Critical Plant Studies Literature Review

Written as part of my proposal for my forthcoming dissertation, Arboreality: Revisioning Trees in the Western Paradigm.

Earth Altar from a  Morning Altars  workshop in Oakland, CA

Earth Altar from a Morning Altars workshop in Oakland, CA

As a study of trees in the Western paradigm, this dissertation enters into the conversation with thinkers in plant studies or critical plant studies. Plant studies draws comparison to animal and multispecies studies and engages thinkers across diverse disciplines. Key voices in this nascent field are Matthew Hall, Michael Marder, Luce Irigaray, and Monica Gagliano among others.

Of course, thinkers have been addressing trees, forests, and plants throughout the history of the written word. However, in the recent past, there has been a surge in interest in plants and plant being specifically. There are some forerunners to this trend. In 1980, Carolyn Merchant published her seminal book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, connecting the oppression of nature to the oppression of women and both to the thought that arose in the West from 1500 to 1700. The book includes a chapter titled, “Farm, Fen, and Forest: European Ecology in Transition,” in which she associates the deforestation of England, France, Germany, and Italy with economic changes that also led to changes in the thought of the time.[1] The work then goes on to explicate how developments in philosophy and science created structures of thought that linked and subjugated both women and nature. Merchant’s work has been cited by many scholars, particularly in feminist works, but also across disciplines. Also preceding recent works is Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992. Harrison’s book reviews the forest ecologically and in the literature and art of Western culture. He claims, “Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests.”[2] He moves from ancient European conceptions of forests through the Enlightenment and to the woods of North America, keeping in mind the core questions of the Western paradigm throughout. The book is well received in the field of ecocriticism, yet rarely cited in works on plant studies, and it is a shame that such a wide-ranging and important work on forests in the West has been overlooked in this emerging field. In 1998, Laura Rival edited a volume entitled, The Social Lives of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. The essays focus on trees in their symbolic use across cultures, especially in society and politics. This work is important in cultural geography, but is also rarely cited by plant studies scholars. These three examples are an early turn towards looking at plants, trees, and forests with more focused attention.

Thinking on animal others lead the way to plant studies. While I will avoid surveying the fields of animal studies, multispecies studies, and post-humanism, there are key works that are both transdisciplinary and heavily cited by plant studies scholars. For this review, I will include one: Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, published in 2007, following her 2003 The Companion Species Manifesto, a personal reflection piece. When Species Meet reframes our relationships to nonhuman others, and Haraway starts by asking about her dog’s being and how she and her dog are entangled together in their relationship. She also expands to question the cultural, political, and ethical implications of these questions. She deeply engages postmodern philosophy in the book to inquire about and describe companion species. While her focus is on animals, she does use the term “critter” to include species of plants as well.[3] Notably, Anna Tsing applied her concept of companion species to mushrooms in her 2012 article, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.”

Beginning in the early 2000s, both early works in the field of plant studies and new insights in plant biology emerged in the literature. Well ahead of other works, Elaine P. Miller published The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine in 2002. While the primary thesis of the book is to illuminate the vegetative soul, as taken from both Aristotle and M. H. Abrams, and referring to subjectivity and genius as an organic relationship between creativity and nature.[4] She reviews several thinkers primarily in the German Idealist tradition using a “plant-like reading”[5] as well as a feminist lens to understand their works on and about plants and further illuminate their thought on subjectivity. Also published in the first years of the 21st century, Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World is notable for its questioning the received relationship between humans and plants worldwide.

