From Field To Laboratory With Monica Gagliano

I can assure you that plant researchers and writers are as sincere in their love and admiration for plants as any animal lover is toward animals

Both the field and the laboratory figure prominently in Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants, written by Monica Gagliano, a professor at the University of Western Australia. As demonstrated by the title, a number of other binaries are embedded in her narrative: subjective and objective, science and spirituality, traditional and modern, tangible and intangible, and I am sure others, all of them valid but of course all of them also contestable. Are the Guarani not modern? This is my question, not hers.

I found the book remarkable, and remarkably complex, so much so that as soon as I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and read it again. The argument she makes is that her spiritual practices, which are often guided by shamans and other spiritual leaders who she encounters in places that are remote from her home and laboratory in Australia, a jungle in Peru or a grove in California, for instance, are also important sources of scientific inspiration and insight. So in answer to whether there is anything Italian about her interest in plants, I have to give an unequivocal “I don’t know.” She makes no mention of any early inspiration from her childhood in Italy but that is not to say that there is none. In any case, the question is ancillary, at best, to what the book is about.

Gagliano’s point: plants are subjects and not objects

As with Stefano Mancuso, Michael Pollan and others who study and write about plants, Gagliano argues that plants should be subjects and not objects, entities with their own agencies and agendas that are separate from those that are human, and that we should enter into a kind of intersubjective space and mode of communication with them that is based upon mutual respect and cooperation rather than abuse and exploitation. On these points I could not agree with her more and she writes about them beautifully.

What took me a second reading to appreciate were her accounts of spiritual communion with plants or plant deities that she experienced during multiple forays into the field, always or almost always under the guidance of a local shaman or spiritual leader. I say I am challenged by these accounts only because I have had few if any similar experiences though I am well convinced that such occurrences are real to those who experience them. As she notes, these engagements with plants are far from the Aristotelian and subsequent Western notions that plants are to be consigned to the “insensitive realm”, as she puts it, and they should supplant the mainstream popular and institutional conceptions of plants that obtain in modern industrial societies. Furthermore, the indigenous peoples and cultures that have developed these enlightened views of and relations to plants should be lauded and respected, and held as a global model of human-nature relations. Indeed. Agreed. Bravo.

A human-plant intersubjective relationship

I am still a bit unclear on how she connects a to b, however, with a being her spiritual experiences and b being her laboratory practices. For example, in one experiment involving the response of pea seedlings to varying combinations of light and air stimuli, she is ready to dismount her apparatus and declare the experiment a failure, or at least inconclusive as far as her hypothesis was concerned, that the pea plants would learn to associate light with wind movement and so accordingly grow toward the source of the wind in search of light. Just as she is about to dismantle everything, she realizes that her assumptions about peas were wrong, generally true with regard to plants but not specifically true with regard to peas, who (who!) are somewhat anomalous in this regard, and that in fact the peas were clearly demonstrating that they had learned to associate the air movement with light within the context of their nature as pea plants.

My question is why she attributes this insight to the inspiration of the plant-spirit, Ayahuma, with whom she has a dieta, a kind of prolonged hallucinogenic encounter under the guidance of a vegetalista, or plant shaman, whom she identifies as Don J, rather than to just to just scientific reasoning? I have no doubt that she had a very profound spiritual experience by ingesting, bathing and/or otherwise engaging with the ayahuma plant, but I just do not see a clear connection between that experience and her work in the laboratory.

Another question I have is what happens to to the plants after the experiment is finished? Does she replant them somewhere or perhaps move their pots to a hothouse somewhere (despite their colonialist associations to which she objects)? I would think so. She begins the book by recounting how the common scientific practice of destroying objects of scientific inquiry, in this case the fish who she studied as a marine biologist, disgusted her and served as an impetus toward working with plants. I can only assume that given the deep affection and respect with which she holds plants that she does nothing less than nurture them in such a way that they live out their full lives as nature intended. However, I also wonder to what extent she or any other person can enter into a truly intersubjective relationship with a plant, given that modes of human and plant communication are so different, such that they can incorporate them into a scientific experiment without their explicit consent.

Animals are family members. Why not plants?

To anyone who has not been engaging the current literature on plants this may all seem like lunacy, but I can assure you that plant researchers and writers are as sincere in their love and admiration for plants as any animal lover is toward animals. Furthermore, their attitude is borne out by their scientific work, just as a similar attitude held by a farmer toward olive trees, who sees them as family members, is borne out by his daily interaction and relationship with them. In the case of the olive farmer, the fact that olive trees live so long does not hurt their ability to bond with the humans who tend to them.

So here we are. Gagliano is Italian by blood and upbringing, but the cultural inspiration for her scientific research seems to lie elsewhere. This raises the issue of Italians working abroad and of Italian engagements with the world, of seeing the globe from an Italian perspective. It sounds like an excellent topic for a future piece.