So My Anthropomorphism Wasn’t Totally Off Base!

About Beronda-Beronda L. Montgomery, image from berondamontgomery.com

I’ve noted on occasion that I tend to go pretty far down the anthropomorphism path. An example: our house was long shaded by wonderful old trees.

I loved them for their natural beauty, their cooling us from the summer’s heat, their enveloping us with privacy. Sitting beneath them or watching from a window as their leaves swished in the breeze, I invariably felt calm and relaxed.

Over time, a number of these trees became ill. We always waited til we’d received solid confirmation that they were dying, when we had no choice but to take them down before they toppled onto our house in a storm.

That potential became frighteningly real during a severe windstorm last year, when three enormous nearby trees fell, their roots yanking up huge chunks of sidewalk and leaving deep holes. They severely damaged a house and two cars; fortunately, no one was hurt.

Still, bidding goodbye to trees as they were cut down was always hard. I did think of them as my friends.

We’re now planting a row of large, fast-growing bushes in our backyard to fill the treeless voids and restore some privacy.

And just in time, I’m learning that there will be, in fact, an interdependence among those bushes—and among the bushes and us.

It seems that the remarkable nature of plants is common knowledge among plant biologists, but I’d never known the details to back up my feelings. Then I was introduced—via an Alan Alda Science Clear&Vivid podcast—to Dr. Beronda L. Montgomery, yet another of the dynamo individuals whom Alda showcases.

Montgomery’s a Foundation Professor at Michigan State University—in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics. She’s also a prominent mentor—a position that is clearly important to her.

And she’s a writer. She spoke with Alda about her book Lessons from Plants, published by Harvard University Press in April. When the book came out, she was a frequent guest on webinars and YouTube appearances.

And she is a Black woman profoundly concerned about social justice and how it can be achieved.

Though she doesn’t dwell on the difficulties of reaching her current status, she did say “sometimes extra work has to be done,” and it took a lot of energy and “can be exhausting.”

Her mentoring, she says, is to make sure those who follow her “won’t have to work as hard.”

In every part of her life, she draws on the lessons she’s learned from plants. She communicates them all quite seamlessly.

Where to begin? This is just a brief taste of her “lessons from plants.”

First, it’s important to know that though we think of plants as solitary, they are most often growing in “physically and chemically connected networks” through which they actually communicate.

Montgomery says she’s been inspired by the collaboration that exists. Example: the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants. The fungi improve the plant’s ability to increase uptake of water and phosphates from the soil. The plant, in turn, produces sugars as a resource for the fungi.

A ‘nurse plant’ cares for a younger plant by providing it with sucrose. We know this occurs because the movement of the sucrose from one plant to the other is visible via radioactive carbon.

From her lab’s studies of the proteins in trees that react to the amount of available light, they’ve learned that trees communicate with one another—leaving gaps in the forest canopy so they don’t have to compete for sunlight.

Trees can actually detect a rainbow of colors—and “red light means full light.”

As an example of reciprocity, she cites the work of Indigenous scholars that led to the concept of the ‘three sisters’: plant corn, beans, and squash together. The now-familial trio gives and takes from one another—all doing better than they would if they’d been planted alone.

The corn is planted first, providing a tall structure so that the beans can grow higher than they otherwise could, avoiding bacteria or other soil-related problems.

The beans, for their part, provide fertilizer to the corn through nitrogen conversion. Then comes the squash, growing close to the ground so it prevents weeds from attacking the other two and keeps the soil moistened; in return, it receives nourishing nitrogen and shade.

For Montgomery, this is a superb metaphor for the value of diversity:

“Each has something to offer…resulting in a richer community than if we were in isolation.”

Reminiscing about her childhood, she recalls her mother’s ‘green thumb,’ which simply meant she was alert to the cues that the plants gave her and responded accordingly: “this one’s bending and needs more sun,” another needs to be repotted.

From this premise, she stresses that in such circumstances, we’re unlikely to blame the plant itself for its failure to thrive; we recognize we need to change the environment.

She encourages similar thinking concerning students who aren’t doing well: what is needed to help them thrive?

Along those lines, Montgomery speaks of plants’ ability “to offer help to their neighbors to prepare” them for environmental challenges.

Plants warn others of danger through a “volatile organic compound” they release into the air or through their roots into the soil.

Equally important, they’re able “to ask for help when in distress.”

Example: When a plant is attacked by mites, though it can’t fend off the mites itself, it can produce a chemical that attracts wasps, which dine on the mites.

Similarly, humans must learn to ask for help when they need it.

Published by Harvard University Press, April, 2021

Montgomery uses her plant stories “almost everywhere,” she says. As a leader in her university, when confronted with instances of sexism or racism, she notes that it’s difficult to address these issues with an individual directly.

But once she launches into her charming plant stories, she finds it easier to segue into pointing out to someone that “You’re suffering from your plant caretaking abilities.”