Also at work during this time period was a revolution in plant biology due to the emergence of plant intelligence, or plant neurobiology, terminology in scientific literature which remains ongoing. The current conversation regarding plant intelligence began in 2002 with a short article by the botanist Anthony Trewavas entitled “Mindless Mastery” in Nature, which questioned whether plants could be considered intelligent. Trewavas quickly followed it in 2003 with an article entitled “Aspects of Plant Intelligence” in the journal Annals of Botany. In the second article, he argues that plant intelligence has been overlooked due to the high variation in timescales between humans and plants, which can be temporarily remedied using modern time-lapse photography and has led to a deeper understanding of plant’s interactions with the external world. Trewavas’ view was quickly criticized by biologist Richard Firn, in his 2003 “Plant Intelligence: An Alternative Point of View,” also in the Annals of Botany, which notes the argument for intelligence was based, problematically, in thinking about plants as individuals. Firn’s primary issue stands with semantics: he is uncomfortable calling plants intelligent in ways that parallel what is meant by intelligence in humans. Trewavas’ subsequent response, “Aspects of Plant Intelligence: An Answer to Firn” in 2004 points out the simplicity inherent in the critique of linguistic terminology. The term plant neurobiology then gained popularity among some biologists in 2005, sparking several symposia, the Society of Plant Neurobiology, and the journal Plant Signaling & Behavior.  In a 2007 letter entitled “Plant Neurobiology: No Brain, No Gain?” in Trends in Plant Science, a list of 33 scientists from around the world critiqued the terminology, questioning the concept itself. They stated, “plant neurobiology does not add to our understanding of plant physiology, plant cell biology or signaling.”[6] The co-authors concluded the letter by acknowledging the field for opening questions about plant signaling, but urging their fellow scientists to critically and rigorously examine their research and the field itself. Biologist Daniel Chamovitz, who wrote the popularly focused What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, published later in 2012, also rejects the linguistics around neurobiology and intelligence, instead opting for the question, “are plants aware?”[7] The work affirmatively answers the question on plant awareness with examples of plants differentiating colors, deciphering smells, distinguishing touches, changing their shape, and adjusting based on memory. This conversation is ongoing, and thinkers in diverse fields are listening, and responding by working towards conceptualizing plants in light of this new scientific information.

Early works on human and plant relationships emerged in the field of human geography. In 2002, Paul Cloke and Owen Jones published Tree Cultures: The Place of Trees and Trees in their Place. Cloke and Jones focus on trees as exemplary of the relationship between nature and society, and considers non-human agency, ethics, and place relations as part of their study. An article, “Cultural Ecology: Emerging Human-Plant Geographies,” published in 2009 in Progress in Human Geography, by Lesley Head and Jennifer Atchison, reviews the work in the field, including The Social Life of Trees and Tree Cultures, and proposes a new area of study: human-plant geographies. The article details the current work in the area linking plant research to cultural geographic studies and reasoning for continuing research. However, plant studies scholars have not often integrated these works into their studies, missing critical pieces on the interconnections between trees and society.

               Plant studies has emerged with gusto in the 2010s. In 2011, Matthew Hall published his Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, which is a survey of attitudes towards plants, beginning with the Greeks, and including Christian, Hindu, Animist, and Pagan views among others. His work is an attempt to uncover a zoocentric, or animal-focused outlook, in Western ideas and propose inclusive and moral ideas by reviewing non-Western sources. He also makes claims about plant being and says, “to place plants in the ontological category of persons is neither fanciful nor deluded.”[8] Quickly following this work, John Charles Ryan called for plant studies to begin in earnest in his 2012 Societies article, “Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature’s Agency through Human-Plant Studies.” Ryan suggested addressing, “plant intelligence, as well as secular or sacred human-plant interactions.”[9] Scholars have answered the call.

Voices from a variety of fields describe new ways of thinking on plants. Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn published How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human in 2013. His work is an anthropological study of the Runa people of Ecuador and the forest that lives with them. Using semiotics and an ontological frame, Kohn seeks to show how thoughts extend beyond the human, particularly into the forest. How Forests Think is an anthropological work and represents the Ontological Turn[10] in anthropology, and it can also be considered within the field of plant studies because Kohn engages with the forest and plants of the forest in novel ways. From the biological sciences, Monica Gagliano began publishing on plant cognition and communication in 2012 and has continued to publish several articles each year. Of note is her article “Seeing Green: The Re-Discovery of Plants and Nature’s Wisdom” in Societies, published in 2013. Closely following Hall’s work, she integrates details from the biological literature with the thought regarding plants and proposes, as Hall also does, the idea of plant blindness, in which humans so background plants they are not even seen. She calls for a paradigm shift due to this new scientific information.[11]

Michael Marder is a key voice in the plant studies field, publishing several articles and in short succession three books, including one co-authored with Luce Irigaray, on the topic as well as editing a book series on Critical Plant Studies focused on philosophy and literature hosted by Brill. Marder published his article, “Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence” in 2012 in Plant Signaling & Behavior, where he argues for a phenomenological view of plants he calls phytophenomenology which affirms plant intentionality and subjectivity in a specialized view which does not include “autonomy, unity, individuality, personhood, or will.”[12] This is a different view of phenomenology and plants than I will be proposing in my work. His article was quickly followed in 2013 by his book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. The book engages plants in an attempt to create a philosophical and ontological position from the plant realm in a philosophic biomimicry. He claims plant-thinking is “non-conscious intentionality,” which offers meaning even in the absence of consciousness.[13] Marder does not adequately address recent studies in plant biology and by denying plants any form of consciousness, he maintains the traditional philosophic dualism between human/animal and plant. His subsequent book, published in 2014, is entitled The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, and he reviews philosophical history through its plant representatives. Finally, Marder and Luce Irigaray recently published Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives in 2016. Each author presents their own philosophy of vegetal being separately, although with parallel subheadings. Both Irigaray and Marder address the vegetal world and each other in their writing to explore plants philosophically.

