Reviews

Plant parables for the 21st Century

A lifestyle guide where plants take the lead instead of sitting in the background.

Lessons from plants by Beronda Montgomery 2021. Harvard University Press.

What do you get if you combine Chamovitz’s What a plant knows, with Plant behaviour and intelligence by Trewavas, and a modern-day self-improvement manual? Beronda Montgomery’s Lessons from Plants, which book is here appraised. Although packaged as a unified whole, Lessons from Plants is effectively a book of two halves; on the one hand it’s a plant biology text, and on the other it’s a lifestyle guide. How those two are united is admirably explained by the author: “With this book I offer you a similar journey: to see how plants’ individual and collective strategies and behaviors result in adaptable and productive living, and how we can learn from them. It is with this kind of knowledge and engagement that we, as humans, can better support ourselves and the other living beings around us” (p. xiv). But, first things first, let’s say something about the plant biology.

Plants as taught material

Overall, Lessons from Plants provides a great account of many important aspects of plant biology (primarily of flowering plants, angiosperms). With its emphasis upon behaviour, it’s very much looking at plant biology and ecology with modern-day insights into, and interpretations of, how plants function [however, one should point out that root hairs are not “long, thin roots” – as stated on p. 28]. Accordingly, it contains important sections about intelligent behaviours* exhibited by plants e.g.: Chapter 1 looking at above-ground changes in morphology in response to light levels or below-ground alteration of root density/morphology with respect to patchiness of nutrients; crown shyness/crown spacing, and the notion of kinship between plants as examples of collaborative behaviour [considered in Chap. 2]; the concept of plants assessing risk [in Chap. 3]; and nurse plants and co-operation with fungi in mycorrhizal associations** [Chap. 6]. And, importantly [see SciComm section below], all of this material is abundantly evidence-based. Lessons from Plants is therefore a very good account of the ‘new plant biology’ that is beginning to emerge – or, in some cases, re-emerge – as existing plant knowledge is assessed and reinterpreted in light of new discoveries that challenge our traditional ways of looking at plants and their capabilities. Which is why reading Montgomery’s book reminds me of the tomes by Chamovitz and Trewavas. But, do be advised; the text is quite technical from the start of the book with mention of terms and concepts such as epigenetic changes, vernalization, phenotypic plasticity, genes expressed or activated, genetic code, energy budgeting, and signal transduction pathways. Usually those terms are explained or defined, but not always.

The standard note about its SciComm credentials

There is a lot of really good plant biology crammed into the 150 main text pages of this little book. Although some of it relates to the author’s own research topics [see more here], much of it derives from the work of many other scientists. Accordingly, the sources that provide the evidence-base for the statements are indicated in-text by use of super-scripted numbers. Those Numbers relate to entries in the Notes section of the book (and which, at >50 pages is at least a third of the length of the main text). However, rather than just place a number at the end of a paragraph (in a manner akin to Sheldrake’s approach in Entangled Life), Montgomery usefully includes Numbers at relevant points within paragraphs. Although the numbered Notes occasionally expand upon an in-text topic, they are principally used to state the source(s) for the statement made. And generally, there is a sufficiency of references [something that is always welcome – and which Montgomery does much better than most]. However, more Notes/References are needed in some places in-text (e.g. pp. 19, 20, 21). Nevertheless, Lessons from Plants is a very good example, not only of plant science, but also the proper source-cited communication of that science. In other words, its SciComm (Terry Burns et al., Public Understanding of Science 12: 183-202, 2003; https://doi.org/10.1177/09636625030122004) credentials are very high.

Plants as teachers…

After the relevant plant biology has been delivered in each chapter, the ways that people can learn from the plants is considered. Or, as Montgomery puts it: “We can apply these lessons to our own lives, to our mentoring and leadership practices, and to our reciprocal relationships as part of a larger community. Consider that lessons from plants offer us an alternative way of looking at and being in the world, and, for some, a drastically different way to mentor, coach, and lead” (p. 137). The notion of using plants as guides to how humans should behave is not new. Indeed, Lessons from Plants brings to mind the tradition of parables, which are famously associated with the teachings of Jesus Christ*** and included in several books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible (e.g. here, here, and here). More recent commentators have also used plants as guides to our own lives (e.g. here, here, and here).**** Although you could use other groups of living organisms for the lessons (as Aesop did with animals in his ‘fables’) – or nature more generally (e.g. here, here, and here) – Montgomery’s focus on plants helps to emphasise the intricacies of the biology and behaviour of these wonderful creations, and adds another dimension to the increasingly intimate relationships between plants and people. One could be over-critical and suggest that this life-lesson component is unnecessary: We don’t need plants to teach us any lessons, we just need all people to be decent people because it’s the right thing to do. People who don’t already ‘do the right thing’ are probably unlikely to take any lessons from plants and change their behaviour. It would be nice if they did, but I’m a little sceptical of that actually working. But, even if Lessons from Plants doesn’t increase respectful behaviour between human beings, it is surely doing its bit to remove plant bias by, and increase plant awareness***** amongst, people. Which would be a good result.

Does the book work as a series of plant parables?

Probably. Although, a sceptic might point out that Montgomery has been carefully selective in the plant behaviours show-cased, and therefore lessons learnt. Her choice of examples that show plants co-operating and recognising kinship readily translates to the leadership/mentoring situation that she is primarily concerned about. However, plants can also be quite ‘vicious’ in some behaviours that exploit other life-forms. For example, orchids dupe insects into pollinating them in the phenomenon of pseudocopulation, carnivorous plants trap, digest and feed off insects and other animals, and several plants – allelopathic plants (e.g. Fang Cheng and Zhihui Cheng (2015) Front. Plant Sci. 6:1020; doi: 10.3389/fpls.2015.01020; Niklas Schandry and Claude Becker (Trends in Plant Science 25: 176-185, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2019.11.004); James J. Ferguson et al.) – release chemicals into the environment that deter and maybe even kill other organisms that might compete with them for resources. These selfish, antagonistic, or even murderous plant phenomena are not exactly behaviours we’d want to encourage in people – and would make for a very different book.

