Vegetal Friendship

Photograph by Jean.


 Michael Marder

July 26, 2015

Let’s begin with the common understanding of friendship. We call “friends” those of our peers who tend to have interests and hobbies akin to ours, with whom we spend a portion of our spare time, attend cultural and social events, share a laugh or a moment of sadness. We can sneer, as Aristotle does in Nicomachean Ethics, at the instrumental motivations of people who initiate friendships as a means to some external end and brag that they’ve “got friends in high places”. Even more so today, the prevalent practice of networking tinges all social interactions with utility-maximizing objectives. One thing is nonetheless clear: a friend is someone who stands out from the undifferentiated mass of humanity (as well as from the semi-undifferentiated background of a social network), is individuated, and, in important respects, considered to be similar to ourselves. And what about the vast majority of people who are not our friends? Modern liberalism teaches us to treat them with general indifference and neutrality, so long as they are not perceived as a threat; other worldviews may deem whoever is not presently a friend to be a potential friend or, conversely, an enemy.

Taking as an axiom the assertion that friendship hinges on similarity: the more we identify with a creature, the greater the likelihood that we would befriend it. A non-human animal can be a friend, or a companion, provided that we recognize and respond to each other’s emotions, share time together (for instance, walking in a park), and so forth. The freedom and reciprocity of the animal’s response is, perhaps, dubious, and such doubts are significant, assuming that friendship is a freely chosen arrangement, as the very English word friend intimates through its association with free (both derive from the proto Indo-European root pri-, “to love”). Wild, undomesticated, and therefore freer animals spend but a fleeting moment with us, mostly gazing with curiosity, assessing whether we are threatening, a potential source of food, or simply irrelevant. When unprovoked, they tend to turn their backs on us and treat us as good old liberals do, leading us to the deduction that they do not wish to be our friends. But then, again, there is no freedom in instrumentally acquired human friendships, where necessity dictates the terms of a relationship, either. Is it so preposterous to think that the friends we use as means to a goal are our pets, or that we are theirs, depending on the way the imbalance of power plays itself out?

More interesting though is the question of whether a plant or a god could be a friend. Can we have friends in places so low that they partly dwell in the soil? Or so high — higher than high — that their abode is above this world? Such a possibility seems to undermine what we took to be the basis of friendship, namely similarity in a way of acting or living that permits friends to share their interests and time. How does one spend time with an eternal, atemporal being, like (a) god? Or with a creature whose time-scale and response is drastically different from and generally much slower than that of human consciousness?

Imagine that you sit for hours on end under a tree you like (say, an olive). In doing so, you do not necessarily participate in the temporality of that tree, unless, through a deliberately honed practice of meditation, you alter your own perception of time and slow it down enough to approximate that of the plant you are with. Be this as it may, friendship demands a minimum of synchronicity among friends who are “on the same page” if not in terms of their interests, then at least in terms of the form of their experience of time and place.  Friendship, in other words, is willingness to share a world (which is not the same thing as the environment or the universe) across unavoidable differences in perspective between the I and the other.

Despite some promising leads, we would hit an impasse, insofar as the thinking of vegetal friendship (and friendship in general) is concerned, should we continue treating the parties to this relation as monolithic. It is advisable to consult a lineage that extends from Freud to Schmitt and Derrida, all of whom, in one way or another, expose the myth of the subject’s inner psychic unity. Before addressing the issues involved in associations with external others, we should ask: Am I necessarily my own friend? Could I be an enemy to myself, harming or undercutting myself, if only unconsciously? All of us, after all, live out of sync with ourselves, desperately trying to create synergies between the time of the unconscious and the traditional-phenomenological flux of time-consciousness. At the extreme, when we grow indifferent to ourselves or become our worst enemies, we may lapse into a schizophrenic state that merely exacerbates these preexisting mental fissures and gaps. Seeing that things are so complex at the level of my own self-identification, to discover similarities with the other is to foreground a portion of our psychic life, of which we (and the other) approve. Internal and external asynchoricity remains in effect, these fragile bridges notwithstanding.

