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Conversations with Plants

Coleman Barks is one of the leading scholars of the Persian poet Rumi yet he does not speak Farsi, the language in which the poems were originally written. His work is not that of translation, but interpretation. Of feeling the way the words written by the 13th-century mystic land in his body, digging deeply into what they might mean, rather than pinning them down precisely.

Knowing and knowledge. Interpretation and translation. There are differences. Monica Gagliano is an evolutionary biologist who does not stand, but sits on the somewhat unstable ground in between what is fixed and what is not. Like Barks, she has become a pre-eminent interpreter – not of poetry but of the desires of plants.

Monica tells me the plants saved her. Forest ecologist and author of Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard suggests they’ve also employed her: ‘In Monica Gagliano, plants have chosen the most open, inquisitive, brilliant mind as their spokesperson. With her feet firmly planted in both the scientific method and the wisdom of plants, Monica has tapped into the multidimensionality of nature that will break down forever our suffering parochialism about our environment.’

‘I have always been a scientist,’ Monica says. She was nine years old when she conducted her first experiment, exploring the growth rate of bean plants. ‘I loved science. But at the same time, while I was learning to become a scientist, I would talk to the flowers and the trees. I just learnt to keep that part quiet.’

AFTER COMPLETING an undergraduate science degree in the United Kingdom, Monica’s interest in marine biology drew her southward, to postgraduate studies at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University. It was in the water, during an experiment studying the behaviour of reef fish, that her world began to dissolve.

The experiment required her to visit a particular community of Ambon damselfish every day for a few months. ‘At the beginning they were very scared’, but after a while she could put her hand out and the fish would sit in it. ‘I have this wild animal sitting in my hand, and then I close my hand gently and this fish doesn’t care, because it knows that it’s okay, I’m okay.’

On the last day of the experiment, Monica had to kill the fish. ‘I needed to take and analyse body parts so I could corroborate and validate with physiological measurement what I was observing as behaviour.’

But before she did this, she went for a swim around the reef, to say goodbye. ‘But everyone was hiding.’ She wasn’t carrying any chemicals or nets: ‘There was nothing on the outside that was giving away the fact that I was there with the intention of, yeah, experiment is over, you’re gonna die.’

‘Nobody came out and in that moment, something pierced through my heart, something broke. I knew the fish were teaching me one of the biggest lessons in my life and it was this: you have no right to take any of us, it’s a betrayal of a relationship, why would you do that?’

Monica returned to the reef and killed the fish. They fought: ‘They weren’t sitting there waiting for me. They were fighting. And so, it was a taking, a pillaging.’ It was a reminder, she says, of the power of conditioning. That despite the experience she’d had in the water that morning, she still chose to kill the fish, to finish the experiment. But it was the last time.

‘As a young scientist, I needed to believe that my work was with my mind. But the fish allowed me to break that conditioning. And once that was broken, I remembered, that’s right, I always had a heart and a mind. It’s not that my heart was ever lost, but the conditioning of the world – it’s not just science – kind of hides it. Sometimes the conditioning is so strong that it needs to literally be broken to pieces. It’s very painful.’

‘It was totally devastating for me. It was like, I can’t be a scientist anymore, and what am I if I’m not a scientist?’ Monica stayed a scientist, but shifted focus. From those that swim to those that sing. Fish to plants.

THREADS WEAVE THROUGH lives unseen until they become so obvious as to be unquestionable. Monica’s grandmother was a herbalist and healer; Monica’s first scientific experiment was with plants, and when she was putting herself back together after the fish experiment, she turned to plants in the form of ceremony. It is at this point, Monica says, the plants became most present, though it seems they’ve been speaking to her all along.

‘I have been sitting with plants in some form of ceremonial context since then. It’s almost like I’m going home for dinner with the grandparents.’ Perhaps it’s the conditioning Monica talks about, but it’s a strange thing to hear. I ask her what she means when she talks about chatting with plants. ‘The best way I can describe it is there is a thought that arrives into your head that you know is not yours. There is a piece of information suddenly available to you that you know you didn’t have before.’

It is not about language, then. But about listening for things our ears don’t hear. ‘When we learn to listen to plants without the need to hear them speak,’ she writes, ‘a language that we have forgotten emerges; it is a language beyond words, one that does not wander or pretend or mislead. It is a language that conveys its rich and meaningful expression by bypassing the household of our mind and directly connecting one spirit to another.’

