Saving Fred: Active engagement and storytelling as a remedy for plant blindness

fred

This is Fred. Fred is a potted rescue plant that I found one wintry Friday night in Rundle Mall (Adelaide CBD) lying upended, snapped in half, and looking very miserable underneath a bench. It was after business hours and as the city was ramping up for a frenetic Friday night, I was walking to the train station with a friend, heading to a his house for a quiet evening watching movies after a busy day at the office. While oblivious passers-by swarmed to pubs and clubs, the flash of wilted yellow petals and browned leaf edges glimpsed in my peripheral vision caught my attention – it was obvious that this plant needed hydration and some urgent medical attention. I extracted Fred from beneath the bench and tried to pile as much of the scattered soil back into the pot as I could. Seeing that the stem, though snapped, was still partially attached on one side, I propped it up as best I could with a little stake that remained in the pot. My friend and I then made our way to the train station with our new plant companion.

Very soon Fred, newly named and bearing splint bound with electrical tape in the hopes that the wound would heal, came to live on my office windowsill. The wilted flowers dropped away first, followed by most of the leaves and secondary stems, and I watched with anxiety over the next couple of weeks as it looked more and more likely that my eager attempts to save Fred’s life had been in vain. I grew despondent as Fred was reduced to what looked like just a green stick with a single broad leaf remaining. Nonetheless, I faithfully and regularly maintained the watering regime and Fred stubbornly clung to life.

A couple of weeks after the initial rescue, I arrived at the office and was overjoyed to find little budding leaves at some of the nodes in Fred’s stem. Over the next few weeks, these developed into larger leaves and bright yellow flowers also started blooming. I removed the tape and it appeared that the remaining tissue from the partially snapped node had been enough to sustain Fred and the reattachment had been successful. It has been a month and a half since I first found Fred, and my little begonia friend is still going strong, keeping me company in the office as I head into the final stages of my PhD.

Rescue plants and plant blindness

The other day I posted a photo of Fred to Instagram with the hashtag #rescueplant, thinking it a little play on the usual concept of a rescue animal – I adopted Fred in much the same way as my sister adopted the stray kitten Penelope she found in her garden, and the way my cousin adopts unwanted pets from her local shelter. Fred too had been left unwanted in the mall by a little pop-up flower shop, unsellable and of no use to them because of the injury (I often go back there at night now and collect slightly damaged but still pretty flowers that get left behind, on the look-out for more plants like Fred that might need rescuing).lawrence

To my surprise, when I posted the photo I found quite a few other rescue plants on Instagram under that hashtag, including one account, @lawrencetheplant, which documents the plight of a Croton Petra (Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum “Petra”) called Lawrence who was rescued from a dumpster. This account posts pictures of Lawrence’s rehabilitation and documents the amusing trials of his “new mum”  learning about her plant and trying to take care of him. There are family photos of Lawrence with his (human) siblings, posts where Lawrence finds out about his heritage, as well as information about things that go wrong (overwatering, etc), all told as an extended Instagram story from the (hilarious and alarmed!) perspective of the plant.

The warmth of attention focused on this plant and other Instagram rescue plants got me thinking about some of the literature on plant blindness that I have encountered in writing my thesis. The term was introduced a couple of decades ago to describe a number of related phenomena:

“(a) the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s environment; (b) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs; (c) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms that belong to the Plant Kingdom; and (d) the misguided anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals and thus, as unworthy of consideration” (Wandersee & Schussler, 1999, p. 84)

Since this concept was defined, a literature has grown up around the topic suggesting that it is a robust and widespread phenomenon (at least in the western world). People have difficulty noticing, naming, and attending to plants in the first place, have difficulty recognising and recalling plants from memory, conservation efforts are biased against plants and toward animals, students in a variety of age groups prefer to learn about animals over plants, children and high school students have trouble recognising and attributing “aliveness” to and in plants, and have limited knowledge of and many false beliefs about plant biology and ecology relative to animals.

Given the importance of plants in the world’s (often threatened) ecosystems and cultures, and plants’ value as fascinating organisms in themselves, there are many reasons why plant blindness is a problem. The questions therefore naturally arise: what causes plant blindness, and what can be done about it?

Plant blindness partly arises and persists because of our own perceptual and cognitive biases. Plants often move at a timescale too slow for us to notice, and many of their responses are not even motor responses, but involve physiological changes more suited to dealing with the threats and opportunities that come with their more sessile lifestyles. This means we are less likely to attribute interesting behaviour or even “aliveness” to them and less likely to view them as individual organisms with their own goals and directedness. The way we characterise or identify their behaviour is therefore often fundamentally different to the way that we view, say, individual dogs or ants who display overt motor behaviours that are in many ways similar to our own behaviour.

Other causes of plant blindness are philosophical and historical, having to do with the way that the “nature” of plants has been theorised and discussed over the centuries by philosophers and botanists (which I discussed briefly in an earlier blog post). Partly, too, plant blindness is learnt over the course of our lives. We are taught to pay attention to certain things over others, and taught how to think about and value those things. How and what we learn is influenced by our perceptual and cognitive systems and by the cultural values and philosophical beliefs about plants to which we are exposed. However, there is plenty space to change the way that people learn about, think about, and value plants, and practical ways to work towards this.

