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Flower Power for Animal People [Book Reviews]

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. To soothe myself into slumber, I listened to insects and imagined what the trees and other plants around me might be doing. I know that birch branches allow themselves to relax in the dark, and I encouraged my shoulders to do the same. I imagined that the birch trees near my Airstream might be better able to rest now that I had turned off my light. But here’s what finally convinced my brain to settle itself: I imagined all of the roots of all of the plants in my vicinity reaching ever further downward and outward, drawing up water, minerals, and other nutrients along the way. Somehow, that convinced my brain that it could rest: The plants were on the job.

While my own fondness for flora may be, admittedly, extreme, I do think it’s vital for vegans and other animal advocates to both respect and know something about the plants upon whom the whole planet depends. Speciesism elevates humans over all other organisms, not only nonhuman animals but also the plants that make all animal life (including human life) possible. If we’re serious about undermining that way of thinking, we must challenge our own reflexive disregard for other life forms. In order to be practiced as widely as we wish, veganism will require a world-wide shift to plant-based agricultural economies. How are we supposed to facilitate that if we don’t know anything about the kinds of plants that people can eat?

Some vegans worry, I suspect, about inadvertently playing into the hands of haters who demand to know why we don’t fret about hurting plant feelings. This might lead animal advocates to dismiss the exciting, and growing, body of evidence that plants have sensations and capabilities far beyond what most people imagine. But this is silly! The easiest answer to that common challenge is to simply point out that meat-eaters are responsible for far more plant deaths than vegans, given the large number of plants consumed by animals raised to be eaten by people. But wouldn’t it be even better to be able to knowledgeably bemoan the loss of pl diversity driven by the miles and miles of fields containing nothing but corn intended to be “livestock” feed? And, wouldn’t it be even better than that to be able to explain why it is that plants do share many sensory capabilities with us and other animals (as well as having many senses and skills we lack) but don’t experience what we call pain?

While not everybody needs to be a botanist, gardener, or agronomist, the vegan and animal liberation movements will become more strategically imaginative and better able to interface with the environmental and food justice movements if we generally become more conversant with the wonders of the plant world. So, let me tell you about three recent books written for general readers that I think you might enjoy while learning something useful.

The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do
by John Warren (CABI Publishing, 2014)

People regularly eat comparatively few of the grains, fruits, greens, legumes and tubers that we could consume. As one reviewer put it:

Of Earth’s estimated 400,000 plant species, we could eat some 300,000, armed with the right imagination, boldness and preparation. Yet humans, possibly the supreme generalist, eat a mere 200 species globally, and half our plant-sourced protein and calories come from just three: maize, rice and wheat.

Why? How did it come to be that a handful of plants make up such a huge proportion of daily diets worldwide? Part of the answer lies with plants, the other part with people. Warren asks and answers many fascinating questions about the plant side of the puzzle, showing how and why certain plants came to be so important to people. Along the way, he tells many tales that may be familiar to garden geeks like me but will be enchanting to readers who haven’t before pondered the relationships between people and plants. And so many stories! Even if you have read about this topic before, you’re sure to learn something new.

I was at times disappointed that Warren didn’t fully answer the many absorbing questions raised in his introductory chapter, but there’s only so much ground that can be covered in such a slim and accessible volume as this. So much depends upon vagaries of human history and psychology that would have taken him too far afield. And, simply considering the questions as Warren raised them was enough to spark both ideas and more questions for me. Since people collectively will need to be more adventurous and creative going forward, that’s a useful outcome all by itself. So, here’s hoping that other people will pick up this book and then look around at the many edible but not (yet) widely eaten plants in their environs, asking “what if…?”

The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History
by Thor Hanson (Basic Books, 2015)

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Probably seeds. Coffee? A seed. Bread made from whole wheat? More seeds. Perhaps some almond milk splashed into the coffee or onto flakes made of corn? More seeds and more seeds.

It makes sense if you think about it: Seeds have to nourish developing plants until they begin to photosynthesize and take up minerals through their roots, so of course they are packed with nutrients. This is just one of many insights that await the reader of this travelogue through the wide world of seeds and the scientists who study them.

If you like travelogues, you’ll love this book, which is jam-packed with diverting detours. I sometimes wished that Hanson hadn’t felt the need to share every story he heard while searching out the answers to his questions about seeds. But that was my only quibble with what is a wholly worthwhile book that ought to be of especial interest to those of us vegans who seem to subsist entirely on seeds.

As with Warren’s book, I found that much of the benefit of reading this book came from the degree to which it provoked me to ask questions I hadn’t considered before. Sometimes the book answered those questions, sometimes not. Either way, I felt myself improved by the process of pondering the mysterious miracles by which seeds reproduce plants, feeding us and many other animals along the way.

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses
by Daniel Chamovitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Research on plant sensation and communication is a hot topic in botany right now. This 2012 book is already a bit behind the times but still serves as a wonderful introduction to the intriguing question of how plants perceive and respond to the world. For anyone tempted to mistake plants for insensate and inert objects, it will be an eye opener.

Speaking of eyes, plants don’t have them, but they certainly do “see” light and are even able to distinguish between red and blue light. Plants not only orient their growing tips toward the light but many also use day length (or, rather, night length) to determine when to flower. Similarly, plants don’t have noses but certainly do sense and respond to the chemicals we call scents. This allows them to pick up and respond to signals sent by each other, for example by producing insect repellent chemicals in response to the news of a beetle attack on a nearby plant.

Don’t be afraid of this book! While the topics involve a fair amount of science, Chamovitz makes everything easy to understand. And — no — you will not discover that plants feel pain. To the contrary, you will learn that, even though plants and animals share very many capabilities and characteristics, pain evolved as an urgent motivator for mobile beings to quickly get themselves out of harm’s way (or stop doing things that hurt themselves). Plants do respond to harms such as being munched by an insect, but did not need to evolve the sensation we call pain to do so. Similarly, while plants certainly are aware of the world, they probably are not aware of themselves in the sense that we call consciousness, having never needed to develop the kind of nervous system necessary for this.

That doesn’t mean that plants don’t deserve more respect than they get from hubristic humans. My hope is that this book will inspire people to feel more of an affinity with plants and also have more respect for their projects. My own practice is to avoid interfering with plants unless I have a very good reason for doing so, and even then to be as minimally disruptive as possible. There’s so much more we still don’t know about plants and the multi-species communities in which they participate. Since everything depends on them, I prefer to trust them to their world-making (and awe-inspiring) activities.

PS — for more examples of being inspired by the other-than-human world, check out the latest VINE Newsletter!

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