If You Pick Us, Do We Not Bleed?

The beingness of plants


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In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.


“Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.

Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.

The more responses Bose got from his plants, the more encouraged he became, and the more detailed his efforts became. Bose discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As Sir Patrick Geddes described in his 1920 biography of Bose, the electromotive force generated during the death spasm is sometimes considerable. Bose calculated that a half-pea, for instance, could discharge up to half a volt. Thus, if 500 pairs of boiling half-peas were arranged in series, the electric pressure would be 500 volts, enough to electrocute unsuspecting victims. The average cook does not know the danger she runs in preparing peas, Bose wrote. “It is fortunate for her that the peas are not arranged in series!”

Bose was determined to show other serious scientists not only the wonders of plant perception but “the marvelous resemblance there is between the reactions of plants and animals.” His 1902 paper “Responses in the Living and Non-Living” contains a whole chapter comparing the electrical impulse response of frog, lizard, and tortoise skins to the skins of tomatoes and grapes. He found little difference. Bose would write that plants grew more quickly when exposed to nice music and gentle whispers, and poorly when exposed to harsh music and loud speech. Over years of research, Bose found that plants were visibly reactive to all manner of stimuli: flashes of light, changes in temperature, plucking, pricking, screaming. Plants became numbed by drugs and drunk from alcohol. They became depressed when exposed to polluted air — even by the passing of a darkening cloud — and were more sensitive to electricity than either Hindus or Europeans. In short, what Bose’s work showed was that plants could feel pleasure and they could feel pain. Plants had feelings, too.

And so, Bose’s private laboratory at Maida Vale became a site of amazement and disbelief. Notable men of science and letters were drawn to Bose’s experiments in plant perception, scientists from the Royal and Linnean societies, as well as the ever-curious vegetarian playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was seized with horror when subjected to the sight of a violently convulsing piece of cabbage gasping in a pot of boiling water. Yet, it is not surprising to learn that Bose — whose scientific inventions and work in radio waves were highly esteemed — struggled to gain proper respect in Western scientific circles for his work in plant biophysics. The above heart-wrenching account of vivisection performed in a Frankenstein-like experiment upon a carrot is typical of those who painted Bose’s work with plants as the stuff of parody.

In a speech presented to the Bengal Literary Conference in 1911, Bose asked:

How are we to know what unseen changes take place within the plant? If it be excited or depressed by some special circumstance, how are we, on the outside, to be made aware of this?…. When an animal receives an external shock it may answer in various ways if it has voice, by a cry; if it be dumb, by the movement of its limbs.

The plant, by contrast, is voiceless, until science came along and allowed us to hear that voice. With the right tools, Bose felt, the secret life of plants is revealed.

Surely The Nation was right to balk. The idea that plants feel sensations akin to animals is absurd, laughable. It is a realm of biology bordering on the paranormal. Are we really supposed to believe that that trees suffer when they lose their limbs, that we are safe from the wrath of peas only because they have not yet learned to organize? How many consequences are we willing to accept? What are we to do in the face of all this vegetable suffering?

Bose is long dead, but plant physiology has become a well-respected scientific pursuit. There are now plenty of scientists who, over the decades, have given further weight to Bose’s theories that plants may not be as different from animals as previously thought. Elizabeth Haswell, assistant professor of biology at Washington University in Saint Louis, along with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, recently wrote a review article about mechanosensitive channels in plants for the journal Structure. The article was called “Mechanosensitive Channels: What Can They Do and How Do They Do It?” In it, Haswell writes about how she has been experimenting on Arabidopsis plants to understand plants’ responses to gravity, and touch, and us. This fact alone is, admittedly, of little interest to the average person. But one wonders why Haswell’s rather scholarly article got picked up by press around the world. Why, in March of this year, The New York Times published a piece called “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too?” Why a big science news story last year was a BBC News report titled “Plants can think and remember.” Why, nearly 100 years since the publication of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s “Researches on irritability of plants,” plant physiology is news.

“Picture yourself hiking through the woods or walking across a lawn,” Haswell told the press. “Now ask yourself: Do the bushes know that someone is brushing past them? Does the grass know that it is being crushed underfoot? Of course, plants don’t think thoughts, but they do respond to being touched in a number of ways.”

Plant lovers and gardeners won’t be shocked by Haswell’s statement. They know all about the myriad ways plants respond to humans, because they live with them every day.

A number of years ago in graduate school, I was introduced to the work of sound artist Miya Masaoka. In her “Pieces for Plants,” Masaoka (following in Bose’s footsteps) connects the leaves of houseplants to highly sensitive electrodes, which were then connected to a laptop and synthesizer. With this set-up, Masaoka “plays” the plants. She crouches over them, strokes the leaves, waves her hands over the plants, agitates them, moves closer and then farther away. With each movement, the plants give off a reactive sound, filling the air with spacey electronic warbles. For those of us accustomed to thinking of plants as mute and senseless, the effect is unnerving. In outdoor performances, Masaoka will often let the public play with her plants. Often, she told us, visitors return again and again, sometimes just to talk with her about their own plants, their belief that plants have extraordinary capabilities and awareness beyond what is normally attributed to them. They are not surprised by the singing of the plants, nor by the implication that the plants are having an almost psychological response to human interaction. These people were not scientists. They tell Masaoka what they experience, and therefore, what they believe. For Masaoka’s part, she wasn’t necessarily trying to say that plants had consciousness. But she does think that plants can inspire us to think about the very nature of consciousness, theirs and our own.

