The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.
– William Blake
This observation by poet William Blake is one of the thought-provoking quotes included in Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, an in-depth look at human-plant relationships in Western, Eastern, Pagan and Indigenous cultures by Dr. Matthew Hall, botanist and research scientist at the Center for Middle Eastern Plants at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Why write a book about seeing plants as persons?
This book was written to encourage humans to change their relationships with plants and to get them thinking about nature in a different way. Dr. Hall wants people to stop thinking of plants as “radical Others” inferior to humans (Hall, 2011) and to begin thinking of them as “other-than-human persons” worthy of respect and moral consideration (Hall, 2011). Plants are the foundation of all ecosystems and without them, the natural world would become a very unstable place.
Dr. Hall’s book is a survey of cultural and philosophical attitudes towards plants. In it he discusses the construction of hierarchies in nature by the Greeks, how plants and animals are viewed within Christianity, and how plants are devalued in the Western world’s hierarchical view of nature. In his discussion about Western attitudes, Hall (2011) addresses plant blindness and explains how this phenomenon falls short of explaining people’s ignorance about plants. He points out that by citing a physiological basis for plant blindness, Wandersee and Schussler (1999) imply that a “zoocentric attitude is in a sense natural and inevitable for all human beings” (Hall, 2011). He instead argues that zoocentrism is a “cultural-philosophical attitude” (Hall, 2011) and is not rooted in physiology. Hall supports his argument over and over as he introduces readers to the many ways people have relationships with plants; relationships that are very different than what is experienced in the Western world.
Hall (2011) explains human-plant relationships observed in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. He discusses the relationship indigenous cultures have with plants, the relationship pagans had with plants before Christianity entered Europe, and the relationship contemporary pagans want to have with plants today. He introduces themes of personhood and kinship into the botanical literature and makes a very strong case for why humans need to be more mindful of plants and open to the idea of treating each plant as a fellow person — a person who is sensing and intelligent and worthy of moral consideration.
Stories about plants communicating and having feelings are not only found in mythological tales and the folklore of ancient cultures. Stories about plants communicating, sensing their environment and regulating their own lives are also present in modern botanical research. Hall spends a chapter discussing research demonstrating how plants are capable of sensing changes to their surroundings and how they are capable of communicating with other plants to regulate their own growth. He discusses research studies about movement in plants, molecular signaling in plants, and theories about plant tissues capable of electrical signaling in a new field called “plant neurobiology” (Hall, 2011). He also introduces the controversial concept of plant intelligence to make the point that plants are active beings and not lumps of green waiting to be picked or eaten by humans.
Dr. Hall does a wonderful job of presenting many layers of research and insight in a very organized way. His introduction outlines the content of his book clearly and each chapter ends with a helpful summary and a smooth transition into the next topic of discussion.
There is a lot of information to think about in Plants as Persons.
All of it enlightening. Now here is a book that is hard to put down.
Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany is available at ArtPlantae Books.
- Hall, Matthew. 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. New York: State University of New York Press.
- Wandersee, James H. and Elisabeth E. Shussler. 1999. Preventing plant blindness. The American Biology Teacher. 61:84-86.
Cover art for Plants as Persons by March Feature Artist, Mairi Gillies.