How to Interview a Plant: Step 4, Description.

What am I looking at?

This question, posed time and again, grew more difficult to answer each passing hour. I was surprised that I did not become bored and that there was so much to see and think about in this site where humans were fleeting. Yet I struggled time and again to tighten my focus on each plant. My sketches piled up, certainly growing a bit more sure of hand and sharp of image. But did I get closer to knowing these plants? My thoughts flowed in ways I would not have imagined or could not have otherwise, which my field notes document. But in reading over three days’ worth, in writing this chapter, I realize there is little I scribbled down that will help me convey to you much about the vegetative forms I was seeing. But field notes are only the beginning of ethnographic description, the expectations of which are starting to shift.


As I prepared for this phase of the project, I came to appreciate how Holdrege’s rendering of “exact sensorial imagination” fit well with the basics of ethnographic observation. He promotes a non-technical stance of looking and describing, an open-mindedness directed towards “overcoming the tendency to think abstractly” (2013:57). Similarly, ethnographers try to shed preconceived categories in favor of an openness to an unfamiliar, located worldview. Both aim “to get closer to the concrete sensory qualities” (57) of a field site, which require untraining routinized sensibilities: “And for this we need our various capacities of sensing, analyzing, imagining, associating, excluding, remembering, searching mindfully, and so on” (67). Through this “process of coming to know…we become keenly aware of all that we bring into every experience” (67), which resonates with an ethnographer’s effort to achieve some degree of reflexivity about what predispositions and assumptions we bring to the tasks of observation. Yet, anticipating the moment when observation necessarily passes over to description, I was anxious about the translation of loose, open-ended observations and notes into formal prose.

For that I turned to botanists. Despite Holdrege’s admonition to “transcend” the “taxonomic standpoint,” through the course of my fieldwork I came to appreciate and learn from botanical accounts of plants. My sense that the botanical gardens present living ethnographies should convey that I do not share Holdrege’s conviction that taxonomic objects squelch “living thinking.” Indeed, as I observed these plants in the Rockery, I thought back to the efforts of Sesse and Mociño and Neé, wondering what their efforts to theorize species have to offer multispecies ethnography today? More on that below; what I will relate now is how I drew from botanical sources to aid me in observing these plants more closely.

I turned initially to Adrian Bell’s Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology (2008), looking for a catalogue of the technical descriptive terms I would need to relate what I was seeing to the reader. The book’s opening sentence makes apparent the contrast with Holdrege’s concern with the inner being of plants: “Plant morphology is concerned with the study of external features of plants” (15); nothing here about their interiority as subjects. But before finishing that page, I found more commonalities than differences with Holdrege. I turned to Plant Form to deal with this matter of description; what I encountered instead was a tutorial on seeing and drawing the resonated strongly with Holdrege. “Today,” Bell writes, “description is still the first step in any taxonomic study” (2008: 15). In elaborating this point, Bell, like Holdrege, surprisingly turns directly to Goethe, whom he credits with the realization that “a transition could be seen in the form of a leaf on a plant, perhaps from foliage leaf to scale leaf to a sepal and to petal” (ibid). Holdrege uses this very exercise in his workshops at the Nature Institute. In describing this method of taking foliage leaves from the bottom to the top of a plant, laying them out horizontally to reveal their sequential transformation, Holdrege conveys, “participants are usually amazed that they had never noticed the variety of leaf types on a single plant, although they may have looked at many weeds and wildflowers” (2013:75). So if they share a genealogy with Goethe on seeing homology in plant form, where lies their divergence?

Bell worries that this interest in homologous relations has “submerged” plant morphology in phylogenetic studies (of the type Isabel pursues), a concern that would probably resonate with Holdrege. But they differ in that Bell works to distance descriptive method and science from the likes of Trewavas, warning, “Plant morphology has always had a tendency to drift toward becoming a philosophical subject, encouraging a contemplation and debate of the inner meaning of the plant (such as plant ‘intelligence’; Trewavas 2003, 2004). In contrast, the approach in this book is hopefully more practical.” Succinctly, Bell’s “intention is to provide an account of plant morphology as a working means of describing plant form” (16). This is not “object thinking” as caricatured by Holdrege, because this attention to form also arrives at “plant developmental dynamics” (2013:68).  The matter of seeing form, though, of discerning multifaceted similarities and contrasts, is where botanical vision applied through drawing and description, mobilizes a similar kind of attention to that which Holdrege advocates.