“While mechanobiological processes employ diverse mechanisms,” Haswell and her colleagues wrote in the abstract for “Mechanosensitive Channels,” “at their heart are force-induced perturbations in the structure and dynamics of molecules capable of triggering subsequent events.” Translated into everyday speech: The plants are aware. Science says it’s so. And if plants are aware, we begin to wonder, as Bose did so long ago, what we’re supposed to do about it.

Plants respond to environmental factors. We’ve known this for a very long time. They will turn toward or away from the sun; they will sway with a passing breeze. But more and more, science has been telling us that the awareness goes much deeper, that plants have a kind of sentience. Does that mean they have consciousness? If they have consciousness, can they suffer? And if they suffer, and we are sometimes causing their suffering, do we want to stop? Can we? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — it’s our Golden Rule. As Bose showed, plants’ reactions to unpleasant stimuli are very similar to our own. If we can call this pain, as Bose does, how can we accept the harm we cause when snipping a flower off a bush simply for decoration, or rolling around in the grass to play? Should we start eating only food that we can pluck from a tree without damaging the tree itself, or better still, that falls off the tree of its own accord? Food that is already dead? The whole prospect makes vegetarianism seem barbaric and not much different from meat-eating. But where do you stop? With protozoa? Bacteria?

Maybe we never should have started asking questions about our environment in the first place. But it’s too late now. Our relationship to the natural world is forever fraught. Are we stewards? Intruders? Does it matter?

What concerned J.C. Bose was perception. He was interested in what plants perceive. But more important, he was interested in what we perceive about them and what we can learn about perception itself from them. With scientific tools and increased awareness, Bose demonstrated that it was possible to enhance our experience of the world by turning our attention to the silent, invisible phenomena around us.

In 1918, Bose delivered a lecture on “The Automatic Writing of the Plant.” A local newspaper reporter in attendance wrote this:

Sir J. C. Bose spoke of two different ways of gaining knowledge, the lesser way is by dwelling on superficial differences, the mental attitude which makes some say, “Thank God I am not like others.” The other way is to realize an essential unity in spite of deceptive appearance to the contrary.

Bose believed in the fundamental unity of all life, the fundamental unity of everything —  “a uniform and continuous march of law.” But it wasn’t just a belief. Bose had scientific proof.

For Bose, thinking of life as a unity wasn’t just about theories — it had real world implications. Though patents were granted to Bose, he never sought them out for personal gain, preferring that his inventions be “open to all the world to adopt for practical and money-making purposes.” Likewise, the belief in the unity of all things was not Bose’s innovation, nor was it therefore an invention of science. Bose was well aware that he was bringing thousands of years of Eastern philosophy into his British-funded lab. For a scientist in an increasingly fragmented India in the time of the 20th-century Raj, who had spoken publicly against the caste system, the message of unity not only had scientific and metaphysical ramifications; it had political ones as well. Bose’s scientific innovations were a broader challenge to the root assumptions behind scientific enterprises and whether they ought to be strictly defined by the West. Barriers between animal and plant, biology and physics, East and West — these were all limits to humanity’s access to universal truths.

“Amongst such phenomena,” Bose wrote in 1901, “how can we draw a line of demarcation, and say, here the physical ends, and there the physiological begins?”

Such absolute barriers do not exist…. It was when I came upon the mute witness of these self made records, and perceived in them one phase of a pervading unity that bears within it all things the mote that quivers in ripples of light, the teeming life upon our earth, and the radiant suns that shine above us it was then that I understood for the first time a little of that message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges 30 centuries ago: “They who see but one, in all the changing manifoldness of this universe, unto them belongs Eternal Truth unto none else, unto none else!”

One last thing about Bose. When he talked about the great connectedness of life, he wasn’t kidding around. Bose was also the first scientist to study inorganic matter in the same way a biologist examines a muscle or a nerve. Bose performed his plant experiments on rocks and metals, too. He found that, just like plants, the “non-living” responded when subjected to mechanical, thermal, and electrical stimuli. Even rocks and metals became numbed by cold, shocked by electrical currents, stupefied by anesthetics. He once invited Sir Michael Foster, a veteran physiologist at Cambridge, to witness the electrical response of a poisoned piece of tin (as written by Patrick Geddes):

“Come now, Bose, (said Foster) what is the novelty in this curve? We have known it for at least the last half-century.”

“What do you think it is?” asked Bose.

“Why, a curve of muscle response, of course.”

“Pardon me; it is the response of metallic tin.”

“What!” said Foster, jumping up. “Tin! Did you say tin?”

If he were just a biologist, maybe Bose would have felt more constrained by the conventions of the field: What biologist would think of poisoning a piece of tin? But studying matter as a physicist allowed Bose to make big claims about the fundamentals of life itself by adhering to simple demonstrations of action and reaction. If something looks like suffering, it’s suffering. If it looks like it’s depressed, it’s depressed. Truly, Bose believed, all things — organic and inorganic — were determined not by an unknowable and arbitrary force, with different rules for different beings, but by a universal law, with the same rules for everyone.

It’s easy to accept that an animal is happy when we are nice to it. It’s less easy, though not impossible, to accept that a plant grows measurably better when we are nice to it. Harder to take seriously is the idea that grass feels pained by our walking feet. Harder still, the idea of a sad rock. The further things get away from their likeness to humanity, the more difficult it is to empathize with them, and therefore to feel that we should care.

But before we dismiss Bose as completely crackers, it’s important to understand the true implication of his work and that of Haswell, et al. Bose’s message isn’t that our care for the world must be based on the assumption that all things have a fundamental humanness. It is that existence and awareness are deeply connected, and that dismissing the fundamental unity of matter is dismissing a fundamental truth about life. Most of us will still keep eating our veggies in good faith. But will we ever approach our salad in exactly the same way again? Or, for that matter, our fork? • 22 November 2011


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.