Why I have stopped talking about “curing plant blindness” and why you should too

A few days ago, the wonderful folks from Plant Love Stories (who have a gorgeous blog blooming with all manner of delicious tales at the intersections of plant and personal worlds – go check them out!) published an insightful article for Plants, People, Planet, discussing the problems with the “plant blindness” metaphor. I’ve used this metaphor in blogs and talks previously without reflecting upon it sufficiently, and I want to explain briefly why I am shifting my language, why it matters, and why you should too.

The “plant blindness” metaphor was introduced in 1999 and elaborated upon in the early 2000s by educational researchers Wandersee & Schussler to highlight how in the urban contexts in which so many of us are situated, we often fail to notice, attend to, learn about, and recognise the value of plants. Early researchers often did emphasise the visual dimensions of this. They described basic heuristics that the visual system uses to separate items visually and to decide what grabs our attention (like fast movement and obvious differences in colour and texture). They articulated why this partly explains our tendency to lump plants in together as “background” and often just don’t notice them.

However, this was never intended to be all that “plant blindness” was about. Even in their earliest papers, these researchers pointed out that we also tend not to know as much about the basic biology of plants, or about their differences and how to recognise them. So much of “plant blindness” was about failing to recognise their value, the essential roles that they play in ecosystems and human affairs. In my own work, it has been about how we have failed to notice so much of their fascinating behaviour and the complexity and ingenuity of the mechanisms they use to take in information about their worlds. And it is far more than just the visual features of plants that we fail to notice. So often we distinctly remember moments we have stopped to take in the scent, texture, taste, sound of a plant precisely because those moments are so rare.

But the issue here is about more than just the inadequacy of this visual metaphor to capture the problems with how we currently relate to plants. Metaphors do not just shape how we experience and think about their targets. They also contain implicit value judgments and suggest ways of approach and courses of action. Vision/blindness metaphors (and disability metaphors more generally) should always be used with care because they frame not only how we view plants but how we view blindness. Central here is the problem that we frame “plant blindness” as a bad thing, something we need to “cure” to make us, and human/plant relations, “better”. This metaphor sets up blindness implicitly as a lack against a backdrop of some ideal of “normal” vision (but just look at all the actual variation in the visual realm throughout the animal kingdom!) and also devalues the ways in which blind people lead full and rich sensory lives – including the ways they relate to plants. When we rely on tropes about disability for our metaphors, we serve to reinforce the association of disability with negative value judgments.

Jo Livingstone puts some of the issues with such course disability metaphors well, in reflections on lenses in a recent article in Medium:

Implicit in every history of the lens, however, is an inquiry into adjustments made to the human sense of sight. Differences in human vision, and ambitions for the sighted to see farther, more clearly, closer, bigger — all of those dynamics have driven the art and science of the lens forward. The lens is a metaphor for perception, but also the fruit of disability. Lenses allow some people with vision differences to see within “normal” range. Should we consider the Hubble Space Telescope a corrective to human beings’ defective sight, that disability which prevents us from seeing the full shape of the planets? Lenses, I think, interfere with the rules that define what is an able or disabled human body.

Meditating on lenses and their meaning for our figurative language (and our cultural history) demonstrates something very important: Relying on perfect vision as a metaphor for perfect understanding leaves the ableist speaker with a limited concept of knowledge itself. If you cannot be blind in the way that the stars are blind, then there is something that you are not seeing. There are many ways to be blind or partially sighted, Schor reminds us, and figurative language contains riches that are hidden to the ableist imagination. There are so many lenses through which to think.

Jo Livingstone, 2018

Secondly, the “curing plant blindness” metaphor encourages a focus on “cure” rather than on attention to pre-existing ways of relating – fostering and encouraging ways of attending and orienting to plants that are already in place. There are seeds, there is a little garden, inside of us all (and attention to how we encourage this in our children is particularly important here because it sets them up beautifully for life when we encourage their relationships with plants) – it just needs attention and cultivation. I will quote at length from the author’s article here, as I really don’t think it can be said better:

Plant Love Stories values a diversity of experiences with plants. An appreciation of plants is not just about seeing plants, it can encompass all of our senses and emotions. Our collection of stories are also about smelling plants like milkweeds, prairie dropseed, and allergy trees (Bletz, 2019; Brunson, 2019; Tonietto, 2018); hearing plants that have funny voices and divulging secrets to our cacti (Acevedo, 2018, S. 2018); tasting fruits like tomatoes, mangoes, and lemons and leaves like garlic mustard (Galperin, 2018; Gill, 2018; Nocco, 2018; Tingley, 2018); feeling the texture of plants by rubbing dandelions under our chins or scraping our legs as we wade through Juncus marshes (Cate, 2018; Zipf, 2018). Our relationships with plants can be a vehicle for discovering deep personal insights, forming lifelong relationships with other humans, getting through serious illness, and remembering those we have lost (Bier, 2018; Lin, 2019; Villa, 2019). We believe that everyone has a Plant Love Story in their lives, even if they do not think they do. We do not share these stories to “cure” or “prevent” or “stop” anything. Rather, we bring attention to these emotional relationships that already exist. We choose not to root ourselves in metaphors that assume that all people experience the world in the same way; we hope others will consider this position as well.

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, Sara Kuebbing, et al (2019)

I think there awaits an exciting range of potentially fruitful metaphors that will emerge in this space. Tropisms are directional movements, orientations to the features of one’s environment. Perhaps then “phytotropism” – orienting and turning towards plants – is an appropriate first pass as we seek to further our acquaintanceship with plants across a range of spheres, from the theoretical to the personal.

Whatever the language we eventually settle upon, we should pay heed to the metaphors we think with, because they have real power to shape our worlds. Thank you to the folks at Plant Love Stories for a thoughtful and insightful article. And thank you to all the wonderful people out there joining in the conversations that help us to grow both intellectually and as people as we make our ways through this world and seek to better understand it.