases for the verbs, too? Animate and inanimate verbs?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (09:16):

Well, most of our language is verbs. It's about 70% of the Anishinaabe [inaudible 00:09:22] is verbs and 70% of English is nouns.

Steve Paulson (09:27):

Could I follow up on some of the language that we use to express notions of kinship? I know you have sort of been exploring that notion of even what the word kin means. And can you talk about that?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (09:39):

I was doing kind of a thought experiment about how we might animate English, and with the guidance of my language teacher and elder, I was looking for another pronoun that we could use and he gave to me... He said, "Well, the word in our language for just a being is [inaudible 00:10:00]." And "aki" means the earth and that little sound, key, I've been suggesting we could use as a replacement for it. So, when we look at that grapevine, we say "Key is climbing the fence." And it slides right next to he and she. He, she and key. And I played with that idea for a long time and then, realizing that you need plurals and that we already had that beautiful word in English of kin. And it's so happy-making, isn't it?

Anne Strainchamps (10:33):

Oh, yeah. You think about a flock of birds migrating and there go our kin.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (10:38):

Exactly. I'm going to go up in the fields and be with my kin and see if they'll give me some berries. It just changes your whole orientation and we think about how we do this. We walk through the world saying, "That's a pine." Well, would I say of my neighbor, "That's a human."

Anne Strainchamps (10:58):

How did we...? How did we forget all of this? The language and the worldview that you're describing were here for millennia, probably, before European settlers showed up.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (11:13):

This change in worldview was not a passive forgetting, was it? This change of worldview from the industrial, colonial, frontier mindset to overlay the indigenous way of knowing was no accident. It was very, very deliberate, and of course it was. If you came into a world where you saw that those pines were people, teachers, ones who are giving you medicine, who are caring for you, would you come in and claim every damn one of them for the King of England? Would you put his mark on them? Would you devastate the landscape? It was a genocide of pines in our way of thinking and it's tied to this notion of human exceptionalism, that we're at the top of this pyramid of intelligence, of spirituality, of resources, of any way you cut it. Human beings, according to Western religions and Western economies, are at the top. Everything else belongs to us.

Anne Strainchamps (12:16):

And speaking of plants, plants are often at the bottom. What would indigenous teachings...? Where would indigenous teaching place plants?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (12:23):

Plants are understood as among the most revered of beings and my Haudenosaunee neighbors have the beautiful language for this. They say that human people are the younger brothers of creation. We are some of the last ones to come here. We're still trying to figure out how to live here, obviously.

Anne Strainchamps (12:45):

Like toddlers, we're kind of making a mess.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (12:47):

Yeah. We are. We are. But there is this other way, this other way of putting your hands in the earth and getting to work and saying, "You know, we've made a lot of mistakes but we can be healers, too, and we have to be healers, too."

Robin Wall Kimmerer (13:12):

[inaudible 00:13:12] the veggie garden. I've been growing a lot of heritage beans.

Anne Strainchamps (13:17):

How many kinds?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (13:18):

Let's see. There are cranberry beans. There's bear beans. There's a bean that we call the Potawatomi rabbit poop bean.

Anne Strainchamps (13:26):

Well, how did it get that name?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (13:27):

They look like little rabbit turds.

Anne Strainchamps (13:29):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Anne Strainchamps (13:34):

Robin Wall Kimmerer attends seven acres of land on the historic territory of the Onondaga people and you can see photos on our website at ttbook.org. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend Robin's book, Braiding Sweetgrass. The six year anniversary edition is just out and climbing the bestseller list.

Anne Strainchamps (13:55):

Well, this is a pretty big garden to cultivate.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (13:57):

It is. It's a joy.

Anne Strainchamps (14:02):

Coming up, do plants deserve moral, even legal, rights? We'll make the case after this. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (14:28):

There are stories in almost every culture about plants that are intelligent, sensitive and communicate with people. You just have to know where to look.

Matt Hall (14:45):

I've chosen here what I've entitled The Birch Tree Weeps, which is a story from the Kalevala, a region of Finland that's a cornerstone of northern European mythology.

Anne Strainchamps (15:00):

This is plant scientist Matthew Hall.