Plant storytelling and invested engagement

This is where I think plants like Fred and Lawrence can come in. Emotive, happy-ever-after videos about rescue pets are often shared widely by my friends on social media. These are usually accompanied by the personal histories of the animals involved. We are encouraged to empathise with their plight and personally invest in their stories and well-being. Children also often learn about the needs of animals by helping care for their pets, and develop interest in other animals by being taught about their behaviour in the classroom, or watching them at zoos or animal parks. My local zoo has blogs that you can follow to observe the lives of some of the animals there and learn about the life stories of new arrivals. Plants, on the other hand, are often discussed in the abstract or passively, as representatives of a type rather than as individual living beings, more akin to herbarium specimens than living organisms.

In the literature, many partial remedies to plant blindness are proposed: redesigning curricula to include more plant examples, time-lapse photography to visualise plant movement, age-appropriate plant experiments to learn about plant structure and physiology, actively directing children toward ‘plant mentors’ (significant people in children’s lives that introduce them to interaction with plants), and the use of ‘charismatic plant’ species to generate interest in the botanical domain and conservation (a good example of how this can work involves the recent interest in the Titan Arums at the Adelaide and Mount Lofty botanic gardens, which unexpectedly attracted thousands of visitors when they bloomed). Working towards defeating plant blindness can and should involve all of these elements.

plantsHere though, I wish to discuss and draw attention to the important role that telling the stories of individual plants can play. Storytelling is an important way that we learn how and what to value, and it can give insight into perspective taking where perspectives differ from our own. Introducing plants as individuals (including naming them!), getting people involved in their stories, lifestyles, and needs, getting people to care about a specific plant is, I believe, an often neglected route to changing their concepts associated with the plant realm. Philosophers and educators often talk about conceptual change as though it were just a matter of learning more or better facts and theories about a subject matter. However, getting people to conceptualise plants differently is, I think, as much a matter of changing their ways of seeing and modes of engagement with plants as their acquiring new facts and knowledge.

In practice, these routes to conceptual change often work synergistically. In one direction, knowing more about plants – what they are doing and why – increases their fascination and can draw our attention and interest to them. In the other direction, storytelling about concrete, individual plants (with names!) that encourages valuing and investment of care in them, provides a context for adult engagement with botanical knowledge, or for child-directed active and collaborative learning. If a plant is struggling and we care about it, we want to know why so that we can help. If we are invested in our plant we want to know about its history and what helps it thrive. This helps provide a context of active engagement that facilitates learning about plant biology and ecology, which then drives further interest and engagement.

Reading blogs and stories about individual plants like Lawrence and Fred can be helpful in this respect (for engaging adults, as well as children, particularly if done humorously as in Lawrence’s case). In a pedagogical context, helping children find their own plant to propagate or rescue, care for, and personally invest in can be even more motivating. Encouraging children to find out (actively research) and write about their plant, what it is doing and why (particularly from the plant’s perspective), can be a great way to help them start to overcome plant blindness. With younger children, this can be done through collaborative storytelling and by talking about their plant. In the literature, one well-documented contributing cause of plant blindness is simply the failure (particularly in urban environments) to promote or provide opportunities for children to engage with living plants. Enabling such opportunities may help children start seeing plants in a different way, as active, behaving, and developing individuals to be valued and cared for. This can be done at home, or in a classroom learning context. As a fortunate side-effect, it turns out that fostering a habit of tending to plants also has lifetime mental and physical health benefits.

So what can Fred teach us? 

Helping a child look after a plant like Fred could provide numerous opportunities for learning. Finding out why Fred’s partly severed stem was detrimental, as well as why and when a stem can be put back together, could be a way to learn about how plant vascular tissue transports the nutrients, water and signals that help Fred thrive and respond. Finding out why Fred dropped leaves after wounding and drought stress, as well as how they regrew, would be a good way to introduce some basic plant physiology and information about stress responses. Figuring out whether Fred is a male or a female or both could be used to learn about plant reproduction, pollination, different types of flowers, and how these vary in different plants. Discussing why most of Fred’s leaves grew towards the light could start a conversation on plant tropisms generally (growth movements away from or toward various environmental stimuli). Wondering about Fred’s evolutionary ancestry, what other sorts of plants there are, and how they are like or unlike Fred in various ways could help provide a situation to learn about where Fred sits evolutionarily, and the adaptive value of some of Fred’s features.

As well as providing active care, a child could write a story about Fred, draw pictures of significant events or processes in Fred’s life, create a comic with Fred as the main character, or anything else s/he could think of. As an adult, caring for Fred equally provides opportunities (as demonstrated through Lawrence’s life story on Instagram) for amusing family photos, biologically informative descriptions of life events and anecdotes, and problem solving plant ailments. Botanic gardens could, in the manner of zoos and their animals, introduce new plants or document seasonal goings on via blogs and websites (as many have already started to do). These could inform readers not only about plant species, but by following individual plants and their life histories, could attract people to view particular plants, foster awareness of conservation efforts, and give urban dwellers more of an awareness of the seasons, cycles and biological rhythms from which they are so often quite disconnected.

Invested engagement with plants through caring for them, telling their stories, and understanding their individual histories and their behaviour can provide a context in which acquiring this knowledge is no longer an abstract, boring or disengaged exercise. It becomes, instead, a concrete and dynamic process grounded in valuing, caring for, and learning to see particular plants like Fred in a new light. Facilitating this new lens is one point of change-inducing intervention in the self-reinforcing collection of systemic factors that continue to perpetuate plant blindness. Hopefully, through the creative and collaborative efforts of botanists, educators, parents, policymakers, and the public, imaginative methods of promoting attentiveness to plants will continue to expand and eventually render plant blindness a thing of the past.

fern

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