Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why you might like to think about talking to plants

The idea that plants might have feelings is usually greeted with loud guffaws in Western circles. We've smiled tolerantly at the idea of Prince Charles talking to his plants, while the national newspaper cartoonists must have thanked their lucky stars the day the story broke.
The subject always reminds me irresistibly of the scene in the Richard Curtis comedy, Notting Hill, when the Hugh Grant character, William Thacker, is being set up by his friends with a rather earnest girl called Keziah, who tells him she is a fruitarian.

William: And, ahm, what exactly is a fruitarian?
Keziah: We believe that fruits and vegetables have feelings, so we think cooking is cruel. We only eat things that have actually fallen off a tree or bush - that are, in fact, dead already.
William: Right. Right. Interesting stuff. So, these carrots ...
Keziah: Have been murdered.
William: Murdered? Poor carrots. How beastly!

However, a new book by Dr Matthew Hall, of the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, seeks to challenge this attitude. It's called Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany and it explores the relationships between humans and the plant world.
The proposition, to put it as simply as I can, is that we tend to see the world in zoocentric or anthropocentric terms, which means we do not consider plant life to require the same sort of moral consideration as humans or animals.
Because of this, we are often more destructive and callous in our attitudes to plant life than we might be towards what we consider "higher" forms of life, such as mammals (and goodness knows we are pretty careless about those).
This hierarchical view of the natural world is something that has developed over millennia, both from the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Aristotle, and from the Old Testament, which teaches that man has "dominion" over the world.

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Genesis, 1:26

Indeed, I have to admit that I am so deeply steeped in this tradition that I personally find it very difficult to get my head around the idea that there may one day be a "plant liberation" movement in the way that we have an "animal liberation" movement.
Dr Hall says: "In the ‘West’ (wherever that is) we don’t include plants within our moral sphere, a situation which most people think is ‘normal’. I basically wrote the book to try and find out why that was our default position, and to see if there were other ways of looking at plants, both from other cultures and from within plant science writings about the 'intelligence' of plants.
"The first three chapters look at this ‘exclusion’ of plants from the moral sphere and my argument is that this exclusion has been a deliberate process aimed at distancing humans from any sense of kinship with plants, something which we did once have.
"This is done by humans deciding that the faculties which humans or animals possess are somehow radically different and better than those plants possess. This has led to the idea that plants are a lesser form of life with lesser faculties, lacking in sensation, movement and intelligence.
"It’s really difficult to say why we’ve done this, but it always seems to be connected with a need to claim the natural world purely as a passive human ‘resource’ (as happens in Plato, Aristotle, the Bible) rather than as an equally valid, and related, place of life and being.
"For me, this process only really became clear when I looked at other cultures where plants are related to as proper persons (as well as being resources) because they are related to humans as creatures that come from the Earth, and because (as anyone who looks closely at plants sees) they obviously actively live their lives. Most interestingly, this way of looking at plants is backed up by lots of recent scientific evidence on plant behaviour."
So which cultures DO regard plants as worthy of the same care and consideration? What about Buddhists?
Dr Hall says: "Interestingly, Buddhism is actually split on whether plants are sentient or not. In Tibetan Buddhism for example, plants are not one of the six realms of sentient life. Tibetan Buddhists can’t be reborn as plants and therefore eating plants doesn’t involve ‘proper’ killing.
"It’s thought that this is a reversal from an earlier position where plants were thought to be sentient, but similar processes of exclusion rendered the situation similar to the one we have in the West.
"However, in East Asian Buddhism (traditions such as Zen), there has been a tradition of regarding plants as sentient, and some thinkers have even regarded them as enlightened(!), because they show the hallmarks of enlightenment e.g. not accruing any karma, wisdom, patience…
"Plants have been regarded as ‘sentient’ in early Hindu texts and very strongly in the Jain tradition. In Indigenous cultures and in Paganism, people tend not to use the word ‘sentient’ but speak of kinship with plants which are actually related to as proper family (for example, my uncle’s uncle is a kurrajong tree – and with all the respect that deserves) and as proper persons. Amazing really!"
Amazing, indeed - it's the sort of subject that leads you on and on into further investigation and inquiry. I'd always thought, for example, that Jainism was a branch of Hinduism until I looked it up. I now realise that despite superficial similarities, they are actually quite different.
I won't pretend to you that this is anything other than an academic book, but I think the ideas in it are fascinating. I know that, for some years, the Catholic church has been moving towards the idea of "stewardship" rather than "dominion" over the natural world, and for many Christians in general, the ethical issues involved in conservation are beginning to supplant the old belief that the planet was ours to do with as we liked.
However, for us to think differently about the world often requires a really radical shift. Dr Hall ruefully admits that a lot of his scientific colleagues "run a mile at even the mention of the word religion".
He himself takes up no particular religious position, merely asking where these beliefs come from and the effects they have had.
So, are you still guffawing? Or are you feeling rather thoughtful? If it's the latter, and you want to find out more, go here


Zoë said...

