Archive for the ‘Metaphor in Science’ Category

Rapey Plant Stories and the Challenge to Darwinian Ideas About Gender

2015 01 13 rapey plant Philodendron_martianum

I laughed when I first read that in late 18th-century Western Europe, people worried that studying botany, which focused the attention on all those plants fertilizing one another, was too racy a pursuit for proper young ladies. Now I think we have yet, even in the 21st century, to really grapple with how plant being challenges our basic assumptions about sexuality.

Do male plants rape females as a means of propagating the species? That’s the analogy that Dan Janzen used in 1977 when he applied Darwinian-based models of animal behaviour to plants.

Take a look at this thought-provoking article by Jeremy Yoder, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota, who writes about how scientific theories of sexual selection, themselves originally based in human analogy, have ended up reframing not only stories of animal and human sexuality but also our understanding of plant reproduction.

Thanks to Eric Michael Johnson for passing this along.


‘Fractal Poetics’: A rose is a leaf is a rose is a leaf

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“Before Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal mathematics and Gertrude Stein’s roses, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote about a primal plant, “Urpflanze,” which was constructed as a leaf within a leaf within a leaf. I wonder if his Platonic vision for this plant, from which all other plants derived, was an early imagining of fractal mathematics and response to fractal forms in the natural world (coast lines, human migration patterns, Romanesco broccoli).”

Read the rest of Amy Catanzano’s article on fractals, feminist philosophy, and models of poetic form at Jacket2.

#vherbage site launched!

2014 04 25 vherbage

This week, the students of CRWR260 at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and I launched our collaborative digital writing project, #vherbage! #vherbage is the second student-centred collaborative work coming out of the institutional practice side of The Plant Intelligence Project. #vherbage is a celebration of language, plant subjectivity, connectivity and dendricity!

Students took their inspiration from ecopoet angela rawlings’ digital project gibber in a number of ways: #vherbage, like  the Twitter poem #gibberese, is a collaboratively written ecopoem composed in real time on Twitter. The curated poem appears animated on the site. The project also sees students combining image, sound, animation and text to create their interdisciplinary texts. Further, groups of students read rawlings’ more theoretical thoughts on asemic writing to come up with their own ideas about how the semiotic signalling of plants helps us think about our own use of language.

Just like last year, creative writing students connected with plant science students in Dr. Susan Murch’s plant biochemistry class to share discussions on metaphor and creativity in science and to source texts for found poems. Congratulations to all the authors on a beautiful finished project. Read more about the project and its authors here.


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Travis Bedel’s Homo Plantae aesthetic

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Mixed media artist Travis Bedel, who creates stunning collages that merge anatomical imagery with illustrations from science guides and textbooks, was profiled recently over at This Is Colossal.

In my study of the work of American poet Ronald Johnson, I looked at the particular conceptual work Johnson was doing when he compared “the human body” to plants in his modernist verse. I put “the human body”  in quotes here because, as you might imagine, the universal human body that Johnson gorgeously, lyrically sings in its green seediness is a male body, unspokenly white — the model humanbody  of a certain kind of scientific vision.

Nearly 50 years later, Bedel’s aesthetic sits squarely in the same zone as Johnson (who was also a collagist). If my man RJ had worked in digital visual collage, he might well have made this. I wonder if, like Johnson, Bedel is also a concurrent practitioner of a more leather, motorcycle, Bear vibe. For me the two will forever go hand in hand.



Herb is the Verb a great success! (pics)

Last week, students from UBC Okanagan’s Theory of Creative Writing class (CRWR260) gave their audience and passers-by a unique digital literary experience. The event was a real-time, collaborative composition using Twitter as its medium, and VisibleTweets as its visual platform.

Verbage3 - Hartley quote

Writing students have been investigating how current research in plant science challenges traditionally-held concepts of organisms’ liveliness, cognition, feeling and sentience. They have worked in collaboration with students from BIOC301, the plant biochemistry class run by Dr. Susan Murch. In response to poetic texts and sound poems read live over a microphone by their professor (moi) and their peers, and using the hashtag #vherbage, students tweeted lines of text composed spontaneously and/or texts collaged from written conversations with the plant science students.  Tweets scrolled in real time across large screens set up in the public foyer of the Fipke Building, where members of the university community, some who came for the event, and others who were just passing by or waiting in line to get their cup of coffee, were able to read the poem as it was being created.

The tweets will be curated into one multi-authored online poem which will appear on the collaboratively created website (not live yet!) that is the class’s final project.

The event was a great way to showcase interdisciplinary work between our fine arts students and science students, and to introduce new pedagogies and forms of writing to a wider audience. To my students: way to go, guys. Looking forward to seeing what you write for our final digital project! 

Thanks to the Department of Creative Studies, to Dr. Susan Murch, Paul Marck, and the Celebrate Research Week team for their help.

Verbage5 - Hebert quote

Ottawa Event: Plant Intelligence – Rethinking Thinking – March 18

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Heads up Ottawa peeps. Canadian National Herbarium botanist Paul Sokoloff will be speaking about how dumb plants may not be on Tuesday March 18 at 7 pm at the Canadian #MuseumofNature. Check it out.

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.