How being still can improve our relationship with plants
By Eva Legge
Last fall, Tennessee Tech botanist Shawn Krosnick challenged her General Botany students to spend a day without plants. Not just a day without the grass underfoot or lettuce in their salad, but a day without any plant-based elements of daily life. Her students couldn’t write in notebooks, wear cotton shirts, or sleep on their beds. “In the end, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how important plants are. I didn’t know I can’t survive without them,’” she said. This activity is one of many Krosnick employs to get her students to understand the vitalness of plants to their daily lives — in other words, to overcome “plant blindness.”
Coined by botanist Elisabeth Schlusser and science educator James Wandersee in 1998, “plant blindness” describes the tendency for people to overlook plants, and consider them a mere backdrop in their lives. Plant blindness feeds into the human-centered paradigm — that animals, especially humans, are superior to plants — hindering our grasp of the crucial role that plants play in our well-being and survival. This mindset has led to a lack of funding and interest in plant conservation.
Plants are particularly difficult to “see” because humans organize visual experience by space, time, and color. Plants, a seemingly still, green life, blends easily into a homogenous mixture of leaves and branches. Plant blindness, then, stems from the inability to see plants as individual, unique entities. According to plant blindness expert Kathryn Parsley, this lack of “botanical literacy” contributes largely to plant blindness.
To begin building a botanical vocabulary, Krosnick recommends using iNaturalist, a free plant identification app. The app allows users both to identify plants, and to contribute observations to a larger database. “You can just be a regular person walking down the street, and document something really interesting that could be part of a study someday,” said Krosnick. “That’s the ultimate citizen science.”
Quarantine may be the ideal time to begin a botanical inquiry. Like plants, we have become rooted. Our sense of time, too, has become plant-like, as our once-busy schedules mutate into days governed by the sun’s rise and fall. Amid the mental turbulence quarantine brings, this period of physical stillness presents an extraordinary opportunity to re-imagine our relationship with plants.
Plant blindness manifests as early as childhood. When you recall a specific tree climbed as a child or a bush from which you picked berries, these plants acquire a unique texture in our memories. As more children grow up in urban environments, these vegetal memories wither. But according to forest bathing expert Amos Clifford, it’s also possible to form those powerful memories in adulthood. The increasingly popular practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, invites people of all ages to connect with plants in a deep way by noting the sights, smells, and sounds of the vegetal world.
For some, there may be a silver lining to quarantine — the ability to slow down and practice forest bathing. Unlike many other outdoor activities, forest bathing invites you to be still and open your senses to the surrounding vegetation. “This is a very important practice, the practice of doing nothing,” said Clifford. “You don’t have to go on big hikes. In forest bathing, we say it’s more about being here than it is about getting there.”
One beauty of forest bathing is that you don’t have to be near a park. If there is a tree in your neighborhood, a shrub by your walkway, or even an herb on your kitchen windowsill, that’s enough. To begin your forest bathing practice, Clifford recommends setting aside some time to sit with your plant and notice its stems, leaves, and flowers in their own distinct grace. “What I suggest people do is just notice what impression the plant makes upon your imagination… the way it affects you emotionally or creatively. You can think of that as a message from the plant.”
Sitting with plants has profound effects on the psyche. Research suggests that forest bathing lowers blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduces anxiety, boosts immune function, and even increases happiness levels. Today, these benefits may be especially strong. “During quarantine, you can still see how much people rely on plants,” said Parsley. “When no one can go to bars, clubs, or coffee shops, they go outside.”
Sitting with plants is just the beginning. To successfully forest bathe, the participant must accept that plants have something interesting to say. According to Parsley, interest is a major barrier in combating plant blindness. “Many people just don’t like plants,” Parsley wrote in her blog. “Often, students think that animals are more interesting than plants for the same reasons they tend not to care about plants: plants are boring, they don’t do anything.”
Plants do a lot more than meets the eye. They possess a complex underground network of roots and associated fungi that can recognize kin, exchange nutrients, and even communicate with neighbors. Plants learn, predict, and remember. A growing number of plant neurobiologists suggest they’re intelligent. Precisely because plants are still, they interact with their environment, with other plants — even with other species — in ways we’re just beginning to understand. To see plants not as passive objects but as active subjects, worthy of fascination and respect, is a powerful step in combatting plant blindness.
This mindset is not new, but instead has been historically celebrated by many cultures, and still is present today. In April 2020, the London’s Camden Art Centre launched The Botanical Mind, an online exhibition that celebrates our fascination with the vegetal world over time and space. The gallery’s work engages visitors with concepts like indigenous cosmologies, astrological botany, and plant neurobiology. It invites visitors to see plants in all of their rich complexity: as a model for art, a house of indigenous spirits, and even as an intelligent being.
The exhibition’s introductory video concludes with an enchanting ode to plants. “Like art perhaps, [plants] are defined by a state of ceaseless unfolding, and forming, a kind of material knowledge of thinking without thinking, and an insatiable, imminent becoming.”
The Botanical Mind suggests that plants are more than subjects of inquiry. They also manifest into an endless source of inspiration. Now that we’ve set our quarantine roots, maybe we can learn from plants, and begin to see plants not just for what they are, but for what they could be. “Einstein famously said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Clifford. “And when I’m talking about imagination I’m not talking about fantasy. I’m talking about a very powerful and potent capacity that humans have for knowing the world in another way.”
Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the NPR Scicommers.