Review of Monica Gagliano’s: Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants
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Thus Spoke The Plant
Just before christmas last year I tweeted somewhat rhetorically:
“Why doesn’t Monica Gagliano have a wikipedia page?’
At the time of writing – she still doesn’t. Answers of course on a postcard posted anywhere.
I don’t have a high opinion of wikipedia editors at the best of times. Partly from personal experience following run ins of various kinds. The mod community is full of insufferable smugness and self importance. This is before we even bring up their more widely known institutional sexism and extremist culture of scientism. Indeed, there is a lot of strong current of critique from Brazilian scholars about wikipedia as a colonial platform as an agent of cultural hegemony. Mainly seen through the lens of revert wars around Spiritismo and Indigenous knowledge that is taking place on Brazilian wikipedia pages.
Why do I bring this up?
Because earlier this year from a paradise beach in Bali I wrote the following Goodreads review under Monica Gagliano’s newest book Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. Published by Penguin Random house late last year:
This is the most important book I’ve read this century
I am not joking.
The book is quite possibly one of the first ‘Post Enlightenment’ books written by a scientist. I have been telling basically everyone to read the book since.
Monica Gagliano is a Evolutionary Ecologist who I believe, will at some point this century probably win a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work in Plant Behaviour and Cognition. She has demonstrated the existence of memory in plants, that environmental factors teach plants to learn faster and forget slower. Some plants pass the test for respondent conditioning in a very similar sense to pavlov’s dogs. She is also a pioneer in the world of plant bioacoustics proving that plant roots use sound to locate water – and the list of her achievements goes on – and I hope continues.
This is all very well I can hear you say. But why exactly is this the best book you have read as an adult?
Well, we all know that the 21 Century is already shaping up to be the century of biology. Just as the 20th was physics and the 19th Chemistry.
Firstly the fields that Gagliano is pioneering do not treat plants as objects – instead as other beings with agency and their own life ways. As Gordon mentioned in the Runesoup interview with her earlier this week: science has a mechanical view of the universe which causes us to invent the plant in our heads first and then confuse that mental picture for the actual plant.
Coming from a animal behaviour background Gagliano seems to solve the problem of correspondence In his essay A phenomenology with the natural world? (2014) Tim Ingold wrote the following:
“The problem in our relations with the natural world … is that we have forgotten how to correspond with the beings and things of which it is comprised. We have been so concerned with the interaction between ourselves and others that we have failed to notice how both we and they go along together in the current of time”Tim Ingold –
A plant is a plant doing it’s plant thing all the time. A plant as verb, similar to the sign in bednobs and boomsticks when the cartoon animals say ‘No Humaning allowed’ To human as verb. Gagliano encourages us to rethink plants as people–beings with subjectivity, consciousness, and volition, and hence having the capacity for their own perspectives and voices
Ingold says that “If interaction is about othering, then correspondence is about togethering”
And it is with this concept of ‘togethering’ that brings me to the other element of the book. Perhaps the most important.. her personal journey. The book itself is also a “phytobiography”–a collection of stories written in partnership with plants. Gagliano is one of The Others in the Leary sense. In the book she bravely documents her up-close-and-personal encounters with the plants themselves, as well as with plant shamans, indigenous elders, and mystics from around the world and tells this story alongside her research journey.
To give you a flavour – At one point she was in Jungle performing a dieta with the bark of a tree whose spirit is associated with headlessness. As a result of the ritual the spirit of the tree told her exactly how to construct and design an experiment and told her to use peas instead of sunflowers.
There are many more stories in this book like this, from psychedelic visions helping her solve difficult life puzzles to another plant showing exactly how plants and animals breath one another into existence. To return my wikipedia rant for a moment. It never ceases to amaze me that when Shamans tell people that it was the tobacco plant that told them how to mix ayahuasca this is not considered a valid or acceptable explanation. And yet… here we are.
Thus spoke the plant is a fantastic book. I cannot recommend it enough. It is one of the most important books that you should read this year. Period.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.