They are Speaking. Are We Listening?

Midway through my new book exploring ecological materialism I feel compelled to assert that the materialist perspective does not strip living matter of its ability to evoke wonder. This materialism is not related to Karl Marx. It is the opposite of consumerism. Despite its avowed pragmatic commitment to environmental reform, it is also fostering spiritual attunement with non-human realms of existence.

For example, current materialist explorations are disclosing the profound intelligence, sophisticated strategies of defense, and complex languages of communication where they might be least expected – within the botanical world. Armed with new technologies and a desire to reach across the species divide, new materialist researchers have begun to listen in to conversations among plants and to decipher their meanings.

This cross-species communication, complete with rules and intended meanings.  They form relationships among plants of the same species, between plants of other species, and with organisms that are not plants at all. 

Consider the complex language that plants conduct with pollinators. This language is not based upon words. Several thousand volatile chemicals constitute a chemical language that is conveyed as scent.  Many plants can emit a specific scent to attract pollinators. That is cool, but true wonder emerged when researchers discovered that plants not only possess the ability to attract, they can also repel harmful critters. Some plants protect themselves against nectar thieves merely by adding a drop of nicotine to the attracting chemical.

In addition to smell, many plant species can increase their reproductive success by altering the shape, color, and pattern of blooms that have been pollinated. This makes them less attractive to pollinator visitors who will then be drawn to those still flowers that are still in need of their services. Remarkably, this process is reversible. If some pollen still remains after an insect departs, the flower resumes its most appealing appearance to optimize further pollination.

These disclosures are enhancing humanity’s ability to communicate, to initiate dialogue with non-human species, to form cross-species bonds, and ultimately to engage in cross-species teamwork as we strive for a more vibrant and resilient planet. All these efforts abound with opportunities to experience wonder. 

In the end, it is not chemical compounds or light wavelengths that will enable us humans to access, understand, and appreciate plant language, or biological language, or mineral language, or systems language. Meaning emerges by approaching interactions ecologically, which involves respecting the dynamic process of relationships of all kinds.