Matt Hall (15:08):

So, the story is really about Väinämöinen, a magical bear that [inaudible 00:15:13]. It does enchanting singing. People say that he's a bit like Gandalf. And Väinämöinen has lost his kantele. It's a small wooden traditional string instrument and he's lost it and he's walking through the woods where he hears the birch tree weeping. Väinämöinen approaches the birch tree and he asks it why is it weeping. So, the birch tree talks about how human beings have joys and sorrows and that the birch tree itself has his own sorrows. The birch tree points out that in summertime, human beings are often very happy, but the birch tree doesn't have a lot of happiness. He says, "Not but wretchedness awaits me. My bark is peeling from me." Children come with knives and cut the branches or drag off the leaves from the birch tree and the sap starts to flow. Even the girls come beneath the branches and dance and they take leaves for their crayons. And then into winter, things turn even worse when people come thinking about taking fuel to keep warm.

Matt Hall (16:55):

Väinämöinen listens to all of this and at the end, tells the birch not to cry anymore because Väinämöinen has a way of transforming this suffering, really, into something that transcends the birch tree's situation. So, Väinämöinen has lost his kantele. That was a wooden instrument. And so, from this birch tree, he shapes a new kantele and the birch then kind of lives on in Väinämöinen's music.

Matt Hall (17:39):

This story is so unusual in the Western tradition. We get something very unusual, which is the perspective of a plant. Not just a plant that speaks kind of human truths, but this plant here, this birch tree, tells Väinämöinen its own troubles. A very, very different take on the world that we've come to inherit.

Anne Strainchamps (18:24):

Matt Hall is a research scientist at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. And the point of that story is that there is another way to think of plants and once you acknowledge that they are intelligent living beings and our biological relatives, there are moral and ethical questions that follow, like, do they deserve rights? As Steve points out, that is kind of a foreign concept.

Matt Hall (18:51):

Plants are usually just background and that harks back to Aristotle. Essentially, Aristotle put forward the view that plants existed for the sake of animals and human beings and they were here as supporting cast, and that really denied them a life and a purpose or a world of their own.

Steve Paulson (19:14):

What I find so striking about some of your work is you talk about the moral standing of plants.

Matt Hall (19:21):

Yep.

Steve Paulson (19:22):

In recent decades, we've heard a lot about the moral rights of animals over the humane treatment of animals. But we almost never hear about that in terms of plants. I mean, actually talking about a relationship with plants as a moral issue.

Matt Hall (19:36):

Yeah. Even for myself, I sometimes think that it's just so far from our ordinary framing of the world that I sometimes just check myself. But if you think about it in these terms, plants, they're the foundation of life on earth. They form the bulk of the visible biomass of earth. I often think of plants as almost synonymous with nature, and yet, they're backgrounded. They're outside of our moral concern because they're objects and we can do with them what we want. And so, you see in what's happening around the world. [inaudible 00:20:14] human beings just plow on, developing, consuming ecosystems, turning them over to human projects. You think of the Amazon rainforest. That's plant life.

Steve Paulson (20:27):

Yeah.

Matt Hall (20:28):

And if we leave those plants outside of our moral concern and therefore often outside of our legal concern, we're in trouble.

Steve Paulson (20:38):

So, I'm curious about why you use the word person, plants as persons, because personhood has a particular philosophical tradition. I think it has a legal standing. What does that mean, the personhood of plants?

Matt Hall (20:51):

I do use that term deliberately. Pers... [inaudible 00:20:55] two different types of persons, natural persons and legal persons, as far as I understand it. So, natural persons are human beings and legal persons, in our current legal system, predominantly has been extended to corporations. However, in New Zealand, personhood has been granted to non-human ecosystems.

Steve Paulson (21:18):

Right. To a river, right?

Matt Hall (21:19):

To the Whanganui River and Te Urewera, formerly a national park, as land then given back to the Maori [inaudible 00:21:28] of that and now has legal personhood. As far as I understand, for the Whanganui River, the claim for the personhood that was put forward in very specific treaty negotiation stems really from whakapapa, which is a Maori term for ancestry or genealogical kinship. And the fact that this is a living being with its own presence and has rights that it itself can enforce in court via its guardians. It's a very different situation. Personhood as a concept, philosophically, kind of leads you to this idea of well, actually, these beings have rights that can be enforced in a legal system. I think we're a long way from that for individual plants.

