18th August – 2nd September
“First, I wondered how exactly I would get inside a plant. I made a conscious decision to let my imagination take over and found myself entering the main stem through a doorway at its base. Once inside, I saw the moving cells and water travelling upward through the stem, and let myself move with the upward flow. Approaching the spreading leaves in my imagination, I could feel myself being drawn from an imaginary world into a realm over which I had no control.” — The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, 1973.
In their seminal pseudo-scientific text The Secret Life of Plants, Tompkins and Bird assert that philodendrons have a particular empathy with humans. Great-Great-Grandplant examines the emotional exchange between people and their houseplants.
Merging one’s consciousness with a living organism, particularly one known for its affinity with humans is an exercise that may, once mastered, also be applied to more challenging objects, spaces and with some effort the complex and loaded things that are contemporary artworks.
Emerging Writers Program
Show 9, 2016
Writer: Erin Wilson
Origin and Etymology
New Latin, from Greek, neuter of philodendros loving trees, from phil- +dendron tree
First Known Use: 1877
A tropical American climbing plant which is widely grown as a greenhouse or indoor plant.
In 1973, the seminal text The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird reached The New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction. The pseudo-scientific text presented a myriad of experiments that claimed plants were sentient beings: displaying preferences for musical styles; anticipating the thoughts of humans; and showing empathy for the plight of fellow plants.[i] The text latched on to the increasing popularisation of New Age thinking during this period, and was the catalyst for a shifting, more amorous view of plants. Many believe there may be deeper connections between the capabilities of plants and our own cognition, communication and memory, while others have suggested that The Secret Life of Plants has negatively impacted future scientific investigations into plant behaviours, as researchers became wary of aligning themselves with the field of plant sentience.
Rather than finding its basis in science, Jesse Dyer’s work is a thought experiment. Dyer asks visitors to engage in a guided meditative process in order to project their consciousness onto a common Philodendron houseplant, asking participants to set aside logic, instead opening themselves up to an intuitive experience with the plants. Through this exchange Dyer seeks to test whether the ecological can rival the archival—an investigation into information systems and the dissemination of knowledge, through the poetic alignment of the knowledge contained in a library with that contained in gardens.
- Facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject
- Awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation
As codes and data become unreadable, communications systems are regularly surpassed and technologies become obsolete, Dyer asks if is there room for an alternative source of knowledge. The therapeutic and revitalising effect of the serotonin levels we absorb in green spaces is widely accepted, but do gardens have more to offer us? Do plants, despite having no brain or nervous system, have emotions; can they communicate? Can they be empathic?
The field of plant neurobiology is divisive, with some believing that it may hold the key to a shift in our understanding of other forms of life, while others suggest the field is a dangerous regression into the pseudo-science of The Secret Life of Plants. The nature of plants as responsive and adaptive beings is not disputed. Plants sense and respond to a long list of stimuli and shifting environmental conditions, including “light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants,”[ii] responses which have been explored by Dyer in his broader practice. However, the responsive behaviours of plants to such stimuli and conditions does not reflect our own nervous system, as noted by Lincoln Taiz—a U.C. Santa Cruz emeritus professor of plant physiology—who has stated that those who suggest otherwise are engaging in an “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.”[iii]
Another researcher, plant molecular biologist Stefano Mancuso, has suggested that brains may in fact be a disadvantage for plants due to their immobility.[iv] Being rooted to the ground, plants have developed alternative, unique and sophisticated systems for sustaining and defending themselves while remaining in a fixed location. For example, plants can survive losing up to ninety percent of their body, a highly unique trait. Furthermore, some plants have evolved the ability to produce toxins in their leaves to deter animals from eating them, in some cases even delivering a lethal dose. It has been suggested that farmers may adopt systems such as this in the future as plant-based alternatives to pesticides.
In order to develop these defence mechanisms, plants have evolved senses—including those aligning with our own senses. Michael Pollan states: “Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root ‘knows’ when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound.”[v] However, it is questionable whether the development and use of these senses equates to a type of knowledge or intelligence.
- The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations
- The skilled use of reason
- The ability to use knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria
Pollan asserts that none of the scientists working in the field of plant intelligence that he has spoken with believe that plants are empathic, or able to communicate, or read minds. Rather, he aligns the type of intelligence that plants exhibit with that of insect colonies, “where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network.”[vi] It may instead be suggested that language is at the core of the intelligence discussion. While plants may exhibit behaviours that we can best understand by aligning them with familiar terms such as intelligence, memory and learning, these terms may be best utilised in relation to creatures with brains, establishing the need for new terms for the arguably similar behaviours observed in plants.
Referring to the knowledge of plants, Dyer has stated, “The knowledge contained within a library is codified, bound within the confines of written language or illustrations—finite. The knowledge in a garden is experiential, subjective, unconstrained but not always accessible.”[vii] However, the aforementioned discussion would suggest that the knowledge of plants is chemical and networked, rather than intuitively experienced by those who are receptive to its interpretation. Dyer’s experiment may not hold its value for participants in an unlocking of the wealth of knowledge to be found in these Philodendra. Rather, its value lies in its consideration of multiple ways of defining and disseminating knowledge, and the questioning of the validity, motivation and exclusions of any form of knowledge repository, whether the traditional archive or the humble houseplant.
[i] Bird, C and Tompkins, P. The Secret Life of Plants. Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1989.
[ii] Pollan, M. ‘The Intelligent Plant.’ The New Yorker. December 23 & 30 Issue, 2013. p. 92
[iii] Lincoln Taiz quoted in ibid. , 94
[iv] Stefano Mancuso quoted in ibid. , 99
[v] Ibid. , 94
[vi] Ibid. , 94
[vii] In email from the artist, June 2016.
Erin Wilson is an arts writer and curator, who studied art theory and curatorship at COFA, UNSW. Erin is currently based in Tasmania where she is Curator of Collections at Devonport Regional Gallery.