I talk to my plants - only this week when we have been planting the monster multiple cordons trees in Chicken World, I have had a chat with them - and apologised for keeping them confined in pots for so long, and that I hope they like their new perm home. I also say thank you to plants when I harvest something, or collect flowers.


Quite Likely.

But the only people that hear me are the plants.

I very much like the idea of the connection between man and earth as shown in Avatar. We all need that synergy to survive and prosper.

Interesting subject and thanks for sharing.

VP said...

This reminds me of my 3rd year core subject Land Resources course at 3rd year uni where we discussed 'man as a despot'. The argument being we'd spent too long plundering the earth's resources (including plants) and it was high time we stopped.

I'm getting a copy too :)

Zoe - I must be bonkers too - I aplologise to my seasonal annual potted plants when I replace them!

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Yeah, still count me in the camp as this being ridiculous. The Aspidistra may outlive Uncle Andrew, that doesn't mean you should give it a seat around the family table. Reminds me of my favorite quote from Anne Wareham's new book: "Perhaps the preciousness about plants is informed by a kind of anthropomorphism—that plants are little human beings really and we shouldn’t ‘use’ them, only love them. That would make sense a lot, but not the fact that people often proceed to eat them."

Esther Montgomery said...

Very particularly interesting post.

Do you have a different link to the book? The one at the bottom of the post doesn't work. I've found the it on Amazon but if there's a special site, that would be interesting to see too.


petoskystone said...

i talk to my plants, also the little bugs i flik or squish on them. however, for me it's just common sense to take into consideration the needs of plants. they are a necessary part of the functioning of earth...not something which can be said for the human species.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Hi Victoria,
thankyou for alerting us to this book. To me, all life is vibrational, and any/everything we do or feel has repercussions, or a wave or butterfly effect...the human will to dominate, rather than to harmonise, is destructive not only to the world around us, but to ourselves. I wouldn't argue that plants are as high a life-form as the human, but to anyone with enough feeling to counterbalance the 'normal' human tendency to rationalise, plants are obviously receptive and have their own abilities to sense, perhaps far more than science understands.

EvoOrganic said...

Very interesting. I was a philosophy minor, so I love taking things like this into consideration. I'm going to have to give this one a read.
I think the main argument about what separates man from animals or plants is our ability to reason. I've seen some plants that I've described as being stubborn, but that's because of other factors, not the plants' innate ability to "think." Also, I think talking to your plants and them growing better is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who talk to their plants tend to care more and will therefore nurture their plants more (not saying that people who don't talk to their plants don't also nurture them). I'm interested in hearing more arguments for his theory though.

greggo said...


Esther Montgomery said...

Hope you like today's post

on Esther's Boring Garden Blog.

It goes sideways from this post but was inspired by it.


Sue A said...

I went to a talk where James Alexander Sinclair said 'plants are not babies, old poeple or puppies - you're allowed to throw them away'. With a tendency to be unduly optimistic and sentimental, I took this on board and the garden improved no end. Now I'll start feeling guilty all over again!

Grace said...

Fascinating, Victoria. I swear sometimes my plants talk to me. Maybe I'm nuts...maybe not. :)

BilboWaggins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DKM said...

I think we need not go to extremes, but begin to respect plants. For me, it comes easily because since 1967, whenever I have been ill, an herb or a spice or combinations of them and a few times just being near them without consuming them, has healed me totally. And in 1985, the "lowly" peppermint forever freed me from an 18-year long nicotine addiction. Being an enthusiastic cook, I have used tens of various plants to create delicious dishes. All this has made me profoundly grateful and aware of the plant world. The first step for the secular person might be to grasp the idea that every gulp air and every morsel of food comes from the labor of green plants or consumers thereof.