Who is the book aimed at?

According to the author: “The aim of this book is to increase your plant awareness, mitigate potential biases against plants*****, and introduce you to the wisdom of plants and what they can teach us” (p. 4). Lessons from Plants’ plant science should certainly raise the plant-awareness of those encountering this information for the first time – or who are grateful for having been reminded of it. And that can only help to increase awareness of plants’ fascinating biology by people and reduce their biases against plants. I do hope readers who are interested in plant biology as a stand-alone topic read the book. Whether it will also attract those seeking inspiration from plants to adjust any of their behaviours is an unknown. In the 21st century when citizens of so many countries have been let down by their leaders (or recently-outvoted leaders), any lessons that can be learned by those who think they’re in charge about being more considerate of others will be most welcome. Anything that encourages them to be more inclusive and supportive of those that they lead – whether gleaned from plants or other appropriate sources – can only be a good thing. But, that can only come about if they heed the sage advice from books such as Beronda Montgomery’s Lessons from Plants (or contained in her numerous other outputs – e.g. here, here, here (Beronda Montgomery, Microbiol 6: 7–8, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41564-020-00845-0), and here (Beronda Montgomery, Nature 592, 327 (2021); doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00961-9). Maybe, this book should be at the top of the ‘books to read’ list of all who aspire to lead?

To conclude…

The book’s Conclusion – a separate chapter of 17.5 pages – seems overly-long. It appears a little repetitive, particularly so since the lessons to be learned have already been delivered in the preceding chapters. But, that may just be another example of teaching inspired by plants and the so-called repetition is more by way of reminder, recap and reinforcement of the lessons to be learned – and which is a legitimate pedagogic tactic. Much of the focus of the book’s ‘plant lessons’ is aimed at those in leadership and mentoring positions learning better how to lead and mentor. And a particular emphasis is for those leaders/mentors to actively encourage the talents of others – especially those from traditionally less well represented groups – to allow them to flourish for the benefit of all. In seeking mentoring inspiration from the plant world, Montgomery urges the promotion of a much more inclusive environment where people work together in a spirit of mutually-beneficial co-operation, rather than seeking to advance one’s own self-interest. Noble goals we can probably all applaud.

Summary

Lessons from Plants by Beronda Montgomery is thoughtful, contemplative, factual, and philosophical; it’s quite different to any other plant biology-based book I’ve read. It certainly contains lots of great botanical science, and is therefore well worth reading just for that. However, if you also want to see how plant behaviours could be used as examples encouraging people to behave better to their fellow human beings, then there are useful ‘life lessons’ in its pages as well. Probably the book’s main self-improvement take-home message is that we should always treat other people with due respect. And that’s a life lesson for every one of us, whether we claim it’s derived from plants or just out of a sense of good old common decency and humanity.


* Montgomery doesn’t ignore the notion of plant intelligence – after all, a major theme of the book is the appreciation that plants exhibit behaviour and decision-making processes. Instead, she acknowledges that the term exists (p. 12) and provides several sources that deal with this topic. Whether Montgomery is a ‘believer’ in the concept is left unsaid, although she categorises the book’s references on this matter as belonging to ‘supporters’ (e.g. Paco Calvo et al., Annals of Botany 125: 11–28, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcz155), ‘detractors’ (e.g. Denyse O’Leary), and ‘agnostics’ (e.g. Daniel Chamovitz, Nature Plants 4: 622–623, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-018-0237-3). However, and maybe tellingly, neither ‘intelligence’ nor ‘plant intelligence’ appear in the book’s Index.

** Somewhat surprisingly – in view of Montgomery’s inclusion of the concept of ‘nurse plants’ (on pp. 118/9, but which notion appears to be missing any specific reference(s)…) and the importance of mycorrhizal interconnections – I don’t recall mention of the wood-wide web (e.g. Gabriel Potkin; Lindsey Jean Roetzel; here; and here) by name in the book…

 *** Strictly speaking, many of the so-called parables of the Holy Bible are not parables – which tales are supposed to be based upon human characters – but fables that use non-human organisms to illustrate the lesson to be learnt. This blog item’s title ought therefore to be rewritten as “fabulous plant tales”, which is fine by me(!). However, in keeping with common usage of the term, ‘parables’ is retained…

**** This also gives me an opportunity to give ‘shout-outs’ to artists Fiona MacDonald of Feral Practice, and Marcus Coates who produced a ‘sound art work’ matching questions from the public with plants in Somerset (a county in the west country of the UK). Importantly, the questions were not about plants, but were issues taken from the public’s own life experiences – e.g. “How can I stay in my tenderness, as I navigate my way in a competitive and precarious career?, and “How do I accept my uniqueness without berating myself for being so different to everyone else?”. The flora of Somerset were considered to see what lessons there may be from the plants in response to those questions. In that way the plant world was used as a mirror to, and as a resource for, the human population. You can listen to the audio recordings of this project here.

***** Although Montgomery mentions the term ‘plant blindness’, she recognises that it is ‘ableist’. She therefore prefers the phrase ‘plant bias’ (p. 2), which phenomenon prevents those afflicted from achieving ‘plant awareness’ (p. 4). For more on plant blindness and alternative terms, see Kathryn Parsley (Plants, People, Planet. 2020;00: 1-4; doi: 10.1002/ppp3.10153), and links in this item.

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