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.
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!