In plants, the distinction between self and other, presupposed in any contemplation of friendship, is still thornier than in human subjectivity. Scientists (e.g., UC Davis’s Richard Karban) study what they call “kin recognition” in plants — a biochemical detection and interpretation of certain specimens as “the same” and “the other”. Depending on the identity of their neighbors, the behavior of plants changes: the roots are more extensive and dense in proximity to “strangers” than to “relatives”. While kin recognition has largely to do with something like family ties, there are also instances of compatibility or incompatibility between various species. Every gardener knows that some seedlings should be never be planted next to each other (for instance, peas and fennel), whereas others are “companion plants” (for example, tomato and calendula, which actually repels tomato worms). It is also a matter of general consensus that plants are very good at creating alliances with particular insects, whom they summon to spread their pollen (bees, butterflies, etc.) or to repel attacking herbivores. As Consuelo de Moraes, Mark Mescher, and James Tumlinson note in Nature: “Plants respond to insect herbivory by synthesizing and releasing complex blends of volatile compounds, which provide important host-location cues for insects that are natural enemies of herbivores.”[1]

In light of this multifaceted evidence, the conclusion that plants too have their friends and enemies, labeled without further ado “natural,” is appealing. But a nagging suspicion lingers on: Aren’t scientists, too, projecting human groupings onto the plant world? This is not to say that friendship and enmity are wholly inapplicable to the flora; what I mean, rather, is that we will not advance one iota in establishing how these concepts apply to other living beings, unless we account their subjectivities.

I’ve already said that the topic of subjectivity is even thornier in plants than in humans, because the boundaries between the vegetal self and its other are incredibly porous. If a human subject is legion, then its vegetal counterpart is a legion of legions, comprised of self-replicating parts that can often subsist outside the provisional whole they comprise. Sometimes, various vegetal parts can be relatively indifferent to each other. At other times, a hermaphroditic plant may activate the genetic mechanisms of “self-incompatibility” (SI) that block self-pollination. Most often, however, vegetal parts are highly sociable and symbiotic, participating on equal terms, as nearly autonomous friends, in a community that makes up a plant or in plant communities that comprise a still greater botanical society. Mutatis mutandis, in vegetal friendship, the multiplicity that I am (psychically, spiritually, physically) reaches out to the multiplicity that a plant is — a situation that is not all that different from friendship between two or more human beings. Given the complexities of my own friendship or enmity with myself, redoubled by analogous intricacies on the part of my friend, there will always be counterforces that pull us apart, away from each other and from ourselves, that is to say, from the predominant tendency of the innumerable forces that constitute us.

My friend, Brianne Donaldson, suggests that “vegetal friendship” can refer at the same time to friendship with vegetation and friendship marked by vegetal qualities. The inherent ambiguity of the expression she points out is extremely helpful: as soon as we contemplate the scenario of a friendship with plants, we are reminded that all friendships are vegetal, no matter who they are forged with, to the extent that they involve a resonance of multiplicities comprising the subjectivities of friends. Cicero had a premonition of this difficulty, writing in his treatise on friendship: “For the essence of friendship being that two minds become as one, how can that ever take place if the mind of each of the separate parties to it is not single and uniform, but variable, changeable, and complex?”[2] Or, to reformulate in our terms: What is similitude between two, neither of whom is the same as herself or himself? How can friends grow together, if each undergoes metamorphoses and grows, plant-like, never being the same as before? Their growing-with, in the absence of a guaranteed common ground, would be a promising avenue for thinking about and practicing vegetal friendship.

[1] Consuelo de Moraes, Mark Mescher, & James Tumlinson, “Caterpillar-induced nocturnal plant volatiles repel conspecific females”, Nature, 410, March 2001, pp. 577-580.

[2] Cicero, Two Essays: On Old Age and on Friendship (London & New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 199.

Thoreau’s Beans (and Weeds)

Photograph by Kate Ter Haar.


 Michael Marder

July 9, 2015

The problem of sovereignty, though usually not discussed with regard to the vegetal world, is crisply outlined in a quandary that, time and again, crops up after my lectures. The gist of it is the following: “If I am to treat plants ethically, then how am I to decide which ones deserve to grow? What gives me the right to destroy some of them as weeds, while nourishing and nurturing others? In short, if I subscribe to your philosophy, should I just sit back, watch my garden overgrow with grass, and give up on gardening as a violent activity, disrespectful towards plants?”

