What kind of people are plants?

Quoted from dr. Lewis Daly. Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology University of Oxford

A farmer among the fish poison plants (aya) in his garden in Yupukari, 2012 says: “Plants feel!”
“Forests think!”
“Trees talk to one another!”

In recent years, the topic of plant intelligence has been making the science pages of news publications with increasing regularity. Consider, for instance, November’s BBC article detailing a host of expert opinions on topics such as plant cognition and the “wood wide web” that facilitates communication between trees (BBC 2015), last year’s New Scientist article on plant thinking, sensing, and learning, which draws analogies between human brains and plant root networks (Ananthaswamy 2014), or Michael Pollan’s 2013 piece in the New Yorker concerning the emerging field of “plant neurobiology” (Pollan 2013). Journalistic publications such as these are helping to bring cutting-edge scientific advancements to a broader audience, and serving to revolutionize public understandings of botanical life-ways in the process. As is becoming increasingly apparent, plants communicate and interact with one another and with other kinds of beings in sophisticated and unexpected ways. But how, one might ask, does this relate to the social sciences and the traditionally humanistic field of anthropology?

…. As a social anthropologist experimenting with the methodology of multispecies ethnography, my research subjects included not only human beings but also another kind of living self: plants.

As Terrence Deacon has written, “we tend to underestimate the complexity and subtlety of much non-human social communication” (1997: 31). Other-than-human species communicate with one another – and with humans – in sophisticated and sometimes elusive ways. How, then, can we make sense of these cross-species “social” relationships? So-called posthumanist thinkers such as Donna Haraway (2015) and Anna Tsing (2012) have advocated a move away from human exceptionalism and toward a kind of anthropology that takes non-human beings seriously. These scholars have begun to explore how other species – animals, plants, fungi, even bacteria – represent their worlds, and how this may relate to us. In this vein, Eduardo Kohn has argued that “how other kinds of beings see us matters … Encounters with other kinds of beings force us to recognize the fact that seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs” (2013: 1). In Kohn’s (2013) view, ecosystems are relational and inherently meaningful, being constituted of multidirectional webs of communication. By tracing lines of communication across species boundaries, Kohn proposes, we begin to glimpse what “an anthropology beyond the human” might look like.

….. But – the question must be asked – how feasible, in a practical sense, is this multi- species proposal? An anthropologist can quite easily ask a human what they may think about plants; this is the conventional remit of ethnobotany. But how can one – or, indeed, can one – infer what plants may “think” of humans? Are we not “merely” investigating what humans think plants think, or even what humans think plants think humans think? What, indeed, may we even mean by “thought” in the cross-species domain of ecological relations? Difficult questions such as these become all the more pertinent when investigating indigenous Amazonian cosmologies, where “nature” is typically viewed as an inter-subjective field, personhood is not restricted to the human, and in which certain types of plants can be powerful subjects exhibiting the ability to influence human society in profound ways.

How, then, might horticulture be conceptualized in cosmologies where plants, too, can be thinking selves?

The Carib-speaking Makushi people are expert horticulturalists, in that they exhibit and utilize specialized knowledge and techniques relating to the ecology of living plants. … Forest farms (mîî) are intercropped spaces of hyper-diversity in which humans, plants, and animals come together in symbiotic relationships of nurture, care, and management. …. Makushi farmers cultivate a dazzling array of plants. In any given farm, one will find food crops, craft materials, narcotic shrubs, ornamental cultivars, medicinal remedies, and shamanic charm plants – not to mention the frugivorous birds, pollinating insects, snakes, lizards, and mammals. Farms, in short, are diverse living spaces of multispecies sociality.

Put simply, plant-life in the Makushi conceptual system does not fully accord with the natural scientific model of flora. For the Makushi, plants are ever-present protagonists in the multispecies performance of life. Indeed, certain plants are – or can be – powerful persons endowed with animating spirits (ekaton), exhibiting various extra-botanical capacities.

…… How, then, does this all relate back to cutting-edge scientific research concerning plant intelligence and communication? Collaborations between natural scientists, social anthropologists, and indigenous experts can contribute a great deal to these on-going conversations about plant sentience and communication. Plant-life in Western knowledge systems has for too long been relegated to the subsidiary status of semi-inert extras in the elaborate dance of life. Plants, however, are anything but silent witnesses. Only now are life scientists coming to understand the complex modes of social interaction in which plants engage. One suspects that if a Makushi shaman were to read a piece titled something like “Plants think!” in a glossy news supplement, they wouldn’t be all too surprised. In this respect, much can be learnt about the complex social lives of plants from indigenous peoples in Amazonia and elsewhere. In the collaborative and mutually-beneficial processes of knowledge sharing between scientists and local people, we can further our understandings of the labyrinthine complexities and often-overlooked subtleties of interspecies engagements.

Author Bio: Lewis Daly recently completed his doctoral thesis in Anthropology, entitled The Symbiosis of People and Plants, at the University of Oxford. The thesis is an ethnographic study of human- plant engagements among the indigenous Makushi people of Amazonian Guyana. Email: lewisjdaly@gmail.com.


Photograph by Lewis Daly, 2012.

Henk Kieft

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