Q/A NATASHA MYERS
Indeed the trees are watching us! But to grasp the significance of this claim we need radically different ways of understanding plants. We have to ask: How do trees pay attention to the worlds they are actively making? What do trees care about? And what keeps some of us from appreciating the subtleties and nuances of plant sensing and sentience? We also need to think carefully about what is at stake in this question: the work of reckoning with plant sentience is really about waking us up to our accountabilities to these forms of life. This is the crux of a concept I’ve been playing with for the past few years as I dream up the possible contours of a “Planthroposcene”. Distinct from the Anthropocene, which imagines a timebound epoch led by a singular agent (the Anthropos), who is bent on earthly destruction, Planthroposcenes are scenes or epistemes, both ancient and modern, in which people have learned how to grow liveable worlds by staging solidarities with the plants. A Planthropos is a collective formation of plants and their people, where people live like their future hinges on the future of plant life. These are the scenes that take shape when people figure out how to be accomplices to these green beings who are the substance, substrate, symbol, sign, and sustenance of our economies the world over, and who keep us breathing, sheltered, fed, clothed, pleasured, medicated, intoxicated, and adorned.
To ask what trees are paying attention to is to explore the contours of their sensoria. A plant’s sensorium is very different from ours. Their leaves are extremely sensitive light sensors that can register a wider array of colours than we can with our eyes. They can discern remarkable differences in the quality of light, including whether the shadows cast on their sun-loving leaves are made by their own limbs, another plant’s leaves, or from a fixed structure nearby. Their tissues are sensitive to the subtlest touch, which can spark sometimes rapid and forceful movements in response. The twitch of a wasp’s antenna, for example, is all that is needed to excite some orchids to propel their pollen sacs at it with great force, ensuring the wasp flies away with pollen to be delivered to another flower. Some plants can tell precisely who is nibbling on their tissues: they can “taste” differences in the saliva of the insects who feed on their leaves and mount a species-specific response in their tissues to protect themselves from further harm. Wounded plants can also synthesise volatile aromatic bouquets that can signal to the plants around them that it is time to protect themselves from hungry herbivores. Plants have not just evolved, they have involved themselves in the lives of every other being on the planet, concocting elixirs, poisons, fibres, and all forms of deliciousness, in responsive relation with other plants, animals, insects, microbes, and fungi. In this sense, they perhaps have a deeper awareness of the world around them than we ever will.
If plants care so much about those who feed on their tissues and pollinate their flowers, consider that they might care a lot about the people who weave their way in between them. After all, we are the ones with the bulldozers, the chainsaws, the concrete and asphalt, the pesticides, fires, water, fertilisers, and compost. We are the ones deciding who lives and who dies in the enclosures we claim as property. Certainly, when people come to realise that the trees care about our relationships with them, some will be looking over their shoulder nervously, asking what they could do differently.
Awakening to the wiles of plants requires tuning out so much that we have learned. Colonial common sense, human exceptionalism, and the mechanistic sciences have taught us to treat plants as extractable resources we can bend to our will. This has constrained what it is possible for us to see, feel, and imagine. But the contours of our sensoria are not fixed; we can alter our attentions and activate deeper sensibilities. One of the ways we can learn to appreciate just how the trees are watching us is to begin to vegetalise our sensoria, reworking our perceptions with planty attentions. Consider that our senses of taste, smell, colour, texture, and form are already all shaped by our involutionary becoming alongside plants. We can expand the constraints of our too-well trained sensoria by trying on the ways that plants sense the world. I’ve been developing hypnagogic inductions, or guided visualisations, that can dilate our morphological imaginaries, altering our sense of our bodily contours, and what we can see, feel, and know. You can try my kriya for cultivating your inner plant (on the website of the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography) to experience what it might feel like to taste the wet metallic soil with your root tips or the sunlight exciting your greening leaves. In time, your freshly vegetalised sensorium will help propel you into responsive relation with those plants who have been vying for your attention for so long.
NATASHA MYERS is associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University and director of the Plant Studies Collaboratory. She lives in Toronto.