THUS SPOKE THE PLANT
A remarkable journey of groundbreaking scientific discoveries and personal encounters with plants
North Atlantic Books2018161 PagesPaperback £14.99ISBN: 978 162317 2435Review by Simon Leadbeater
Learning about ourselves through plant sentience
I have never read a book like this before, but that is to Monica Gagliano’s great credit. To begin with the chapters are organised around the word Oryngham – a word that cannot be heard or spoken, but which means ‘thank you for listening to the language of plants.’ It is also because the author does not merely juxtapose spirituality with science, my reading is that spirituality has always led her research. Assuming my interpretation is correct this book makes a profound and iconoclastic statement, challenging most of our preconceptions about what science is. And Dr Gagliano has certainly done that.
How the author carries out her work, and indeed lives her life, is as fascinating as it is inspirational. Monica Gagliano, originally from Italy now living in western Australia, tells her story, or rather stories, thus: throughout her scientific career she has been guided by plant spirits – whom she encounters with the help of different shamans, through dieta, that is, ingesting parts of a plant initially under supervision but later alone, and a ‘vision quest,’ in which she has to lie still fasting for four days up a mountain in California. Now, these plant spirits almost dictate how to set up Gagliano’s experiments which, for example, demonstrate associative learning in garden peas and that corn kernels emit ‘chirpy clicks’ to others, who modify their behaviour upon hearing them. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that these findings should completely change how we view plants, from passive, insensate, inferior even, to active, communicative, volitional beings. This is groundbreaking research.
Some readers may will think this is too fantastical to be true, but the leitmotiv of Gagliano’s book is that we all can be so much more – if only we listened to plants and became who we always have been from the beginning, by ‘de-educating’ ourselves from the mind-forged manacles laid down by Aristotle and reinforced over the centuries by, inter alia, the invention of time as human property – one of the “most sophisticated acts of planetary hegemony… ever conceived – a clear sign of the fundamental predicament – the deep delusion of separation” – leading us to be infinitely poorer as individuals and a species, and resulting in the ecological collapse of the world around us.
I have a number of overwhelming impressions. First, that Monica Gagliano is a courageous person. She is brave just to study plant sentience, encountering indifference or downright hostility from colleagues, and this line of enquiry may well have harmed her career. She is also brave to travel to parts of the world most of us wouldn’t – all on her own so far as I could tell – and to be isolated and vulnerable, exposed to the dangers of the local terrain, including on one occasion the visit of a brown bear! My second impression is the importance of what the author is trying to communicate. I thought of him before Gagliano mentioned Thomas Kuhn, and the idea of science functioning objectively and in a linear way as myth. I too wonder whether the evidence presented by Gagliano – and others such as Suzanne Simard (who wrote Thus Spoke the Plant’s foreword), Peter Wohlleben, Matthew Hall, Stefano Mancuso, and philosophers such as Michael Marder, will create a new paradigm in which plant sentience is accepted and valued rather than scorned.
My third and perhaps greatest impression, is that while this is a book about plants it is most certainly about our relationship with them and hence about ourselves. Essentially, we are born with a map of life, but as we grow up those around us – who have lost their own maps – tell us the world requires us to fight in order to survive, and part of that conceptualisation of the world concerns the objectification of plants as insensate things we use for our benefit. And so Gagliano asks “how do you open eyes that you think are open?” The answer in part is to appreciate Aristotle’s role in objectifying plants, which has perhaps met its apogee with the development of GM crops premised on plants having no agency or feeling, when this in fact runs counter to scientific evidence telling us “to appreciate plants as sovereign subjects of their own lives rather than usable objects of ours.”
Did I find some of Gagliano’s metaphysics challenging? Yes, and I will need to re-read this book in order to gain a better understanding. But I also find Gagliano’s scientific papers (of which there are around 60 and counting, excluding edited books) difficult; but this is emphatically a reflection on me not the author. I think Gagliano’s ultimate message is that we need to embrace a “vision of nonhierarchical co-participation” in which we listen to plants as their equals.” Interestingly, and I agree, ‘custodianship,’ implying kindness still assumes separation and our superiority. To be heard plants need a “commitment to a nonhierarchical respect, a space of communion in which we come to understand the world and the pathway toward understanding each other.” This, Gagliano says, is only the beginning. Perhaps so, but what a radical refreshing new start this would be.
 See Gagliano, M., Vyazovskiy, V.V., Borbely, A.A., Grimonprez, M., and Depczynski, M., (2016), ‘Learning by Association in Plants,’ Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 38427 (2016)
 Gagliano, M., Mancuso, S., and Robert, D., ‘Towards Understanding Plant Bio-acoustics,” Trends in Plant Science 17, No. 6 (2012): 323-25.