Speaking with Plants in the New York Times
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
In the previous Supernature post, I introduced the theme and titular book of this series, Lyall Watson’s 1973 book Supernature. Today, I want to take us back to 1973 (good year for books on paranormal ecology, I guess) before turning to the present day:
On December 30th, 1973, The New York Times published a review of Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird’s bestselling book The Secret Life of Plants. Secret Life was an immensely popular collection of speculative research into plant cognition (it was also a 1979 documentary, for which Stevie Wonder recorded an absolutely killer soundtrack). The Times review is an almost farcical exercise in the kind of cruel pseudoskepticism that often greets popular works on the paranormal: “Amateur psychic research has always looked at least slightly dotty,” write the authors. “Tompkins and Bird are sublimely oblivious of this fact, and as a result have turned out the funniest unintentionally funny book of the year.”
It’s the kind of mocking non-review that seems motivated by something deeper than actual skepticism, or the quality of the research under review, or its subject matter (for an extended analysis of the general phenomenon of pseudoskepticism and the organizations that promote it, like CSICOP, take a look at George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal). By 2019, however, the Times had changed their tune completely: “Reality has become rather strange lately,” wrote Elle Schechet. “Tech billionaires are trying to colonize the moon. U.F.O.s appear to exist, in some capacity.” (Never mind the relatively audacious move of the Times of using a shift in their own coverage of UFOs as the metric for reality’s increasing “strangeness"). This truthful admission, however self-serving and overdue, appeared in a profile and review of Monica Gagliano and her 2019 book Thus Spoke the Plant.
Thus Spoke the Plant is a scientific memoir in which Gagliano describes how her own repeated spiritual experiences with plants led her to shift her research focus from marine ecology to plant ecology, and from “conventional” science to that supposedly discredited field of plant cognition. The events of the book include both Gagliano’s recollection of her own profoundly meaningful experiences of the dieta, the traditional Amazonian method for establishing dialog with a plant, and in-depth descriptions of the experiments that result from these dialogs. Most impressively, these experiments (which, Gagliano suggests, are often designed in part by the plants) have been consistently published in leading peer-reviewed journals in plant science. The resulting memoir is a nicely tangled synthesis of Gagliano’s scientific and spiritual life.
An especially interesting aspect of Gagliano’s work in Thus Spoke, to me, is her succinct and piercing ethical critique of conventional science, which she derives from the results of of her empirical analyses. She puts it rather simply: “The disarticulation of plants as subjects and their cultural (re)construction as objects of scientific exploration not only contradicts the emerging and expanding understanding of plant behavior, including matters of plant intelligence, agency, and intersubjectivity, but it is also of monumental concern in regards to the ethical significance of human-plant relations,” she writes (68).
Gagliano does not only position her research as a new phase in the study of cognition in the plant sciences: she takes the extra step of pointing out how her own scientific work has profound implications for the moral status of nonhumans in contemporary society. Indeed, she turns these tables of science against itself when she points out that studies in genetic modification are, in fact, unscientific approaches rooted in false assumptions about the ethical and subjective status of plants: “Under these circumstances, the scientific method demands us to rectify our approach be de-objectifying plants and no longer granting scientific legitimacy to GM [genetic modification] plant research.” (107)
Gagliano’s call for new recognition of the moral and ethical status of nonhumans in the sciences and her extremely impressive scientific record both follow and rely on the experiences in the book that we might call spiritual, religious, or paranormal. This is what sets her book apart and what has made her the subject of scrutiny by her peers: she is extremely open about the role of these paranormal experiences in her life and science. I won’t attempt to excerpt or describe her experiences here, because to do so would deprive them the richness of their context of their place within the memoir (and her own extended auto-exegesis is more interesting than any reflection I could offer). Thus Spoke the Plant needs to be read as a whole to get the picture.
For its part, the Times review of Gagliano’s book was far fairer and more favorable than their approach to Secret Life in 1973. This is, we might presume, because the state of plant science in 2019 has finally caught up with many of the speculative claims made in 1973’s Secret Life: “Plants share nutrients and recognize kin. They communicate with each other. They can count. They can feel you touching them” the Times article points out. The Times takes Gagliano’s science seriously, even as the explicitly paranormal dimensions of her work are treated at more of a distance in the article.
Secret Life, like Lyall Watson’s Supernature, was met with a simultaneous and contradictory reception that seems unique to scientific books that look seriously at paranormal phenomena: a critical response so fiercely mocking and dismissive and a public interest so wide and deep that it is almost impossible to consider these works at face-value today (I don’t have the space or wherewithal to look more deeply into pseudoskepticism here, but please do take a look at Hansen’s Trickster). They are at once so influential and reviled, discredited and vindicated, that it is hard to know how to read, interpret, and understand them fifty years later. The vast popular appeal of such works and the way they simultaneously catalyze such a barrage of vociferous critique are, I think, two sides of the same coin: it is a fate that seems reserved for these topics that hold up a mirror to shine a bright light back into the face of the Enlightenment.
A significant and related analog, I think, is the rising status of psychedelics over the past fifty years and their profound implications for the study of religion and science going forward. Like the once-derided science of plant cognition and communication, psychedelic research has undergone a profound shift in mass media and the public imagination over the last half-century. In our year of interest for Supernature and Secret Life, 1973, Timothy Leary sat rotting in solitary confinement in Folsom Prison, California. In 2019, Michael Pollan was encouraging the use of psychedelics on venues like NPR and C-SPAN, while Monica Gagliano was being written up in a glowing Times profile.
While psychedelics do play some role in Gagliano’s memoir (and Watson’s oeuvre), there is much more to this story. Maybe the Times was right. Things do seem rather strange, lately.