Steve Paulson (22:17):

Yeah.

Matt Hall (22:17):

I mean, let's be realistic.

Steve Paulson (22:19):

So, how does that play out for you? Do you think of individual plants or trees as having their own being?

Matt Hall (22:27):

Yeah, I do. And the land behind our house up here is very steep and we have an invasive tree, an acacia from Australia, that, if it was left to its own devices, would pretty much suffocate the rest of the native trees. So, I talk about violence towards plants, which is necessary for human beings [crosstalk 00:22:50].

Steve Paulson (22:49):

Yeah. Well, I mean we have to eat and we have to wear clothes.

Matt Hall (22:53):

Yep.

Steve Paulson (22:54):

How do figure that into your moral system of relating to plants?

Matt Hall (22:58):

We have to take plant lives to live. My natural reaction towards violence is to try to minimize it. So, I [inaudible 00:23:07] just gone on a brazen chainsaw kind of massacre around. It's been very selective, and when I've done that, I've really [inaudible 00:23:15]. I'm killing something. And my natural bent is try and not to do that unless I have to. And then, also, to make use of that loss of life in the best possible way. But it... It takes a lot of time.

Steve Paulson (23:32):

Yeah.

Matt Hall (23:32):

We've got thousands of years of philosophical baggage we're carrying that says exactly the opposite.

Steve Paulson (23:39):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Steve Paulson (23:39):

Matt, I'm wondering if we could end with just a takeaway for our listeners. Maybe a practice, a kinship practice, relating to a plant or a group of plants as persons. What we might do that people could think about.

Matt Hall (23:55):

So, I've talked about one of the practices I do. It seems so simple that perhaps it seems banal, but trust me on this, I guess. A practice I do myself when I remember... And I don't always remember. But when I do remember, it is transformative. When I go out into the garden and my wife will ask me to get some leaves or some mint last night for a meal for us. Before I go and just grab that and take it, I stop and I ask for permission. The plant's not going to respond to me. That's not the point. I ask for permission. It's telling me, really, I'm not in this domineering place. I'm about to take some of this being and eat it. The least I could do is ask for permission. It's a very simple act, but for me, it completely transforms our inherited philosophical view of plants as something that we can just take and dominate whenever we like. For me, that's a really good place to start and it's a practice that will generate the desire for other ways of relating that we can both scale up individually and collectively.

Anne Strainchamps (25:20):

Matthew Hall is the author of two books, Plants As Persons and The Imagination of Plants. Steve Paulson reached him in New Zealand, where Matt is a research scientist at Victoria University. And if that conversation stretched your mind, wait 'til you hear the next one. Steve tracked down one of the leaders of the new science of vegetal consciousness.

Steve Paulson (25:42):

Do you think plants have feelings? Do they feel joy or pain?

Monica Gagliano (25:47):

Ha ha ha ha. All of these tricky questions. My own personal experience would tell me that they definitely feel many things. They're feeling bodies. We are feeling bodies.

Anne Strainchamps (26:03):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (26:13):

I'm guessing there is a house plant or two or 10 in your life, so here's a question. Do you talk to them? And do they ever talk back? Well, that might not be as crazy as it sounds. Steve Paulson is here to explain.

Steve Paulson (26:29):

If you're old enough, you might remember a book called The Secret Life of Plants. It was a bestseller during the heyday of New Age pseudoscience and it made a bunch of wild claims.

Speaker 6 (26:43):

Now, a chemical union with the [inaudible 00:26:46] of creation, air, fire, water and earth, plants turn the desert into a garden.

Steve Paulson (26:53):

Plants respond to people's thoughts, even feelings. They can predict storms and earthquakes. They prefer classical music to rock.

Speaker 6 (27:01):

Absorbing light from the sun and nourishment from the waters, sprouting plants to billions of tiny lips give forth oxygen to purify the air and invigorate the earth.