Monica’s plant conversations sometimes contain instruction, suggestions, even ideas for experiments. ‘They’ve literally delivered entire protocols of how to run an experiment. I say the experiment was co-created because I was the hands, and someone else designed it.’

And yet, with all this intimacy, Monica tells me she ‘doesn’t know anything about plants’. What? She means that she consciously decided she didn’t want to know names, botany, physiology. ‘It would have been easy to go there, but it was too dangerous.’ She didn’t want to be comfortable within the familiar scientific framework of knowing, and therefore seeing, in a particular way. She needed to disrupt herself, and in turn, others.

Monica started working with plants in a scientific capacity in 2009. ‘I found myself treading this strange path which changed me completely,’ she says. Since then, she’s published over twenty scientific papers, edited a number of books on plant thinking and philosophy, and in 2018 published Thus Spoke the Plant, a book documenting her personal, spiritual and scientific adventures with plants. It is, she writes, a phytobiography – a collection of stories written with, and by, plants.

PLANTS SPEAK

Monica’s first plant experiment explored whether they could communicate beyond known pathways – chemical, light, touch. A series of clear acrylic boxes were built, one inside the other, with a vacuum seal between. All known modes of communication were able be blocked out and controlled.

In the central box, one chilli was grown. In the outer chamber three variations were tested: 1) chilli plants; 2) basil – a ‘good’ friend of chilli due to its ability to keep the soil moist and act as a natural insecticide; and 3) fennel – a ‘bad guy’ plant known to exude chemicals that inhibit growth, and even kill, plants around it.

And what happened? Could chilli sense whether the surrounding plants were friend or foe? And if so, how could they tell, when the only known means of plant communication – light, chemical and touch – were cut off? ‘They knew exactly who was there,’ Monica says. The experiment illustrated that plants ‘are not only communicative beings, but they’re very aware of what’s happening around them’.

The results of the experiment found that the presence of a neighbouring plant had a significant influence on seed germination, even when all known sources of communication signals were blocked; also, that seedlings allocated energy to their stem and root systems differently, depending on the identity of their neighbour.

As the paper in which the experiment was published suggests, ‘These results provide clear experimental evidence for the existence of communication channels between plants beyond those that have been recognised and studied thus far.’ Could it be that plants can speak? And if so, who is listening?

PLANTS REMEMBER

Mimosa pudica is known by many names. The shy plant, sensitive plant, modest plant, bashful plant. Monica Gagliano likes to call Mimosa pudica the disobedient plant – ‘One who has persisted in her defiant act of not conforming to our expectations of what it means to be a plant.’ The common names hint at what is renowned about this plant; in response to stimulus – wind, touch, shaking – Mimosa pudica folds their leaflets inwards and, in this action, lines commonly assumed uncrossable are crossed; animals move, plants don’t. Animals are sensitive, plants aren’t.

For plants, movement is costly. It’s suggested that Mimosa pudica closes their leaflets as a form of defence against hungry predators, but when their leaves are closed, their ability to access light falls by half, therefore risking starvation. The point being: you don’t do something that is so costly unless it’s absolutely necessary. But how does a plant decide this? And can plants like Mimosa pudica perceive what is a real threat and what is not?

It is these questions Monica was interested in exploring. Could Mimosa remember past experiences and change their behaviour accordingly? And would the plant ‘stop simply reacting to a disturbance that appeared to be a threat at first but quickly proved to cause no harm?’

She designed an experiment involving dropping plants from a height of fifteen centimetres. Testing plants by dropping them sixty times at five second intervals, six times a day, she was able to test the response of Mimosa to repeated disturbance. All plants instinctively closed their leaves after the first four to six drops. But after that, they stopped responding. ‘Being dropped was an annoyance, perhaps, but certainly not a threat and thus could be safely ignored,’ Monica writes.

After a break of three days, then six, then twenty-eight, Monica dropped the plants. They remembered. None closed their leaves in response. The results of the experiment were ‘an amazing and altogether incredibly exciting scientific breakthrough’, she writes. But the response within the scientific community was less effusive. The paper describing the experiment took years to get published, having been rejected by over a dozen major scientific journals. It seems the notion of plant learning, agency and memory had ‘caught everyone off guard’.

PLANTS LEARN

Remember Pavlov’s dog? The experiment that showed dogs could be conditioned to salivate on the sound of a bell, if that sound was associated with food. Could plants do the same? Could they learn by association, Monica had wondered since the mimosa experiment.

