Thresa´sAnselm Kiefer, Hortus Conclusus, 2007 – 2014. (left) / Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 2004. (right)

Plants and humans are having some major relationship issues: neglect, avoidance behaviour, violence, general misunderstanding and miscommunication, all tell-tale signs of crisis. Although highly unsettling, crises are transformative, for better, worse or otherwise. I’m holding out for a point on the better to otherwise spectrum, and it has been heartening to encounter some how-to’s on being with plants, not as “interesting,” “complex” objects of scientific research, but as part of an everyday world: mouths and roots, lungs and leaves, plant bodies and human flesh. Like me most humans do not have degrees in botany, biology, phytomedicine, critical plant studies or biosemiotics; that is, they may be curious about plants but are not trying to have a research relationship. Most have not inherited magical, energetic or herbalist plant knowledge due to the systematic extermination of these knowledges or generally fraught power relations between the medical establishment and “alternative” forms. Most do not grow plants professionally for food or medicinal purposes. Here the concern is strategy for the plant-curious: How can non-expert humans have relationships with plants while embracing their non-knowledge? Can this go beyond a kind of superficial plant appreciation?

Completely bracketing the natural scientific perspective is unrealistic, and perhaps undesired – it is, after all, the 21st century and science is everywhere – yet there must be generalist modes of plant and human togetherness more rich than the following common scenario: You’re standing in a garden, forest or landscape, staring at the unknown flora before you. You find it visually beautiful or weird and possibly feel a sense of lack because you realize your plant knowledge is limited to variations of “tree,” “bush” and “grass.” You look to a nearby sign or knowledgeable human guide for historic or scientific information to even begin to situate yourself, garnering at best mildly complex insight or taxonomic competence into the alien life before you, and having now cognitively grasped something, you feel connected in a knowledge-based way, perhaps snapping a photo and moving along swiftly to more familiar or comfortable terrain. This is common plant practice, a shared habit worthy of revision.

With the so-called Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, Western humans, straight white males first, got interiority. Post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution, all that blaring light started feeling so violent and mechanistic inside that Romanticism happened, leading to the first, more lyrical experiments in plant perception. In 1848, Dr. Gustav Fechner, a German physicist, philosopher and experimental psychologist, made the first recorded claim that plants have emotions, not entirely unthinkable for that time, given the going explanation of an internal “vital force” animating plant phenomena. [1] Further back, in antiquity, Theophrastus explained phototropism, or growth in response to light, as the sun draining fluid from the illuminated side of the plant. [2] During the Renaissance, Giambattista della Porta, a prominent practitioner of natural magic, understood today as a kind of early science, wrote of laws of nature as “sympathies.” Plants “rejoiced” in the sun, a universal “sympathy” similarly at work in the attraction of metal toward magnets and hens toward eggs. [3] In the 1960s, another experimental era, the C.I.A. agent Cleve Backster decided to connect his lie-detector to a houseplant. Before he could even induce fear in the plant by burning a leaf, the polygraph registered a strong reaction, leading him to believe that plants have a kind of pre-stimulus “primary perception,” that is, they are psychic. His findings did not hold among the scientific establishment, and his belief in perceptive plants has since gone down in history as pseudoscience or parapsychology.

Obviously language is a problem: rejoicing plants, feeling plants, perceptive plants. And engaging plants as literal interlocutors, on the level of logos, ends up being a human monologue. Striking among these Euro-American male forays into understanding plant life is the unstated bias of an increasingly complex human interiority informing plants as an object of research. From physiological to paranormal, the attempt is to get inside the plant, to grasp its innermost workings, to turn it inside out. Accordingly, like humans, plants have an inside and an outside. But what happens if this outside-inside split is actually the baggage of a culture in the habit of looking to rationalist science as the foundation of the world? How, then, would humans regard the plants in their lives?

It is in this vein that John Hartigan’s “How to Interview a Plant” and Michael Marder’s “How to Breathe and Feel with Plants” caught my attention. They are not natural scientists; the former is an anthropologist and the latter a philosopher, and perhaps embracing the DIY ethos of the historical moment, have expressed part of their work on plants as how-to guides. Although embedded in professional language, European metaphysics and cultural narrative respectively, I was able to glean much on the level of plant practice. The overall gesture is to move away from thinking abstractly about x object, instead sensing it in its concrete details. Time and attention become tools for retraining human-flora bonds.

male-female mandrakeHermann Peters, Pictorial History of Ancient Pharmacy. 3rd ed. Chicago: G. P. Englehard, 1902, c.1899.