Steve Paulson (27:18):

Well, today there is a group of maverick plant scientists who are once again making far-fetched claims about plants, except this time it's based in real science. If you follow this stuff, one name that comes up a lot is Monica Gagliano, an Italian evolutionary ecologist who's now at the University of Sydney in Australia. She had a hypothesis that plants actually have the capacity to learn and remember. And to test it, she took a plant you might have heard of, mimosa pudica. It's often called the sensitive plant because if you touch it, the leaves instantly close. And she devised a series of ingenious experiments.

Monica Gagliano (27:58):

I basically built a little contraption that allowed me to drop the plants, drop them from a little height of maybe 15 centimeters, so it's not too high. And when they fall, they land in a really softy padded base. So, I always say... The disclaimer is that no plants were hurt in the process of these experiments and no plants were killed in the process of these experiments.

Steve Paulson (28:26):

So, you did this over and over? You kept dropping the plants repeatedly.

Monica Gagliano (28:29):

Constantly. Continuously, for 60 times. And then there would be a big pause and I'd let them rest and then I'd do it again.

Steve Paulson (28:36):

Gagliano had a basic question. How long would it take these plants to realize there was no actual threat when they were dropped, therefore, no reason to close their leaves? Seemed like it would take a while.

Monica Gagliano (28:47):

But actually, the plants already were re-opening their leaves after the first three to six drops of those 60, and that's within a few minutes, basically. They knew exactly what was going on. They were like, "Oh my God. This is really annoying, but it actually... It doesn't mean anything, so I'm just going to not bother closing. Or even better, I closed at the beginning because I didn't know what this was. But now I've got it. I understand that there is no threat coming, so I'm just going to re-open my leaves because when my leaves are open, I can eat light."

Steve Paulson (29:21):

What's so striking about the way Gagliano describes this experiment are the words she uses. She says the plants understand and learn there's no longer a threat. And there's something else she wanted to know. Can they actually remember what they've learned? So, she left these same plants alone for a month and then did another round of drops. And guess what? This time, they didn't bother closing their leaves.

Monica Gagliano (29:45):

So, that is definitely memory and that is the same kind of experiment that we would do if this was a bee or a mouse or anything. So, for me, to use the word memory and learning feels totally appropriate. And I know that some people, some of my colleagues, accuse me of being anthropomorphizing, but actually there's nothing anthropomorphic about this. These are terms that refers to certain processes.

Steve Paulson (30:09):

And you are not using these words, like learning and remembering, metaphorically. I mean, you mean this literally.

Monica Gagliano (30:16):

Yes. Because that's what they are.

Steve Paulson (30:26):

There was one other question Gagliano had. Do plants actually have the capacity to make choices? So, she devised another experiment, this time with peas. She built them a maze with two different paths.

Monica Gagliano (30:40):

The test is actually make a choice between left and right. What are you going to go for? And the choice is based on what you might gain if you choose one side or the other.

Steve Paulson (30:52):

And the enticement? On one side, the sound of water.

Monica Gagliano (31:01):

And of course, they want water, so they will use the signal to follow that arm of the maze and try to find the source of water, which is what they're after.

Steve Paulson (31:11):

So, you're saying plants can hear water?

Monica Gagliano (31:14):

Oh yeah, of course.

Steve Paulson (31:16):

How did you determine that?

Monica Gagliano (31:19):

Well, initially, it's just a matter of asking the question [inaudible 00:31:23] relevant to the life of plants. And as we did, we have discovered, of course, that not only plants emanate their own sounds.

Steve Paulson (31:31):

They also hear sounds. And Gagliano isn't just talking about electrical signals. She means actually audible sounds.

Steve Paulson (31:40):

What kind of sounds do they make?

Monica Gagliano (31:43):

Well, the one that we recorded sounded like... We called them clicks because it was the closest thing that we could have. And this is where language might fail, but we call them clicks at this stage. But then we also knew and worked out that, yep, plants not only produce their own sound, which is amazing. But of course, they are listening to the sounds.

Steve Paulson (32:05):

You are describing a level of intelligence here in these plants.

Monica Gagliano (32:09):

Yeah.

Steve Paulson (32:09):

That... It's pretty sophisticated.

Monica Gagliano (32:12):

Yeah, basically. They don't have neurons, they don't have a brain, which is often what we assume is the base for all of these behaviors. But they seem to be doing the same things. Really, that's what it is, and it belongs to the cognitive realm. So, that's why I define all of this work as cognitive ecology.

