I moved to Champaign with a few shoots of aloe from the mother plant in my family’s kitchen, which came from a piece of the plant in my grandmother’s windowsill over her kitchen sink. The trip down had been a little rough, and the pot had tipped, upsetting the hardly rooted shoots. As that succulent sat on my kitchen table, I wondered if it was getting enough—or too much—sun and water, if it would survive the turbulence. Now, seven and a half months later, that little aloe has almost outgrown its pot, and instead of worrying about survival, I wonder about well-being and the possibility of sentience. For instance, I’ve noticed the ash white corpse of an isopod curled up underneath its thick, spiky leaves: did that creature die of age? lack of food? or did the aloe kill it, somehow, for its nitrogen?
That last question, I know, sounds a little too sci-fi, a bit too Little Shoppe of Horrors for my quiet, sunlit apartment, but it’s really not far-fetched. Recently, I’ve learned that potato plants will produce chemicals on their leaves to kill bugs; then, when the bugs fall to the ground and decompose they provide the plants with needed nutrients. Smart, huh?
Believe it or not, critical plant studies is an emerging field in literary theory, and this semester I’m taking the first class that my university is offering. At first, the concept of intelligent plants seemed a little far-fetched, or, rather, whimsical, a kind of wishful thinking that envisioned a magical world, rather Tolkein-esque. Not that I’m at all opposed to a world like that, mind you, but now I’m sold, without the magic. It all comes down to the definition of intelligence offered by Stefano Mancuso, the director of the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology: the ability to solve problems. In this TED Talk, he details some examples of plant intelligence and gives a general idea of his book, Brilliant Green. It’s worth a watch, or a read, if you’re so inclined.
Alongside the debate about how smart plants are or aren’t, is the question of why, for so many thousands of years, we have refused to accord plants this attribute. Why have we granted intelligence to, perhaps, dogs and dolphins, but ignored the whole green world? Why do I think my aloe plant has a much easier life than I do or that the work it does is less important than my own? That I regard my aloe plant as mainly decorative until I burn myself. Then, I feel unapologetically entitled to help myself to its life liquids in order to soothe and help heal my wound. That, after all, is the point of keeping an aloe in the kitchen, the reason my grandmother gave my mother a piece of her plant in the first place, for cooking burns.
What’s at stake here, I think, is the issue of our identity as the crown of creation—a status we continually fight to maintain by dehumanizing other people, exploiting animals, and dismissing (and also exploiting) plants. We’re so afraid of being merely a speck on a pale blue dot that we lord over as much of that dot as we can. As if domination proved our value. But, last week, we were reminded that we’re much more God-loved than God-like. In turn, we’re asked to re-orient our identities.
Meanwhile, my little aloe keeps sending up new shoots, testing the limits of its pot.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.