A Womanist Approach to Science

Last night I was listening to plant scientist Monica Gagliano who is pushing the boundaries of what we know about plants. She proved that plants respond to the sound of water by moving toward it and cannot be tricked. Bio-acoustics is the study of sound and Monic a is researching other ways that plants communicate. We know they use chemical messengers to warn each other above ground and below through the mycelial network thanks to the work of Suzanne Simard who I shall discuss in a moment. We have learned that plants emit electrical impulses. But Monica is studying another way that plants communicate. She says they listen to all the plants around them and learn from each other so that they do not have to re-invent the wheel with each generation. In one amazing memory experiment mimosa plants taught her that plants remember what happened to them previously and don’t repeat their mistakes. The Mind of Plants was her first book. She also studied with Indigenous healers in the Amazon and discusses this mysterious and compelling journey in her latest book Thus Spoke the Plants.

Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate above and below ground through complex mycelial networks, favoring their kin, transferring nutrients, water, and carbon back and forth between broadleaf trees that photosynethize most efficiently during the summer months and share their food with conifers in the fall, when the two types of trees reverse the process and the conifers feed the deciduous trees. Needled conifers photosynthesize for much longer periods (though less efficiently) Trees in a forest live in community and the emphasis is on the health of the whole forest and not the individual tree or plant (competition does exist to some degree but overall, the forest works as a sentient living being with an eye on the health of the whole. The moment a tree falls it begins to nourish other trees and plants on the forest floor. Walk through any forest that hasn’t been logged for awhile and you will be amazed at the ground covers, seedlings, mosses, lichens that spring from one old stump. One fallen log can become a nursery for a whole row of seedlings. 

After writing a memoir that every woman should read “Finding the Mother Tree” Suzanne founded the 100-year Mother Tree project that focuses on long term tree research incorporating her graduate student as assistants (some of whom are now scientists as well). In Suzanne’s words, “The Mother Tree project is investigating forest renewal practices that will protect biodiversity, carbon storage and forest regeneration as climate changes.  This field-based research compares various retention levels of Mother Trees (large, old trees) and their neighbors, as well as regenerating seedling mixtures, in Douglas-fir forests located across nine climatic regions in British Columbia”.

 Suzanne who began her life a logger and comes from a family of loggers has also been working with Indigenous peoples, most of whom are professionals. She discovered that what she learned about trees as a child ‘being part of the forest herself’ is the same way Indigenous peoples learned about nature through their keen senses of observation, intuition and feeling; they listened, they dreamed, and the forest spoke.

Robin Wall Kimmerer another plant scientist is best known for her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Her first book and my favorite because I love mosses happens to be Gathering Moss. She is also a distinguished Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology and Director for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York. Kimmerer has Indigenous roots – she is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and successfully blends science with Indigenous wisdom demonstrating primarily through story, personal narrative as well as science an alternative to the life destroying paradigm we are presently living through.

One commonality between all three is that they have merged imagination, keen observation, intuition, feeling, and the use of all bodily senses with rigorous scientific experimentation upsetting the dominant materialistic paradigm that is stuck on objectivity. Since there is no such thing as objectivity because of the well documented observer effect which states that the observer will effect whatever is being observedjust one more indication that we are all interconnected) we must ask why materialistic science is so resistant to these new plant studies that indicate sentience in plants. What would we have to change if for example we acknowledged that plants have feelings? What could we learn from 400 million year old trees?

The second common thread is that all three of these scientists currently work with Indigenous Peoples crediting them with Ancient Knowledge that western science is only recently uncovering using the scientific method. Ask an Indigenous person how they learned about plants, and you will be told the plants taught them.

What does this blending of disparate traditions tell us? The obvious answer is that we can learn from both the Original Peoples of this land as well as from open minded rigorous science. And yet, this has not happened. Instead, these women scientists have been dismissed for the most part. Is this because they refuse to separate their science from their senses?

(my terrarium keeps me green during the winter)!

Because I am a Naturalist I have been asking the same sorts of questions as these female scientists have about plants – how do they know what they know – (and receiving answers, not through words, but through my bodily senses) I am still thrilled that these cutting – edge women scientists are proving what the plants have been teaching me all my life. Like Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer and Gagliano the naturalist’s keen eye can uncover hidden worlds. And like Kimmerer I too have Indigenous roots.

What is very interesting/ disturbing to me is that none of these women all of whom are ground-breaking scientists identifies herself as a feminist, although their stories are remarkable, and all share intimate portraits of their lives along with whatever scientific expertise/ discoveries belong to them. The word feminist is apparently pejorative when it comes to being a female scientist.

If I am absolutely honest, although I openly acknowledge that I am an eco -feminist I also make a point of explaining exactly what I mean by the words I use. I never used to feel the need to do this; sometimes I even feel uncomfortable using the word feminist around others. I do believe that what happens to nature happens to women and many men to a lesser degree, and that there is a toxic power structure in place that supports white supremacy, racism, classism etc. I could go on here. Patriarchy is a killer.

If I am willing to query the change in myself, I wonder how other women feel, and if this is a destructive pattern that is developing around our identity as feminists. We have always been marginalized. Are we once again becoming afraid to speak our truths? We may still protest, but overall, the entire cultural structure around feminism seems to be shifting into a downward trend.

I would surely like to know what others think.

(passionflower plant that recently gave me an answer to a question)

 Postscript: ‘Womanist’ was Alice Walker’s way of describing feminism. Always loved the term.

2 thoughts on “A Womanist Approach to Science

  1. I am convinced that your house plants listen to the bubbling water – oh wouldn’t i like to know what they think – ok don’t get the link between poison ivy and vegetarian – could you explain?


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