Vegetal Memories

Photograph by Kit


 Michael Marder

August 29, 2016

To begin, I cut and paste a citation, grafting it onto the nascent body of my text. “Memories are like plants: if you care for them, they grow.” So goes the remarkable first line in the otherwise unremarkable novel by Juliana Romano, Summer in the Invisible City. How to interpret this analogy? Care for plants and for memories requires their cultivation, the work of providing them with an adequate supply of the elements (water, soil, the mentally revisited contextual web surrounding an event) conducive to their flourishing. At its most basic, however, as a condition of possibility for the very possibility of growth, caring for something or someone demands that we simply pay attention to them and do not remain indifferent to their existence or—what from the perspective of indifference amounts to the same thing—nonexistence. A lack of care spells out neglect and indifference: letting a plant wither or be overcome by weeds; letting a memory be swallowed by forgetting or recede to the unconscious layers of psychic life… Before any practical engagement, caring puts us in the right frame of mind (the frame of mind that, for Husserl, defines intentionality) and directs us toward the cared-for.

Hence, the reverse of Romano’s assertion is equally true: plants are like memories. Although the vegetal is almost always there in the inconspicuous background of our lives, particular plants only stand out when, to paraphrase Heidegger, we remember that they not only are but also exist, when we concentrate on them and perceptually, if not cognitively, acknowledge their “being-there” in the first place. In this, they are akin to memories that mostly linger around the edges of consciousness and only sporadically (often unexpectedly, provoked by a long-forgotten sight, sound, smell or taste—as with Proust’s madeleines) come into the spotlight of our mental regard. Care, then, implies much more than mere cultivation. Charged with ontological significance, its non-indifference lets beings, including plants and memories, be, rescues them from the void of oblivion, consigns them to safekeeping, which is incidentally the goal of the philosophical enterprise already, and especially, in Plato. The task of thinking is not to discover new, yet unknown shores of what is but to provoke anamnesis, literally the “unforgetting” (a double negative) or the re-remembrance of the world around us and of ourselves.

For me, plant-thinking has been an indispensable response to the Platonic call for anamnesis as it pertains to both dimensions of the world outside and within the human. On the one hand, I have tried to contribute to the arduous and ever-incomplete efforts of rescuing plants from oblivion (whether phenomenological or ontological) that has resulted in their conversion into the pure means used to satisfy the needs of animals and the needs, as well as the desires, of humans. On the other hand, I have focused on remembering our deep vegetal heritage, particularly at the level of that which we refer to as “thought”. These two aspects of plant-thinking are, moreover, closely interconnected. If our fundamental modes of thinking are vegetal, if we share with plants certain existential states (such as exposure and attunement to exteriority), certain discernments (of light and humidity gradients, for instance) and exigencies to communicate, certain strategies of producing and reproducing existence (everything Aristotle groups under the broad heading of to threptikon), then actual plants cannot be denied their claim to subjectivity. In identifying these formal similarities, I am not backtracking on the claim I see as crucial to plant-thinking, namely that plants are (our) others and that they relate to their others non-appropriatively and non-violently—in a word, at an infinite distance. Rather, the sharing I am highlighting here pertains largely to the unconscious layers of our embodied thought, whereby we, too, are others to ourselves and, thanks to this alterity within, can be brought together with plants.

To return to the issue at hand: memories are not only like plants, and vice versa, but plants also are and have memories. Indeed, the distinction between being and having does not make much sense in the case of vegetation, which, as I have mentioned, keeps to a non-appropriative mode of existing. Vegetal memories are the plants themselves, and the simplest example of this incarnate remembrance are tree rings, commemorating annual patterns of growth, nutrient intake, traumatic events in the immediate milieu, etc. in the bodily extension of the trunk. Tree rings give us a clue as to the nature of plant memory, which is non-representational and non-objectifying. While we, humans, consciously recall discrete objects and processes, replaying them in the theater of our minds, the plant retains a trace of light itself, rather than a representation of luminosity, in its cells. This direct inscription of light memory onto the cellular substratum permits plants to use the photon energy absorbed in excess by some leaves to improve the chances of survival for the whole plant (e.g., Arabidopsis) in the future.[i] To speculate, perhaps that is how our unconscious also works, leaving representational remembrance to conscious psychic life and retaining something of the remembered not in the shape of an image or a picture, but, more dramatically, as a quantum of libidinal energy.

In fact, it is absurd to suggest that plants, or any other living beings for that matter, have no memory, because without the recollection of past events, without forming patterns out of these, and without projecting them into the future via anticipation, survival is impossible. What phenomenologists have described as the notion of lived temporality, the time of retention-and-protention that, according to them, makes up psychic life, ought to be extended to all forms of vitality, not the least the vegetal. Now, in plants, memory is decentralized in keeping with the rest of vegetal being; we do not need to postulate an overarching processing mechanism or structure, similar to the central nervous system, in order to validate its reality. Without “central path integration,” the retrieval of memories can be quite situational: the part of plant that contains an embodied recollection can at any moment signal to the rest of the plant, with the help of biochemical cues, that which has been directly inscribed (the trace trapped) in its cells or tissues. Vegetal memory is modular and dispersed, and so is our unconscious remembrance, which, thanks to its dispersion, works on the basis of free association and activates various affective intensities corresponding to the amounts of libidinal energy contained in respective unconscious memory-traces.

Plant bodies are the archives of past events, of the nutrients, light, and injuries (be they mechanical, radioactive, or biochemical) received from their environment. That is the axiom of vegetal memory. But the plants themselves are a memory—the memory of an evolutionary pattern of adaptation fit for sessile living beings. Humans, in turn, are and have memories, such that the difference between being and having overlaps with the distinction between the unconscious and conscious lives of the mind. Lest we forget, we too are a memory of another evolutionary pattern, whereby the quantitative success of our kind portends a catastrophic failure for its entire ecosystem, which has now turned global. And, by the looks of it, we are on a sure path to becoming a distant memory in the annals of natural history, while unfortunately dragging along with us countless plant and animal species.


[1] Szechyńska-Hebda, Magdalena, et al. “Evidence for light wavelength-specific photoelectrophysiological signaling and memory of excess light episodes in Arabidopsis.” Plant Cell, 22(7), 2010, pp. 2201-18.

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