Island Press 2015
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
We admire plants and often revel in their beauty. We also use them, eat them, and admit that our lives utterly depend on them for our food, our clothing, our buildings, our oxygen—our very existence. Yet we see them as inert, insensitive things, still and silent components of our landscape, part of the scenery rather than actors who share the stage with us. We recognize the familial bonds we have with other animals, for like us they all have eyes and a heart and a brain and, despite vast differences of form, we are all variations on a theme. But a plant—well that is ‘something else.’ It is sedentary, fixed in place, lacking internal organs, lacking a face. To our anthropocentric human minds, plants are either commodities or decorations. We don’t see them for who they are: fellow beings with whom we and all other life forms share the vast co-operative adventure called life on Earth. For in fact, plants process information, just as we do. They sleep and wake, just like us. Like us, they can see, feel, touch and remember. They can also communicate with each other and with other organisms.
As plant neurobiologist and researcher Stefano Mancuso points out: the idea that plants are sentient organisms which can communicate, have a social life, and solve problems by using elegant strategies—that, they are, in a word, intelligent… is not an entirely new one. Philosophers and scientists in different times and cultural contexts … have embraced the belief that plants have much more complicated abilities than are commonly observable. Darwin was one such believer. But until recently, these were simply intuitions. Now we have the science to back them up, as this book, by Mancuso and science writer Alessandra Viola so clearly and lucidly explains.
It explains, first, that our failure to recognize the abilities and intelligence of plants ‘isn’t just a scientific or cultural problem; it goes much deeper. The relationship between humans and plants is so difficult because our evolutionary paths have been so different. That is the key. Plants have travelled a completely different evolutionary path from us, right from Day One. But they have travelled, nonetheless. Like us, they have developed brilliant and sophisticated techniques for getting their needs met, ensuring their growth and survival, communicating, outwitting predators and so on. It is just that because their ways of doing it are so different from ours we haven’t been aware of any of this until our science had the instruments with which to discover it and researchers like Mancuso to fit the puzzle pieces together.
If you are an animal, you can run from a predator. If it catches you and bites an artery, you’re done for. However, if you are a plant and if, rather than a centralized system—one heart, one brain, two eyes etc—you have evolved in such a way that your bodily processes like seeing, hearing, feeling, circulation, etc are independently present in the cells of every leaf, a predator can eat 75% of your body and you’ll happily survive and keep growing.
I started reading this book on a train. Earlier I had looked out of the window at what I thought was an ’empty’ landscape of woods and fields and hedges. A while later, I glanced up again and suddenly I recognized the row of trees alongside the railway line as living, breathing companions who seemed to be waving to me as I went by. For me, the landscape now felt fully inhabited—by thousands of green beings. My whole world had turned brilliant green.