What is on a Plant’s Mind?
Looking out of the window on a cold, dreary, winter morning; taking your dog out for a walk around the neighborhood in the late-afternoon, after a long day’s work sitting at the desk; or enjoying a well-deserved weekend hike at the nearest park, you are bound to see it. Grass is all around us, adorning well-manicured suburban lawns, sprouting in the crevices of city sidewalks and covering the soil of vast, wild expanses of forest and prairie. It is so ubiquitous we barely notice it. We usually only pay attention to it when it oversteps its boundaries, when it grows too tall or invades spaces reserved for other plants and for human-made structures. We then begrudgingly mow, cut, and deracinate it, only to firmly put it out of mind until it once again defies human-defined rules and we are called upon to discipline it anew.
But the grass we mostly disregard has its own stories to tell, many of which are entwined with the existence of humans. Does it like to live in our gardens, to be watered and fertilized, while also mowed and trimmed to fit our aesthetic and leisure needs? Or would it prefer to take its chances in the wild, at the mercy of droughts and plagues, but free to grow as tall, far, and wide as it can? Who are grass’s vegetal and animal allies and foes? And who or what are we even referring to when we talk about grass? Do we mean the entire grass patch, a group of leaves, or a single blade?
The omnipresence of the being we call “grass” is but one reminder of the centrality of plants in human everyday existence. From the air we breathe, through the food we eat, to our clothes, housing, and even arts, plants determine all aspects of human lives. Our co-edited book The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, which will be published by Synergetic Press in October 2021, calls upon readers to bracket their routine, automatic behavior toward plants and to see them as more than sources of oxygen, nourishment, and raw materials. They are all that, of course, but what else? The more than fifty essays, poems, and artworks in the volume, by biologists, ethnobotanists, chemists, anthropologists, philosophers, writers, and artists from diverse cultural backgrounds, dwell on the specificities of plant life in all of its bewildering variety and on the multiple interactions between plants and humans. Drawing on Walt Whitman’s renowned metaphor, the contributions to the book are like blades of grass, an instantiation of the complex ties binding humans and plants that determine their research interests, their work, and their lives in myriad different ways.
A field of grass, or a groomed garden lawn, is an open ground of possibilities. The Mind of Plants is organized alphabetically by plant name and each text dwells on the relationship between the author(s) and a specific plant. Without a clear, one-way track, the book invites one to wander through it, to stroll leisurely in different directions, simply enjoying the walk. It calls on readers to reflect upon the different meanings of “the mind of plants” and upon the interactions between plant and human minds.
In almost every corner of the world, especially if you’re lost in an abandoned field or wandering along a backwoods track, you’re likely to encounter greater burdock (Arctium lappa). The name of this eminently clingy character conjures the infamous burr, a hooked seed impeccably adapted for hitching rides on mobile creatures, including those of us who stray off course. Growing to monstrous proportions in biennial cycles, the plant can reach heights of ten feet, with leaves the size of a human torso and a bulky tap root descending three feet or more into the earth.Burdock is, literally, an irritating plant, though not without good reason. The silky pappus hairs of its fruits fasten readily to the skin, hair, eyebrows, and other sensitive areas, triggering inflammation and allergic episodes in those unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. What’s more, the barbed bracts enclosing its delicate purple flowers attach easily to the fur of mammals—and likewise the sweaters of Homo sapiens—enabling seeds to spread into new areas at considerable distances.
Perfecting crafty tactics of vegetal mobility, burdock has become a notorious and ubiquitous invader—a master of agitating us while, simultaneously, recruiting us to do its bidding. Nonetheless, the irksome qualities of burdock belie its giving nature. In fact, its medicinal, nutritional, ecological, and economic attributes are too plentiful to list here but center, to a large extent, on its fleshy tap root. Considered a purifying agent in many herbal systems, burdock root has been shown to promote circulation, remove bloodstream toxins, interrupt cancerous growth, improve skin problems, and reduce inflammation. Sometimes pickled, the root has been an essential ingredient of diverse culinary traditions and is especially valued in Japanese cuisine. Also of note is the fact that burdock supplied the organic template for George de Mestral’s development of the touch fastener, otherwise known as velcro, a common find in many pieces of clothing, shoes, and kitchen cabinets today.
