What is the true language of plants?

The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira (Editors), 2017. University of Minnesota Press.

Monica Gagliano et al’s “The Language of Plants” [hereafter referred to as Plantspeak] is an important book because of its subject matter. Plantspeak deals with the problem that humans have in trying to understand the way plants communicate – i.e. the ‘language’ plants use and the messages they exchange, both with other plants and with non-plant entities (the so-called intrinsic language of plants (pp. xvii/xviii)). Plantspeak also deals with the language that humans use to talk about and try to understand what plants are capable of – the book’s ‘extrinsic language’ of plants (p. xvii). Furthermore, Plantspeak attempts to go beyond considering just the plant ‘talking’ but also considers how plants think, and feel. In examining the extrinsic language of plants, Plantspeak also sets itself the challenge of encouraging “a dialogue between the biological sciences and the humanities and to reconsider our relation to the vegetal world”. For a long time we’ve considered how animals communicate and how humans talk about that. A similar conversation about plants is long overdue, which is why Plantspeak is such an important book.

Although Plantspeak is in three parts, it’s a book of two distinct ‘halves’. Its three Parts are: I. Science, II. Philosophy, and III. Literature; Part I arguably is devoted more to the intrinsic language of plants, Parts II and III explore more of the extrinsic language. Plantspeak’s bipolar nature comes from the language that’s used by the contributors to some of the 14 essays that comprise the book. My background is in the biological sciences, I am a Botanist. But, with my current research and scholarly interests in the area of plants–and-people interactions, I’ve a pretty good appreciation of more literary contributions to their study. In that regard I had little trouble understanding both the biological contributions in Part I and the literary essays in Part III. However, I found it really hard-going trying to understand the philosophical contributions of Part III.

I don’t think that’s down to lack of intelligence on my part, rather, it’s in large part a consequence of the language used by the contributors to the five articles in that philosophical collection. The ideas being considered are really interesting, and important, but my ability to fully engage with and understand what was being discussed was thwarted by the words used. Although the book’s Editors state they don’t wish to “reinforce stereotypes about disciplinary roles and boundaries” (pp. xxi/xxii), the specialist language of those who write about philosophy has unfortunately contributed to that view for this reader. It seems there is a great language barrier between the philosophical disciplines on the one hand, and the biological/literary professionals on the other. [And attempts to give the benefit of the doubt to the more philosophical essays were not helped by the glaringly incorrect statement about plants “transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen” (p. 127)].

It’s therefore a great pity that attempts to discuss the language of plants are hampered by the language that’s used by humans in tackling this important issue. Maybe until that issue has been resolved we are condemned not to fully understand plants. And, until we really listen to plants and fully understand what they are saying and are able to communicate that amongst ourselves, plants are destined to continue to be viewed as inferior to animals and therefore less important and unworthy of our deeper study. As Karen Houle reminds us, “language use is something we must take great and continuous care with” (p. 166). So, here’s a plea for a better dialogue – in plainer language – plain plantspeak? – between ‘philosophers’ and biologists to move the discussion forward.

Having said that – and that’s why I feel I can’t say much more about the contributions in Part II – there’s some lovely material in Parts I and III. Readers will have to make up their own minds about the merits – or otherwise – of the 14 chapters, but here a few of my own highlights from the book. Richard Karban provided a masterful account of plant communication (which succinctly summarised his book Plant Sensing & Communication). And Christian Nansen’s examination of radiometric signals of leaves was one of the book’s most intriguing biological contributions. Isabel Kranz’s consideration of the artificial conceit of the language of plants – whereby coded messages were passed between people, based on meanings that were ascribed to plants – and the link made with Linnaeus’ equally artificial language of plants in developing his sexual system of plant classification was a lovely and thoughtful read; as was Patrícia Vieira’s essay musing on what plants would say if they could speak. There’s much to applaud and admire and think about, which is probably the main goal of Plantspeak, to get people talking about the language of plants. This is my small contribution to that important conversation.

One sincerely hopes therefore, that, and as the book itself proclaims, “by providing multifaceted understandings of plants, informed by the latest developments in evolutionary ecology, the philosophy of biology, and ecocritical theory, The Language of Plants promotes the freedom of imagination necessary for a new ecological awareness and more sustainable interactions with diverse life forms”.

So, and whether you understand all the language used in the book, the fact that people – from several different disciplines – are talking about plants is the thing to celebrate! I therefore encourage everybody to give The Language of Plants a try, and make up their own minds.