Her greatest gift to herself, she says, is to assume that people have good intentions and not to give up on them. “I assume I still have a lot to learn, and the other person is open.” She’s often been rewarded for these assumptions to find people more willing to understand and engage with her.

“You have to be open to allies and seek out allies; we each have contributions [to make], and we need each other’s contributions to us.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go into our backyard and welcome our new green friends—still sporting their burlap arrival apparel.

To make sure they grow strong roots during this first season—in a heat wave they didn’t ask for—we must water them sufficiently and diligently.

There are ten of them for company and cooperation: a nice new community that we hope will collectively fill out and grow tall and straight—if we’re lucky and alert to their needs!

Annie

29 thoughts on “So My Anthropomorphism Wasn’t Totally Off Base!

  1. How wonderful — the piece, your new plants, the whole thing. Have you read The Overstory, Richard Powers, 2019 Pulitzer? He weaves the very things you speak of, the science of plant communication, into the tale, which to my mind, was one of the best parts of the work. Thank you for introducing me to this biologist / plant geneticist. She sounds amazing — and so measured and kind. Honestly, Annie, you introduce us to the best folks. Appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much, Denise! I was delighted to hear Dr Montgomery—and so pleased that you and others find her work as inspiring as I do. I did read The Overstory, but I may have to read it again. I actually heard Obama tell Ezra Klein in an interview that it was one of the books he’d most enjoyed recently.

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  2. Interesting stuff. We don’t generally think of plants as having symbiotic relationships with each other, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t. Just like animals, they’ve been adapting to their environment for hundreds of millions of years, and other plants have always been part of that environment. They have symbiotic relationships with animals, like growing flowers to attract bees to pollinate them, or the example you mention where a plant draws wasps to kill off mites.

    We ourselves have at least one symbiotic mutual adaptation with plants that I know of. Most primates (including our immediate ape relatives and ancestors) are largely fruit-eaters. Primates are also, as far as I know, the only group of mammals that have good color vision. It’s thought that this evolved to help our ancestors see fruit more clearly against the background of green leaves in the trees, and to know quickly when it’s ripe (since fruit changes color as it ripens). The fruit trees, in turn, evolved more brightly-colored fruit to attract primates to eat it, since when fruit is taken for food by primates it results in the seeds being spread around instead of all just falling near the tree. So we probably owe our color vision to a mutually-beneficial relationship with fruit trees over several million years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Infidel, for adding such interesting information. This evolutionary “stuff” just becomes richer and richer. It’s great to have reminders of our interdependence with other forms of life.
      Owing our color vision to fruit trees is one peachy concept!

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  3. Remarkable. This kind of perspective on nature is entirely new to me – it makes sense though. Plants are alive just like us and share quite a few of the same quailities because they are needed to be regarded as a living being. I also feel sad sometimes when a tree or plant gets cut down or killed. Plants sometimes carry our memories with them, provide us with food, and I think it’s not silly at all that we sometimes develop close friendship relationships with them.

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    1. Thank you, Simone. Your point about plants carrying memories resonates with me! And I’m happy to develop relationships with our ten new bushes—oops—now eleven. The landscaper just expanded our green community by one to fill in a space not previously covered.

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  4. I love the analogy of plant diversity to human diversity–both resulting in a stronger system overall. I spend a lot of time working in my garden but haven’t found the bandwidth to study the art/science of gardening. I just throw plants together willy nilly and hoping for the best.

    I can relate to your mourning the loss of trees. We have a multi-story apartment bldg behind us. When we moved in, there was a nice lineup of large trees along the back of the property. They’d been maintained for decades by the utility companies who would send out crews every few years to trim around the wires running through them. Then, about 5 years ago, such crews started hacking everything down. They’ve butchered the entire city. I assume the new policy is saving money but it’s a sad trade.

    People forming a bond with plants reminds me of a novella I read last year by Steinbeck: To A God Unknown. I highly recommend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also love the diversity analogy, Carol—and her other comparisons as well.
      The removal of trees for any non-safety-related reason infuriates me—especially as they’re such an asset in combating climate change.
      Thx for the Steinbeck recommendation. I‘ll put it on my list.
      That reminds me: The Boston Globe keeps offering me subscription deals. One enticement was a piece on the ten top Globe Magazine articles. First mention was the book about Dennis and his quest.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did hear about the Globe. I’m impressed that you took note of it.

        I’m slowly making my way through Blanding’s book. He’s done a great job. I hope his book receives the acclaim it deserves and that Dennis earns a seat at the Shakespearean scholars table. I’ve known him through all of this but had no idea how far he’d taken his theories. Blanding pulls it all together, interweaving a history of England. The organization skills (of both men) required to pull it all together are mind-boggling.

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  5. I am currently re-reading some of James Lovelock’s work on Gaia. The notion that plants communicate is a microscopism of the Gaia theory – that the earth is self managing and self correcting. To quote Lovelock, “we must see the Earth as a planet that can respond to changes we make, either by cancelling the changes or by cancelling us. Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life ……..”

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