Valuable insights arise from being bothered by plants like burdock. In becoming perturbed, in being thrown out of our familiar terrains of comfort, we can open to plant voice—that speechless, strange, yet persuasive way vegetal life summons us. Botanical wisdom doesn’t always come wrapped up in stunning blossoms or luscious fruits. Lessons are at times laced with barbs and burrs. As it latches to our clothing, this is what burdock tells us. As they inflame and sting our skin, this is what poison ivy and common nettle say too. As it overtakes our nasal passages and nauseates our stomachs, this is the message of durian—a fruit highly esteemed by some, seriously detested by others, and so pungent that it has been banned by certain Southeast Asian hotels. From cannabis and coffee to the suicide tree and xiang si, The Mind of Plants is as much about what plants think and what plants think of us, as it is about the bodily connections between human, vegetal, and other forms of life. Plants provoke and disturb us, humans, at the same time as they nourish our bodies and thoughts. As mind-expanding ayahuasca, cannabis, and peyote teach us, the lessons of the botanical world often register in the body before they alight in the mind.
Burdock’s complex character also illumines for us the idea of emplacement. Research has shown that intelligence in plants and, arguably, all life, is intimately linked to place. In the case of barbed burdock, being sessile is not a disadvantage but has enabled the plant to develop canny techniques for getting around. Certainly, plants are embedded in given places, but they also possess powers of dispersion that we don’t yet fully comprehend. It is the oscillation between rootedness and uprootedness that characterizes plant being. That a species like burdock has successfully disseminated itself around the globe testifies to the percipient mobilities evolved by plants. The ideas of place and emplacement also speak to our own situations as editors of the book, dispersed across three continents, embedded in very different ecologies, occasionally unable to communicate because of wildfires and the coronavirus, yet balancing rootedness and uprootedness through a shared filiation with flora and the impassioned plant-people who have made this book possible.
Gliding around like delicate butterflies or pirouetting through the air like elegant ballerinas, samara seeds fly with aerodynamic precision to sow their winged bodies afar in a suitable place in the landscape. The champion of long-distance gliding is the large samara of the Java cucumber, Alsomitra macrocarpa⎯a tropical liana whose ultralight winged seeds stall, dip, accelerate, and then lift and gain altitude again, finally and almost reluctantly to land on the earth. There is great magic in the gliding of these samaras! Over a century ago, their spellbinding flight impressed a wish on the runaways of our ingenuity; landing in a field beyond abstractions, the idea that took root inspired us to transcend our flightless human condition and, quite literally, soar.7
The practice of moving ideas around by observing the strategies used by other species, and particularly plants, mimicking and, in some way, recasting them in novel directions, dates back to 4000 BC (when the Chinese first learned about silk from the silkworm) but likely is as old as our human history. It is often understood that this information transfer depends on what we perceive as salient in our observations of the other. This “mining” of creative ideas from other species frames the other⎯any non-human other⎯as a discrete object out-there that we can observe from a separate and detached point of view. From this perspective, this objectified other has no subjective life, no passion or desire, no mind, no story to tell. And it is a static generality that exists exclusively as a fabrication of a modern, dominant scientific paradigm that separates the human from the rest of life. Aside from the fact that this is incongruent with the core Darwinian understanding of the interconnectedness of life forms that underpins the modern scientific paradigm itself, there simply is no objectified other in the world we all live in⎯an entangled world of subjectivities, continuities, and we-ness.
As in the samara, in the pages of The Mind of Plants readers will encounter seeds of ecological fluency. Over and over again, through the collaboration between time and space, these seeds soared in the prose of our best poets and essayists who praised the grandeur that endlessly flows around and through all life forms. Time and again, these seeds revealed stories of continuities in the material origin across life, while wishing, in a mischievous game of hide-and-seek, to conceal such unity through the mutability and transmutation of bodily form. But, like the Alsomitra samara with its paper-thin diaphanous wings, these seeds carry the realization that we are all composites of subjectivities, permanently in the making within the physical, emotional, and spiritual ecologies we co-inhabit with others. It is the openness (or closed-ness) of our bodies to other forms of life that molds the texture of our own lives, the stories we tell and the stories we hear.
In the pages of the book, plants take the lead in materializing these stories within the relational body of reciprocity and proximity with human co-authors. Through a dynamic process of co-narration, these stories are seeds of inescapable intimacy-personal narratives grounded in the potential to speak directly to the human sense of wonder and our collective capacity for imagining possibilities that unveil the deep mysteries of existence, those basic realities less travelled. Their final destination may lie far outside the accepted limits of our dominant paradigm, but their exquisite design, like that of the Alsomitra samaras, promises to take us far in our collective journey to a deeper appreciation of, and a devotion to, plants and life itself.
Our hope as editors is that the texts in The Mind of Plants travel far and wide. Delivered to the world, the essays, poems, and artworks in the anthology will, akin to samara seeds, disseminate and undertake their own journeys into human libraries and minds. With no fixed destination, the book will contribute to our understanding of what goes on in a plant’s mind and to our human mindedness of all the vegetal beings with whom we share our existence.