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau faced a similar dilemma. Experimenting with self-sufficient living, he cultivated a small bean-field close to the hut he had built in the woods: “That was my curious labor all summer—to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like […] produce instead this pulse. […] But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden?”[i] If, in its traditional formulation, the prerogative of sovereignty was to “make live or let die,” in its vegetal reformulation by Thoreau, it has to do with making grow or letting wither. The unarticulated basis for sundry decisions passed on plants is utility: Which species would be more advantageous for yielding food, construction materials, clothing, and the like? Whatever is deemed useless is condemned to uprooting as a weed; whatever may serve our purposes is allowed to continue growing and even expanding.

To these taken-for-granted reasons, Thoreau opposes the natural history of a place, the plants’ own “ancient herb garden,” or what we would now call an “ecosystem”. He does not fetishize wilderness. Rather, he implies that giving any “portion of the earth’s surface” its due means, in the Leibnizian spirit, respecting its self-expression, including in the vegetation that proliferates there. From the standpoint of the place itself, the weeds are the humans as well as the monocultures our species spreads wherever it finds itself or the animals it breeds and/or exterminates. Exactly one century after Thoreau’s Walden, Aldo Leopold will encapsulate this insight in the idea of “thinking like a mountain.”

Let sovereignty remain grounded on utility, but let also the forgotten questions useful for whom? useful for what? be raised. On the one hand, the weed is a plant that impedes the realization of human goals. On the other hand, and more broadly, it is a plant that prevents the thriving of an entire ecosystem. So, if usefulness for life’s flourishing, in all its diverse manifestations, were the criterion for declaring something a weed, then wouldn’t vast sugarcane and corn fields as well as eucalyptus forests be included in this category? After all, the sprawling sugarcane, corn, and eucalyptus plantations reduce biodiversity, cause soil erosion and deplete the nutrients and minerals it contains.

Thoreau has an inkling about the relative nature of the word weed, which he upends in his self-reflexive agricultural practice: “Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work.”[ii] Here is a beautiful manifesto of plant-thinking, if there ever was one: leaves and blossoms are the yellow soil’s expressions of “its summer thought,” concretized in beans with Thoreau’s assistance. Yet, we cannot help but notice a stark contrast between his interference, or his mediation between the earth and the plant, described in terms of encouragement (“and encouraging this weed which I had sown”) and in terms of an imposition (“making the yellow soil express its summer thought”). That is where push comes to shove: Does Thoreau exercise sovereignty over the crops and the soil he cultivates or does he facilitate their mutual expression? Is labeling his choice of plant weed sufficient to counterbalance the adverse effects of his willful decision?

We must shake off the erroneous impression that we are faced with only two options, the either/or of absolute control and complete passivity. Inaction and mere receptivity are the harbingers of nihilism, caught up in a deadly spiral with its opposite, namely the sovereign dream of ceaseless potency and activity. To avoid choosing is not to act ethically; it is to evade responsibility and to assume an indifferent posture, as disrespectful toward the beings that deserve our attention as is their ruthless exploitation. We cannot be ourselves either if we totally submit to whatever happens or if we are (or think we are) in total control of the situation, wherein we play the determining role. Revisiting the worry that an ethical philosophy of plants would yield overgrown gardens, it becomes clear that a certain measure of selectivity, narrowing down the possibilities of what would take root and continue flourishing, is not disastrous; it is an element of our engagement with plants.

I find the suggestion that any active engagement with other living beings—whether vegetal, animal or human—partakes of sovereignty and violence to be grotesque, an exaggeration of valid concerns with the overreach of our desire for domination. Such an exaggeration does not promote but in fact harms its cause. Curtly put, the disengagement it endorses risks flipping into indifference and abandon, where the stance of letting-be might quickly deteriorate into that of letting-die or letting-wither. It might, in other words, continue wielding sovereignty by other means. 

As an alternative, care involves solicitude, attention to the cared for, singling out and respecting their singularity, while contemplating and setting in their unique context (some would say relativizing) the motivations behind such attention. A caring approach is, furthermore, interactive, to the extent that it includes willingness to be cared by what or who you care for. We would be deluded if we were to think that gardening or farming is a unilateral relation: the plants and the earth respond and change their self-expression depending on my actions. And again, Thoreau is at the forefront of vegetal interactivity. “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?”[iii] he asks, teaching us an invaluable lesson in plant-thinking.

[i] Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 168-9.

[ii] Thoreau, Walden, p. 170.

[iii] Thoreau, Walden, p. 168.