The framework for her next experiment, Pavlov’s Pea, was passed to her, she says, from the ayahuma tree. ‘I could hear her voice loud and clear when she started prescribing the complete set of instructions for testing Pavlovian learning in plants. I transcribed as she dictated.’ Monica was in Peru at the time, working with a Cocama shaman. ‘Upon my return home to Australia, those words and sketches started growing, extending their plant-like runners beyond the pages where they had been seeded and out into my lab.’

Monica designed a maze in the shape of a Y. The pea seedling was placed at the bottom, and an unrelated stimulus (a fan) was used to predict the side of the Y from which the light source would appear. A pea will always grow in the direction it last experienced light. But what Monica’s experiment showed was that the peas turned against their instinct to grow towards where they had last experienced light, instead choosing to grow towards the fan because they had learnt to associate it with light. Her scientific paper, Learning by Association in Plants, concludes that ‘associative learning represents a universal adaptive mechanism shared by both animals and plants’.

PLANTS SEE, PLANTS REMEMBER, plants learn. It is fascinating to think that the objections – and there have been many – to Monica’s work stem not from the science itself but from the language used to describe it. ‘I am very scientific about it – I want to use the terms that are appropriate for the processes that I’m describing,’ she says. ‘So if I’m talking about associative learning, well, if you replace the subject that is doing the learning with any other species, would that process still be exactly the same and we would still call it associative learning? Yes. Then that is associative learning, no matter who is doing it. The fact that it just happens to be a plant, I don’t care, you know?’ The discussions become rather boring, Monica tells me, because they come ‘from a bias that I can see, but the other side often doesn’t want to’.

‘It is not for me to stop using the terms that are correct, it’s for the others to work out what is upsetting them so much … What does it mean for a human being to actually acknowledge that plants have the ability to learn? It changes something much deeper about our relationship with the rest of the world.’

It sounds simple to acknowledge such a thing. But it is also an unravelling. Like pulling a loose thread on the cuff of a knitted jumper. It keeps going and going and going until all of a sudden the jumper has no sleeve and the winter wind pricks your bare skin and the thing that has kept you warm for so long cannot do so anymore.

Unravelling is uncomfortable. It hurts, it feels unsafe, and yet, it is essential to acts of transformation, large and small. I remember regenerative farmer Charles Massy telling me it was the ‘head-cracking’ moments that made farmers take the leap from conventional to regenerative agriculture. It is when worlds break open that illumination occurs. ‘I have been through my own disruption,’ Monica says, ‘and I know what’s on the other side. I know that the human, the full human, is on the other side.’

Perhaps this is what makes Monica’s work so challenging for the scientific establishment – she brings expansiveness to a pursuit grounded in reduction. She, and her work, cannot be located neatly within the human-knows-all Western scientific worldview, where knowledge is king, knowledge is human. ‘There is something that is so deeply beautiful about seeing yourself as a small bit rather than the boss,’ Monica says. ‘It’s much freer, much easier.’

‘We don’t have to have all of the knowledge,’ she continues. ‘It’s already out there, others are keepers of the knowledge. And so you just need to ask. But of course, to get to that point, you need to acknowledge that these others are actually living beings with their own stories, their own agendas, their own intelligence, their own knowing. And if you behave properly and you are polite, they might share it with you, you know?’

AS I WRITE THIS ESSAY, Monica Gagliano is deep in a forest in the Dolomites, working with a physicist to explore the connections between trees in the forest using cybernetics. ‘The idea is for me to basically interfere with the trees,’ she says. She’ll record animal and insect predators, such as beetles and deer, before playing the sounds back to the trees. ‘We should be able to see how the information is travelling through the forest. If it works, it’s going to be amazing. It will basically be the live conversation between the trees monitored through electrical signalling.’

Every day, scientists like Monica Gagliano bring us closer to understanding the intricacies and wonders of the world. Every hour, a forest is razed for farmland, a species shifts from endangered to extinct, a new mine starts production. We march closer to catastrophe, never having known more about what we’re risking. Will stories save our world, when human knowledge, seemingly, wont? I don’t know. But I do know this: the trees will speak, Monica will listen, and a compelling collage of science and story will transpire, co-written by plants.

Post cover image credit: Monica Gagliano. Photo: George Etheredge