Also published in 2016 is Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. While this book is better placed in multispecies studies, Haraway revives her study of critters from her earlier work while also thinking deeply about tentacular ones, which encompasses a myriad of creatures including those with “swelling roots, reaching and climbing tendrilled ones,” or plants.[14] The tentacular ones lead Haraway to propose the Chthulucene as opposed to the Anthropocene or Capitalocene as a way forward in our troubled world. Most recently in 2017, Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira edited a volume entitled The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, offering essays from various authors in plant studies falling in the three distinctions listed in the subtitle. Authors and perspectives include those from biologists and philosophers as well as ecocriticism and comparative literature scholars.

Moving away from plant studies, the recent renaissance in nature writing – what some have called the ‘new nature writing’ – has produced a number of important works by biologists and ecologists in dendrology, works that directly relate to my project to rethink the human relationship to trees. Below are three examples that are particularly representative of this broader trend. In her 2008 work, Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, Nalini Nadkarni interweaves her forest canopy work with her own story of discovering trees as well as poetic reflections throughout the book. In a statement resonant with Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, she says, “trees can be as familiar to us as our own bodies.”[15] She has had deeply felt experiences in the presence of trees throughout her life and allowed herself the space to reflect on their meaning in addition to her scientific work in tree canopies and with students. Similarly, in her 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer brings forward a paradigm very different than that of the Western philosophic tradition. Through her research as a professional biologist and her lineage, she discusses indigenous worldviews which acknowledge and prioritize the living essence of non-human beings. My discussion will focus on her statements and conclusions in an attempt to respectfully engage indigenous wisdom and knowledge. She recognizes the plants themselves, especially the trees, as her teachers.[16] She also discusses how plants in indigenous cultures are asked for their lives before harvesting and the plants offer themselves as gifts or refuse. She explains how she uses both her scientific, analytical mind and her intuitive mind to understand the plants’ answer, both by assessing environmental health and by her inner knowing.[17] She calls for a relational paradigm based on an assumption of personhood respectfully drawn from indigenous wisdom. Her work promotes not only ecological restoration of damaged areas, but “the restoration of relationship between plants and people.”[18] Finally, Hope Jahren published her popular work Lab Girl in 2016 to share her story of becoming a professional scientist and her unique understanding of how plants interact with their worlds. Throughout her career, Jahren has worked to redefine the study of plants by suggesting plants can control their environment, rather than the common presupposition that the environment controls the plant.[19] She came to this insight by studying plants, “not from the outside, but from the inside” and trying to use their logic rather than her own.[20]

Each of these works will serve to support my positions and allow me to build my thesis. This review only includes a small portion of the total sources I will use, as I will also be drawing from philosophical works and essays throughout the Western canon and scientific articles and popularly written books by professional scientists as well as works from other diverse fields to support points throughout my work.


[1] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), 62.

[2] Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), ix.

[3] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 330.

[4] Elaine P. Miller, The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 4-5.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Alpi et. al. "Plant Neurobiology: No Brain, No Gain?" Trends in Plant Science 12, no. 4 (2007).

[7] Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), 137.

[8] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, (Albany, New York: State University of New York, 2011), 11.

[9] John Charles Ryan, "Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature's Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS)," Societies 2, (2012): 112.

[10] The Ontological Turn is a debated trend in anthropology that intersects with philosophical ontology. For more on this, see Lewis Daly, Katherine French, Theresa L. Miller, and Luiseach Nic Eoin. "Integrating Ontology into Ethnobotanical Research." Journal of Ethnobiology 36, no. 1 (2016): 1-9.

[11]  Monica Gagliano, "Seeing Green: The Re-Discovery of Plants and Nature's Wisdom," Societies 3, (2013): 152.

[12] Marder, Michael. "Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence." Plant Signaling & Behavior 7, no. 11 (2012): 1371.

[13] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 154.

[14] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin the Chthulucene, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 32.

[15] Nalini Nadkarni, Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008), 19.

[16] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, (Canada: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 18, 42.

[17] Ibid., 178.

[18] Ibid., 263.

[19] Hope Jahren, Lab Girl, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 151.

[20] Ibid., 75.