Steve Paulson (32:32):

Of course, this is a very controversial position among scientists, and the common criticism of your views is that an organism needs a brain or at least a nervous system to be able to learn or remember. Plants don't have neurons. Are you saying that maybe neurons are not the be all and end all that we make them out to be?

Monica Gagliano (32:54):

Well, what I'm saying is that science is full of assumptions. They're like axioms. You don't question that one. But in fact, who said the brain and the neurons are essential for any form of intelligence or learning or cognition or any of those? It's like, who decided that? That's the thing. Can you as a scientist create the space for these others expressing their own, in this case, plantness, instead of expecting them to become any more like?

Steve Paulson (33:31):

Now, here is where the whole subject of plantness gets even more interesting. There's an emerging discipline of what's called vegetal consciousness. The idea is that plants don't just have the capacity to learn and remember and make choices. They actually have some inner awareness, maybe even an emotional life. This is definitely not the view of most scientists. I have to say, when I first heard this, it sounded kind of crazy. But the more I looked into the literature, and not just what scientists were saying, but how some people describe their own very personal experiences with plants, it all started to sound possible.

Steve Paulson (34:11):

Do you think plants have feelings? Do they feel joy or pain?

Monica Gagliano (34:17):

Ha ha ha ha. All of these tricky questions. Well, again, yes and no. It depends on what you mean by feeling and joy and all of that, and it also depends where you're expecting the plant to feel those things, if they do, the way in which you recognize them, so in a human way. Plants might have more joy than we do. We just... We don't know because we're not plants, so the only way that we express and know about joy is in our way, in our human way. My own personal experience would tell me that they definitely feel many things. They're feeling bodies. We are feeling bodies.

Steve Paulson (34:59):

Of course, scientists have always struggled when trying to explain the origins of consciousness. There's only so much you can glean through a lab experiment. But there are other ways to get to know a plant, more personal and intimate and even mind-altering ways, and this is where Monica Gagliano's story takes a left turn away from what she considers the limitations of both modern science and the Western worldview.

Monica Gagliano (35:22):

The worldview that I'm talking about... For example, but not only, the indigenous worldview.

Steve Paulson (35:27):

Yeah.

Monica Gagliano (35:28):

And why is that less valuable? Why that way of knowing is being completely wiped under the carpet as if it doesn't have anything to say? And what happened is that when you actually do explore those perspectives... And those worldview require your experience. You can't just understand them by thinking about them. And so, by experiencing them, you know. And the answer to that initial question, are plants conscious, then it become very simple. It's like, why are we even asking the question?

Steve Paulson (35:57):

So, I want to go there with you because this is another piece of your story, and that is your experience working with shamans in indigenous cultures and the experience of taking ayahuasca and other psychoactive plants. Why did you seek out those kinds of experiences?

Monica Gagliano (36:17):

I didn't. They seek me, so I just follow, as I said before.

Steve Paulson (36:24):

Wait. How did they seek you? They called you in some way?

Monica Gagliano (36:27):

Yeah, basically. Yeah. They just arrive in your life and you know that those are important doors that you need to open and you walk through or not, and I just simply decided to walk through. I had this weird series of dreams while I was in Australia doing my normal life, let's say. And it was a series of three dreams and by the time the third dream came, it was very clear that the place that I was dreaming of, the people that I was dreaming of, were real people. They were waiting somewhere in this reality, in this world. And next thing I know, I'm buying a ticket and I'm going to Peru and my partner at the time is looking at me like, "What are you doing?" And I'm like, "I have no idea, but I need to go." And I guess I find it... As a scientist, this is the most scientific approach that I've ever had. There is something that is asking a question. The answer is already there and is waiting for you if you are prepared to open the door and cross though, and I did.

Steve Paulson (37:33):

So, what did you do in Peru?

Monica Gagliano (37:36):

Well, I ended up finding this place that was in my dream, for example, the first time I went. And there it was. It was just exactly the same hut as I saw it in my dream. It was the same man that I saw in my dream.

Speaker 7 (37:52):

[inaudible 00:37:52]

Monica Gagliano (37:53):

And I was there for a while and I just worked with him and trying to learn as much as I could about myself, really.

