Week 6: Representation for Plants

They're more than just decorations

In the world of environmentalism there has been a recent push for humans to rethink the hierarchy of the human over non-human. The theory is that changing the way we perceive plants and animals will change the way we treat them. This is often a controversial topic, and critics (rightfully) worry that the rights of animals and plants will be placed over those of humans. However, these issues are interconnected. Violence and injustice between humans is arguably the root cause of our abuse of the environment. This week I’ll share three stories that highlight people who are advocating for plants in a way that doesn’t exclude marginalized people. 

Do Plants Have Something to Say?

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Ellie Shechet  writes for the New York Times about Monica Gagliano, a scientist at the University of Sydney, and her research on the intelligence of plants. Gagliano says she has conversed with oak trees and seen flowers experience sadness, but she is not just a misguided hippy. She has proven that plants have these capacities through endless research projects and endured criticism from numerous scientists, especially men. 

Gagliano realizes that the claims she is making were first made centuries ago by Indigenous people, “as a white woman on a journey through sampled bits of sacred rituals, Dr. Gagliano speaks thoughtfully and often about the legacies of colonialism, capitalism and exploitative New Age trends.” Her ultimate purpose is to show that humans are interconnected with all other beings and not above them.

On Review:

  • This article was placed in the New York Times’ style section. It reveals groundbreaking research, so why isn’t it under the science section? It is ironic that even the article itself is not taken seriously.

  • This article is a perfect example of the Interdisciplinarity that the environmental movement craves. It is written poetically, and it is clear that the journalist has a strong understanding of plant ‘psychology.’

Nature Needs a New Pronoun

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Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, author, and registered member of the Potawatomi Nation. In this opinion piece for Yes! she argues for our society to start using personal pronouns for all non-human beings. As she details in her acclaimed book Braiding Sweetgrass, in her native language, Anishinaabe, words have no gender and all beings, even rocks, require personal pronouns. In fact, in Anishinaabe, anything that is not human-made is referred to by the personal pronoun “ki.” According to Kimmerer, instead of saying “the leave spun as it fell,” we should say “the leaf spun as ki fell.” 

Kimmerer said, “In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants.” Ultimately, Kimmerer believes moving away from language that is deeply entrenched in oppression (of both humans and non-humans) will help us to save the environment.

On Review:

  • When Kimmerer started studying botany at 18, she was told “she was smart for and Indian girl,” but that the things she cared about in nature weren’t “matters of science.” Her history mixed with her training in science provide a crucial perspective that is not often seen in environmental studies.

  • Some might accuse Kimmerer of anthropocentrism because she calls other species “persons,” but I believe the purpose it serves overrides this. 

  • The Anishinaabe language is an example that shows that these ideas of plants as valuable beings is not just a newfangled, nonconformist idea.

The Man Who Thinks Trees Talk to Each Other

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Tim Lusher of the Guardian reports on Peter Wohlleben and his book The Hidden Life of Trees. Wohlleben developed theories about the interrelationships of trees after working a forester in Germany for multiple years. This job viewed trees as nothing more than a resource for humans, but when he changed his job, his view of trees changed too. 

In his book he explains that trees support each other through an underground system of connected roots. He says they can even identify their relatives and acquaintances through their roots. “Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the ‘woodwide web,’” said Lusher. He supports his claims with scientific research. Now, Wohlleben works to protect those in his area from polluting and dangerous projects. He also came up with the idea of using trees as gravestones.

On Review:

  • This was written in 2016, so some information could be dated

  • This piece was rightfully placed under the environment section on the Guardian

  • The writing of this essay is not fitting with the way Wohlleben’s book is written. The article feels choppy and gimmicky, whereas the book flows and is subtle.

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Thank you for reading! Why not try having a conversation with a plant this week?