Marder weaves a sad philosophical meditation. Plants are constantly in touch with the elements, while humans are in the habit of paying attention to nature only when the elements turn against them. That is, on a very fundamental level, humans’ attention to plant life is traumatized, oriented toward death, whereas a plant’s attention is inseparable from its own growth, from the basic conditions of living. In science, for example, breathing is chalked up to an exchange of gases. For Marder, the “sharing (of breath) is not reducible to exchange,” and in practicing slower breathing patterns, “another cultivation of life becomes possible.” Cultivating vegetal mindfulness in ourselves is “time gained for life,” an antidote to the larger situation of “cultural suffocation.” Bypassing science altogether, Marder looks to ethics and time for concrete parallels between humans and plants: “the plant and ethical subject dovetail in becoming what they are only on the way to and for the sake of the other… the permanently incomplete passage to the other is ethical and vegetal time.” [4] Such a statement speaks more to the everyday faculties of human perception – movement, sound, vision – than say, knowing the scientific fact that humans and plants share 94% of their DNA. Time slows down; an openness ensues.

Viewing plants, however, in terms of their otherness to humanity via humans’ otherness to one another runs the risk of maintaining unneeded distance among species. The anthropologist, John Hartigan, finds Marder’s story reductive, a rehashing of the critique of Orientalism, in which instead of human markers of race, class or gender, plants play the role of humanity’s interspecies other. [5] After all, plants have culture, too: “It’s key to remember that the usage of ‘culture’ on humans is metaphorical; the word’s original, ‘concrete’ meaning had to do with plants and soil.” [6] If both plants and humans are cultural, then some kind of mutual understanding, or at the very least, communicative reciprocity, must be possible. Hartigan’s how-to proceeds in step-by-step fashion with compelling personal reflections from the field, such as, “What is it in my species-being that makes it so difficult for me to interact with these plants before me?” [7] Hanging out in a public garden in Valencia, Spain, he reports, “I realize the concentrated attention that insects devote to the plants highlights how little attention humans pay to them, even in a place dedicated to their display.” [8] For those keen on upping their plant practice, Hartigan’s how-to has some exercises: visiting your plants daily or more, sitting with them, sensory exercises involving shifting your attention from focused to open, drawing them, reflecting upon oneself in co-presence with plants, and yes, even describing them with words, allowing botanical knowledge to come and go as it may.


A kind of pure, unmediated interaction with plants – mindfulness is itself a mediating technique – can get just as floaty and abstract as scientific knowledge about them, and that is precisely not the goal of plant practice. While mindfulness has become a contemporary cure-all, synonymous with centering, self-empowerment, slowing down, at worst a narcissistic anaesthetic, it continues to have such widespread appeal because it creates moments in time that perceptually transcend structural entrapment. With their sadness and existential struggle there is much hope in the image of these two professional men attending to plants non-scientifically. Spiritually afflicted humans, humans in pain, distressed humans have all turned to plants for healing for millennia – and it is in this sense that their how-to’s are effective. The basic techniques listed above could very well be the basis of a bestselling self-help book (let’s call it Making Peace with Plants).

A relationship crisis inducing an identity crisis is not uncommon. And plant practice, simply as attentive time with plants, offers a way of spending less time meeting the exhausting demands of being a resource-intensive Western bourgeois subject. Tapping into plant time requires desynchronizing exclusively human rhythms from themselves. These are moments that break with the cultural inheritance of a discreetly bounded human self that is separate from the natural world. Were the natural world a more regular feature of humans’ sense of self, it would be common sense that global ecocide amounts to collective suicide. Until petty nation-bound politics budge, there is resistance in a minor key. It is a great day to water your plants with attention to detail.

[1] Whippo, Craig W. “Phototropism: Bending towards Enlightenment.” In: The Plant Cell May 2006 vol. 18 no. 5 1110-1119.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marder, Michael (2013) Plant-Thinking, New York: Columbia University Press, 103.

[5] Carlson, Jennifer. “John Hartigan on Multispecies Ethnography” 

[6] Hartigan, John. “How to Interview a Plant.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Also consulted: 

“How to Breathe and Feel with Plants.”


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