Steve Paulson (38:02):

This man with a hat was a plant shaman in the Amazon lowlands. Gagliano calls him Don M. in her memoir, Thus Spoke The Plant. He told her there was a particular tree, a sycova, that was trying to communicate with her. To learn how to listen, she drank a daily dose of medicine made from the tree's bark. She also took ayahuasca. And the tree started visiting her dreams and talking to her.

Speaker 7 (38:33):

[inaudible 00:38:33]

Steve Paulson (38:35):

All that happened a decade ago and now, Gagliano says plants talk to her all the time without hallucinogens.

Monica Gagliano (38:43):

Yeah. They did then and they do all the time. And I'm not... I don't have any strange psychological, psychiatric disorder.

Steve Paulson (38:55):

Ha ha ha. I'm just try... I'm just so curious about how this worked for you. I mean, when you say the plant talked to you, was this in sort of a telepathic way? I mean, did you actually hear words? How did this work?

Monica Gagliano (39:04):

For all of us who had those experiences, it's very obvious. And in fact, most of the time when people haven't had the experience and you're trying to describe it, they struggle and it makes probably not much sense because, again, this kind of knowledge requires your participation, literally. I don't necessarily hear words as such. I don't hear someone talking to me as if from the outside talking to me would sound. But yet, even that is not correct because inside my head, it does sound exactly like a conversation. And not only that, but I know it's not me. I know that some of the information that's been shared with me, there is no way that I would know about that stuff.

Steve Paulson (39:46):

What you're saying is that these plants had information to tell you. They were your teachers is what it sounds like.

Monica Gagliano (39:53):

Yeah. Yep.

Steve Paulson (39:55):

Were there specific things that they told you that, I don't know, took your life or your research, your work, in different directions?

Monica Gagliano (40:03):

Yep. Some of the plants, as I have described in the book, told me exactly how wrong I was thinking about my experiments and how I should be doing them to get them to work, and I'm like, "Really?" And I'm scribbling down without really understanding, and then when I got in the lab and I try what they say... And even then, there's a part of me that doesn't really believe it, so I do the experiment as I'm told. I set it up and everything and then it's like, "Nah. This is not working and what an idiot." I was thinking that a plant from the other side of the world is going to tell me how to do my science. And then, actually, it took a little bit longer and a bit more attention to realize, oh. Actually, it is working. Oh, so even against my own skeptical mind of this is all what am I doing, the plants already knew.

Steve Paulson (41:00):

Remember that experiment with the peas that navigated a maze to find water? Gagliano says she originally was trying to do that experiment with sunflowers.

Monica Gagliano (41:10):

At one point, the plant just turned up and just, as flamboyantly as this, said, "By the way, not sunflowers. Peas." And I'm like, "What?"

Steve Paulson (41:19):

The plant told you that? Ha ha ha. Ha ha.

Monica Gagliano (41:23):

And you know, so people always think that when you do these experiences, you're supposed to understand the secrets of the cosmos and the universe and you become one with God or whatever else. No. My plants are usually quite practical. And they were right.

Anne Strainchamps (41:47):

Monica Gagliano is an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. And if that doesn't make you think differently about plants, I don't know what else could.

Anne Strainchamps (41:57):

So, what's the next step? How do we, in our own everyday lives, develop a personal reciprocal relationship with plants? I mean, what would that even look like? Well, let me introduce a friend. Meet Brooke Hecht.

Brooke Hecht (42:16):

In Iceland, I studied roaches. I had three different forest sites, so I gathered thousands of leaves from different parts of the birch and did a lot of analysis of their nitrogen and their carbon and a lot of other factors. Since it's light 24 hours in Iceland... I guess I spent a lot of time there and also because the growing season is so short, in order to collect all the data and all the plant samples that I wanted, I had to work around the clock. But it was incredibly rewarding. I will never forget. I could lie down on the big fluffy moss. It's... The moss is so beautiful. It's like you imagine a fairy bed to be. It's so thick, so beautiful, and I could lie down in that and drink directly from the streams.

Anne Strainchamps (43:44):

As a plant ecologist, Brooke knows plants. But then a few years ago, she went to a professional conference. She's a working mom and she took her daughter along with her, and as kids do, her daughter got sick.

