Michael Pollan’s “The Intelligent Plant”

Dr. Monica Gagliano of Australia listens to her plants.

Dr. Monica Gagliano of the University of Western Australia listens to her plants.

I’ve been waiting for this: Michael Pollan explains the latest in plant neurobiology to the world in this impressive New Yorker article. The Vancouver conference he discusses is the same one that Susan Murch coordinated and at which I presented a talk about this-here-blog!

I met Pollan at the conference: a tall, inquisitive man in hiking boots whose reputation preceded him. I was there at Gagliano’s talk, where she was taken to task for using the word “learning,” and watched during the coffee break as Pollan fielded the attentions of scientists eager to weigh in on the paper that had so clearly piqued Pollan’s interest.

My own talk went into the history of debates over the term irritability versus reaction versus instinct, before introducing the aims of this blog and my teaching collaboration with Dr. Murch. Most of the plant scientists were kindly in their reception – “It’s so nice to have artists join our community” – but Monica Gagliano was one of the few who approached me to say, “We’re working on the same thing, from different angles.”

“Scientists are often uncomfortable talking about the role of metaphor and imagination in their work, yet scientific progress often depends on both,” writes Pollan. His account captures, as did some of the eighteenth-century writings on the “sensitivity” of the mimosa pudica, the way a flash point in scientific literary production is deeply, never trivially, a question of semantics.

The history of the narration of plants’ intelligent behaviour is a lesson for any student of literary production: it’s all about naming and narrating what we see, with an awareness of how the words we use shape that seeing.

Thanks to Nancy Holmes, Zach Wells, Paul Marck and Susan Murch for the heads-up.

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