Reading further, struck by the wealth of drawings of plant foliage and flowers in Plant Form, I recognize that botanical guides, with their objectifying terminology, offer similar advice as Holdrege and even gave my thinking about these plants a greater intensity. Botanists, too, place great value on drawings; as noted earlier, many of their current journals feature them over photos. Why? Because they focus attention in exactly the way Holdrege champions. Under “Methods of Description,” Bell warns against relying on photos, since they are “likely to contain a great deal of distracting noise. It is better to augment or replace a photograph with line drawings” (2008: 22). Wendy Zomlefer’s Guide to Flowering Plant Families—the volume I saw on Charo’s desk in the RJB herbarium—similarly warns against believing that a photo will be sufficient illustration or description of a plant. In a chapter titled, “Observing, Dissecting, and Drawing Flowering Plants,” Zomlefer sounds quite like Holdrege: “The most important tool for learning plant morphology is careful observation…The most effective scrutiny utilizes all the sense.”

I had Zomlefer’s guidance in mind as I moved to heighten both my observations of and capacity to describe what I was seeing when I approached closely the red flowering plant at the foot of the Muntanyeta. Starting with the nose, she writes, “the scent of a crushed leaf can demonstrate the presence of aromatic oils, and the prevalence of certain acrid, bitter, or pungent compounds can be verified by a brief taste of the sap of a broken stem or branch.” I forego the taste test and simply chalk up it up as “pungent,” a bit frustrated that I could not be more discerning. Continuing: “touching the leaves and stems can confirm the degree of pubescence or scabrousness”; indeed, it is hairless, and I had not recognized how distinctive a condition that is for plants—consider the positively shaggy maize razas in Mexico. But I leave off her approach when it comes scalpel, razor blades and dissection. “The careful observation of floral morphology requires a dissecting microscope (or, in the field, a 10x handlens).” Just by eying it, I can report that its inflorescences is a compound cyme—branches of flowers, basically—and geometrically, the flowers are zygomorphic (showing bilateral symmetry). In dense, mounding clusters, the tubular flowers—a long spur with lobed corollas of five fused petals (labiate, with one above and four below), in hues from magenta to fuchsia, sprouting an intensely pink, arching stamen—perch on stem leaves, expanding from lobbed stigmas rising out of narrow, dark-green styles that widen into plumb, light-green ovaries, making up the gynoecium.

On drawing, Holdrege and Zomlefer eventually diverge over precision. He favors figure/ground sketches that highlight form broadly; and she allows that her “outlined principles for drawing plants and flowers can aid in quick, rough, sketching as well.” But if you are considering publication, as I am, she counsels “illustrations should be precise and drawn to scale, with correct perspective and properly executed dissections,” all of which “require technical knowledge and patience in addition to artistic skills” (20). On that basis, I decide that no one needs to see my efforts. Still, I find her guidance both comforting and encouraging. “Simplification is important when beginning to sketch.” Find the best angle from which its essential features are clearly visible. Here is where she proves most helpful.

When I consider the leaf structure of this blooming plant, I am completely daunted—it is so thick, tangled, and varied that I struggle even to draw it. Goethe’s attention to the transformation of form seems unhelpful, better suited to a model organism that demonstrates the regularities he is emphasizing. And it is the strangeness of these forms and their thorough entanglement I want to grasp. Zomlefer, though, comes in handy; she counsels, “At first glance, a stem (or branch) may appear to be covered in an incomprehensible array of foliage”; my impression exactly when regarding this vegetative life form. “The complexity of plants can be confusing (and overwhelming), but even an entire plant can be subdivided into manageable components.” Such subdivisions might smack of “objectification,” but here I encounter forms of thought, as well: “actually the underlying arrangement is quite logical, with the stem composing a basic framework upon which the leaves and flowers are attached at specific points.” Armed with basic descriptive terms, I can make out its leaf structure. Two types of opposite leaves protrude from the axis of its stem: large cauline blades (borne on the stem), dark hued and ranging from lanceolate to rhombic-elliptic (intermediate between diamond- and oval-shape); from their nodes spring petioles sporting lighter-hued, ovate-lanceolate leaves, leaning towards acuminate. The same patterns repeat on each stem and then, at the plant’s apex, these stems sport the tight flowering clusters.

I learn a valuable lesson in all of this. Describing plants involves sex and geometry. The features which are most central, which draw the most attention, are the sexual organs; but the form of these as well as the rest of the plant, engaged in the crucial work of photosynthesis (leaves), deriving nutrients and water from the ground (roots) and assuring its stability and structural coherence (stalks), these require an attention to form more than function—geometry. Sex is the basis for thinking of commonalities across the vast taxonomic divide of plants and animals; geometry perhaps reminds of the awkwardness of this effort at drawing parallels, suggesting that there is something far more abstract, even alien, about plants. Flowers take the shape of circles or ellipses, cones or cylinders, as do fruits, which also tend to be spherical. Leaves run the gamut: elliptic, oblong, orbicular, ovate, deltoid, and rhomboid; with bases and apices that might be acute, obtuse or truncate, as well as rounded. Holdrege did not prepare me for this. For all the significant overlap, the noticeable contrast is that an attention form is what gets me to the species level or mode of perception and thought.

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