Brooke Hecht (44:01):

She had an infection on her knee. It was scrape she'd gotten the week before. It started really hurting, and Tara is not a complainer, and so when she was saying how much it really hurt, I was thinking, "Well, what should I do?" And I don't really have medicine. And one of the other conference participants took a balm out of her purse that she had made that had yarrow and other plants in it, and she put it on Tara's knee and the redness started disappearing right away. I've never seen anything like that happening in real time, where it went away. And I think, as an ecologist, I had this deep sense that I was only just beginning to scratch the surface of my understanding with plants.

Anne Strainchamps (44:50):

So, what did you do when you went home? Did you go home and dig up your lawn?

Brooke Hecht (44:58):

Yes.

Anne Strainchamps (45:02):

What did you put in?

Brooke Hecht (45:03):

Well, I definitely wanted yarrow. It has such a long history of being used as a medicinal. Thyme is another one. Thyme is anti-fungal. It's anti-bacterial. Sage has anti-inflammatory properties. Oregano. Oregano is fascinating. It is known to have antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial properties. The essential oil of oregano kills MRSA. I will say the one that I use the most is lemon balm for anxiety, and I have... Especially in 2020, I've had lemon balm in my tea every day.

Brooke Hecht (45:52):

When many of us came down with COVID, I think I had a mild... Relatively mild version. But that being said, I still felt that the virus attacked all these different parts of my body. When I had nausea, I felt it was really helpful to take a bath that had mint and also yarrow, which is known to break fevers. As I felt it settling into my lungs, well that was when I brought out the oregano and the thyme and also monarda, bee balm, which has long been used for colds and flu and upper respiratory, to really inhale the steam. Just get that right into my lungs. It feels so much better after doing the body oils. My lungs would feel better after I did the steams and that's kind of what I went with.

Brooke Hecht (47:02):

Sometimes after the steams, when I'd have oregano and thyme and bee balm, I would just dump those steams into the bath and [inaudible 00:47:12] throw some other things in as well. All these plants in the tub, which I didn't put into any kind of bag or anything else. I was literally floating in this kind of green pool. I was in awe that there were plants with these extraordinary properties that were in this bath and that were helping me. I just thought, "Well, how did this even happen?" I mean, that's just unbelievable.

Anne Strainchamps (47:42):

So, how did your relationship with plants begin to change? Because you have a Ph.D. in plant ecology. It's not like you don't know a ton about plants to begin with.

Brooke Hecht (47:55):

I think one thing that changed is rather than studying plants, learning about them, how they work, I was understanding that the plants had gifts to give me. And it's a pretty big change in mindset if you actually experience it. When a plant is giving you a gift and you put that gift on your child's knee, you have a relationship that cultivates gratitude and reciprocity. So, instead of trying to go out and understand is the forest stressed, the way I did for my Ph.D., now I might go out to the monarda, as I did this summer, to the bee balm, and try to think, "Gosh, it's getting that powdery mildew. How do I help this plant that helped me when I was developing a cough with coronavirus? How do I help this plant thrive and survive?" It feels like a relationship with actual plants that are there when I step out the door.

Anne Strainchamps (49:15):

Do you think of the plants as persons?

Brooke Hecht (49:19):

I will tell you that it's taken me time, but I do understand now. There are human people and there are birch people and there are bee balm people. We've forgotten that there's healing all around us. And especially in this time where so many people are feeling in need of healing, feeling in need of community, and the plants are all around us and we can invite and welcome back more of them.

Anne Strainchamps (50:02):

Brooke Hecht is the president of the Center for Humans & Nature in Chicago, our partner in The Kinship Project, a podcast about the more-than-human world.

Anne Strainchamps (50:11):

Thanks to everybody else whose ideas you heard today, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Matthew Hall and Monica Gagliano. You'll find more about all of them at ttbook.org/kinship.

Anne Strainchamps (50:24):

Support for this hour and for The Kinship Project comes from the Kalliopeia Foundation. Thanks also to our amazing team of producers, Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane and Mark Riechers. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and this week's lush sound design is by Joe Hardtke. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

Speaker 9 (50:49):

PRX.

Last modified: 
December 23, 2020