Talking with the plants

Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn, in his recent book How Forests Think, says that semiosis (sending, receiving, interpreting messages) is a defining (constitutive) characteristic of all life.

This was not in my mind (I hadn’t started reading the book) as I walked up the lane to the station, idly staring at the plants in the bank and hedgerow, when the question occurred to me again, but more forcefully, even tetchily: “Why ARE leaves all these different shapes?”

It’s not a subject I’ve heard great discussion on. Clearly, it’s not an adaptation to improve photosynthesis, or a protection against predators (unless we’re talking Holly). My best guess was – unphilosophically, unscientifically –  that this lane’s crazy-wonderful differential of leaf shapes was a result of the spirit of creativity and diversity inherent to life and evolution. Another thought also slipped quietly by my mind, that it had something to do with me.

As I sat on the train I pondered it for a while, and thought about how we recognise one species from another, and how important leaf shape is to that process. And then I thought about something else.

My mind was well primed for Kohn’s words. The quietly revolutionary thing about this thought, and how it’s landed with me (his argument takes a somewhat different direction) is that these plants are communicating not only across species boundaries but across kingdom boundaries. Their shape expresses who they are and what properties they contain, not for the benefit of other plants, whose perception systems don’t work that way, but to us animals.


As a human person with a great interest in communication with other-than-human persons, this makes me very happy indeed. The above sketch, made with leaves collected in a few dozen yards on a sunny path in my woods, is a beginning gambit in Leaf Language.




Author: fiona1macdonald

Artist, curator, researcher. Beyond-nonhuman nature. Nemophilist (lover of the woods). Lives and works in Kent, UK

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