Over the course of my fieldwork on botanical gardens in Spain, I began worrying I wasn’t paying enough attention to the plants and that I would only end up analyzing representations. Acting on this concern led me to seek out techniques and epistemological problems involving plants, which I could deploy and engage ethnographically. The results follow, in a nine-part serial installment.
First step: Read the Lit.
My first step in engaging plants directly was to contact Natasha Myers at York University, since she is a leading figure in critical plant studies. Her ethnographic research also focuses on plant scientists, but ones whose work is more keyed to issues of sentience or intelligence. She settled into a considered pause when I asked how I might go about interviewing a plant in my field site. Her initial suggestions were circumspect and practical: I should visit the plants at different times of the day, in different patterns of light. But then she suggested I start with Craig Holdrege, since his method of “exact sensorial imagination” offers the closest model for something like an interview-format. For the bigger questions—on whether or how plants are intelligent—she said I should turn to Anthony Trewavas and Daniel Chamovitz. We both were already familiar with the philosopher Michael Marder, who insists on plants’ radical alterity and otherness: “plants have populated the margin of the margin, the zone of absolute obscurity undetectable on the radar of our conceptualities” (2013:2). Marder works to counter the exclusion of vegetative life “from the purview of respectable philosophical discourse in late modernity” (18), but by emphasizing an anti-science stance: “we must give prominence to plants, taking care to avoid their objective description, and thereby preserve their alterity” (9). Given the immense amount I have learned from botanist, I found this approach unsatisfying; yet I could appreciate his agnostic stance: “All we can hope for is to brush against the edges of their being, which is altogether outer and exposed, and in so doing to grow past the fictitious shells of our identity and our existential ontology” (2013:13).
Myers was spot-on in suggesting Holdrege. In terms of engaging subjects and learning from them, his approach aligns in key ways with ethnography; also, he meticulously details an observational method that can be applied to plants in any setting. Resonating with Marder’s anti-science stance, Holdrege promotes “living thinking” (versus object-thinking), as a more participatory, concrete mode, oriented “around the living organism and living processes instead of around the idea of interacting object-like entities” (2013: 33). This is a mode that “would be as dynamic, coherent, and responsive as a living organism”; “thinking that is relational, that recognizes how living ‘things’ interpenetrate and, in reality, are not things at all” (35). In reading Thinking Like a Plant (2013), I was ambivalent about how this approach sharply contrasted with that of “my” botanists, since, with the notion of living thinking and active attention, he aims to “transcend the boundaries we construct when we look at an organism from a taxonomic standpoint” (164). But I also heard a resonance with the anthropological axiom that “things” are not independent objects as much as a set of relationships; also in, “We can begin to see organisms as intersecting relationships that are part of the greater web of life.”
Where Marder insists upon the radical alterity of plants, Holdrege—as do plant scientists like Trewavas and Chamovitz—emphasizes points of fundamental commonality between plants and people. Holdrege’s approach is to align certain sensorial parallels: “So the plant’s openness to the environment entails initial receptivity, the activity of expanding out and ramifying into the environment, and the ability to remain receptive as it continues to interact with the environment. These are also the fundamental gestures of human perception” (44). The process he depicts, which draws foundationally upon Goethe’s method of “exact sensorial imagination,” is contrasted with “carrying out a question-and-answer session with the plant.” So perhaps my notion of “interview” was misguided, I began to consider. “Instead, we are taking the time to perceive, to dwell with the plant and its feature” (47). This notion of dwelling does fit with ethnography; just rather than “listening,” as in language-based analytics, the aim here shifts sensorially: “So by looking carefully we take the plant seriously—we turn our unencumbered attention toward it. We see the plant as something in its own right and learn to value it for its own sake” (47). The particular process he promotes involves “two complementary types of sensory observation exercise”; first concentrating attention by sketching the plant—“drawing can help facilitate looking” (49)—and then, conversely, letting “our attention spread out and wait to find what comes towards us” (52).
Trewavas and Chamovitz move in a rather different direction, towards the task of analyzing plant intelligence in lab-based settings. This a burgeoning field, one I found I could readily transpose into an ethnographic setting. They key is constituting “behavior” as a unit of analysis that applies to vegetation as well as to animals. In plants, Trewavas finds behavior in “phenotypic plasticity,” a form of action in which movement emerges through morphological change. This version of behavior, though, is strikingly attuned to ethnographic concerns. This plasticity, Trewavas writes, is “a phenotypically local response to local signaling.” More broadly, such “plasticity enables the phenotype to accurately occupy local space, change its phenotype as it grows, forage accurately for resources, competitively exclude neighbours and construct, within genetic/environmental limitations, its own niche” (2009:607). Local dynamics in relation to species being—this is part of what ethnography is for. Furthermore, plants are far more attuned to place in that their “behaviour is inextricably linked to environmental signaling. Because plants are sessile organisms, they may perceive more environmental signals and with greater sensitivity and discrimination than the roaming animal” (607). That is, plants maybe be far more exquisite ciphers of “place” than the mammals examined by ethologists and ethnographers.
So, they may behave, but what kind of subjects are they? Ones with rich, sensual lives, Chamovitz demonstrates; in the process, he also highlights underlying commonalities with animals that start at the genetic level. Chamovitz’s interest “in the parallels between plant and human senses” arose from researching how plants use light to regulate their development, a capacity linked to a unique group of genes. “Much to my surprise and against all of my plans, I later discovered that this same group of genes is also part of the human DNA. This led to the obvious question as to what these seemingly ‘plant-specific’ genes do in people” (2012:3). The answer is that they code for blue-light receptors called cryptochromes, which reset our internal circadian clocks. “At this basic level of blue-light control of circadian rhythms, plants and humans ‘see’ in essentially the same way” (2012: 25-26). With smell and sound and feeling, Chamovitz proceeds in this fashion, detailing how “the science behind the inner lives of plants” (7) reveals consistent and surprising commonalities with humans. For instance, with memory: “many of the mechanisms involved in plant memory are also involved in human memory, including epigenetics and electrochemical gradients. These gradients are the bread and butter of neural connections in our brains, the seat of memory as most of us understand it” (2012:131-132). Given such commonalities, and since, as Myers writes, “plants sense and make sense of their worlds,” (2015:36), why should the not be subject to ethnography?
The additional consideration is whether they are social. Plants may have deeply sensual inner lives but unless they are socially constituted the relevance of ethnography would be mooted. Here the matter is fairly clear, as well, starting with the fact that plants can engage in kinship. Since Susan Dudley’s ground-breaking research in 2007 on kin-recognition in a beach weed called sea rocket—finding that the plant restrained its colonizing tendency when encountering siblings, while accelerating its nutrient-consuming root growth when confronting unrelated conspecifics—studies increasingly show this sensibility is active in other plant species. But much of the understanding of sociality in plants stems from the growing-recognition of their capacity to communicate with conspecifics and even other species. Plants communicate through volatile organic compounds that can circulate as airborne chemicals or soluble compounds exchanged through root-networks and mycorrhizal fungi;. The rhizosphere is where most of these communications and exchanges take place, though—a terrain not accessible to the kind of sensorial encounters Holdrege imagines. For that matter, as Ferris Jabr reports, “Many of the social interactions of plants seem to involve forms of sharing or cooperation mediated by chemical signals.” So I set out ambivalently, recognizing that much of what most interests me as an ethnographer may remain inaccessible even if I develop the capacity to dwell with certain plants.