I wonder what roses think about wildflowers that “volunteer” to share their garden without an invitation?
That’s a comment one of my readers made in response to my last blog post. I loved that comment, because it sends us off in either of two very illuminating directions, and as I made notes for my response I realized my answer could become a blog post of its own.
In my post, when I talked about garden plants, wildflowers, and weeds, I wrote as if the human perspective was what mattered, and more specifically, the “human who’s in charge of a garden” versus a “human observing what nature does on its own.” In both cases, it was humans making the categories on behalf of plants.
Making categories is an act of power – a way of claiming and exercising power. When scientists do it, the categories are provisional. They recognize that there can be better ways to categorize things, which they’re (in theory) open to, and they (generally) understand that categories serve a purpose. You need different category systems depending on what you’re doing.
But there are also lots of categories that we learn culturally, and these often have considerable social power behind them that usually resists any openness to questioning and revision.
Who’s in charge of the categories? It makes a big difference. If you were a German Jew in the 1930s, you’d likely think of yourself as a German who happened to be Jewish, while the Nazi party wanted people to think of you as a Jew who happened to be located in Germany.
My all-time favorite professional basketball player is Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who played for the Golden State Warriors. He’s Lithuanian who came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, and I was continually shocked by some people’s hostility towards him as a “Russian.” Didn’t they understand that the Russians had forcibly conquered Lithuania and were thus even more of a threat to him and things he valued than they were to American interests? Well, no, they didn’t, and I kept thinking how painful it may have been for him to be called “Russian” by ignorant Americans.
I have a whole set of blog posts I haven’t yet finished writing about the importance in today’s political world of who gets to decide how to categorize things, a topic that’s highly relevant both for gender issues and abortion rights. But Steve, if your question was metaphorical (pointing out that I’m not taking the perspective of those in the thick of it), it’s going to have to wait until I finish writing those posts, because I’m also fascinated by where we go if we take your question literally.
There’s a growing body of amazing work on plant perception, awareness, and even communication. I’ve been collecting books on the topic, but the only one I’ve read in the past ten years was What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. Probably the most up-to-date book is Planta Sapiens: The New Science of Plant Intelligence. The lead author is Paco Calvo, the head of the Minimal Intelligence Laboratory in Spain, where they focus on understanding how plants experience the world. Plants can learn and remember! Wow!
The topic comes up from time to time in the news, too. Just the other day, I came across a Scientific American article on how plants make different squeaking sounds in response to different conditions – sounds that are pitched too high for us to hear but are apparently audible to mice.
Given that it’s been years since I read the Chamovitz book and I haven’t read the Calvo book, my speculations may be naïve, but here’s what I’d expect.
So… we’re a garden plant. Sure, let’s be a rose bush. Some of our neighbors might be very congenial – I’m picturing our local vetch, a leguminous plant (that is, related to peas and beans) that does excellent work at enriching the soil with nitrogen, which plants use as fertilizer. If we’ve got vetch growing next to us, we’d probably “approve” – or rather, we’d be experiencing lower levels of stress than we otherwise might.
A local vetch:
The wisdom that some plants help others thrive is behind the indigenous American practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together. These “three sisters” have symbiotic relationships that together produce far more food per acre than traditional European cultivation practices.
On the other hand, our neighbor might be ivy, or morning glory – something that’s growing like crazy, hogging all the nutrients, and constraining our own space to grow. Sometimes our rose bush can adapt, for example, by sending a branch out in a different direction to better capture the sunlight it needs, if the old direction is now covered with ivy. Presumably there are also plants that make chemicals that are strange to us and potentially unwelcome.
So plants can apparently have an awareness of their circumstances – they could be favorable or stressful, and the plant can respond accordingly.
Are they actually able to be aware of each other as entities and to attribute things to each other (“oh, those weird chemicals are coming from that plant to the north!”)? We probably don’t know that yet. Plants may not be aware of themselves as beings, either. They may have some “minimal intelligence” and consciousness, but they don’t necessarily have a “social psychology” in which the world is populated with other beings that are doing things that affect them. Humans do, and that’s why we need ethics, culturally taught principles and practices for deciding how to treat others and ourselves.
Another big potential difference between human and plant intelligence is an awareness of time. I picture plants living in an eternal present with some vague sense of future possibilities. Humans, on the other hand, can be aware of how things used to be and can develop detailed visions of how they could become. We have a sense of time and history, and this gives us emotions that color how we think about the world – aspirations, grievances, anxieties. We also have the ability to think about alternatives and choosing between them – another necessary precursor to ethics.
Circling back to our original question of how roses react to uninvited neighbors… obviously we don’t know very much about what’s going on in that regard, but the process of exploring the question does tell us a lot about what’s available to us as humans. We can think about ourselves and others, we can attribute motives and causality, we can make informed choices. And we have so much power and responsibility as a consequence.
I mean, we can dig up entire rose bushes and move them around!
On the other hand, plants probably can’t make major category mistakes (like calling Šarūnas M. a Russian). They probably don’t make dangerous oversimplifying abstractions at all. And whatever sense of self they have surely doesn’t conflict with whatever sense of interconnectedness they have.
So, returning to the idea that Robin Wall Kimmerer presented in Braiding Sweetgrass, that we can learn from plants – it doesn’t always mean that we should observe plants and do likewise. I think it also means that extending our imaginative empathy as far as what it’s like to be a plant can remind us about the importance of considering the big questions of how to live responsibly as humans.
The last sentence is spot on! We’ve known for a long time that reading fiction increases empathy but trying to put yourself in the shoes (roots?) of a plant is really giving those empathy muscles a workout!