by Alex Taylor, Published in “In Good Tilth,” Oct. 12, 2016
“So that’s how asparagus grows!”
When showing off my vegetable garden, I’m often met by this kind of reaction, leaving me somewhat flummoxed. But then what is surprising about someone never having seen an asparagus plant before? Of course people know that their asparagus, onions or sweet potatoes were once part of a whole, living plant. But when would they have learned how that plant grows or what it looks like? Under the fluorescent lights, air conditioning and faint, outdated pop music of a supermarket, vegetables come into our lives disembodied, plastic-wrapped and scrubbed of any hints as to their origins.
Over the past century, as millions of Americans have left the farm for the big city or the manicured suburbs, we’ve become profoundly disconnected from nature. Our relationship with plants is particularly estranged, with consequences for everything from food literacy to recruitment in plant-oriented professions. So dire has the situation become that the botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler coined a term to describe it: “Plant Blindness.” Defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs,” plant blindness has become a bona fide topic of academic study. Since the term’s introduction in 1998, researchers like Dr. Jennifer Momsen at North Dakota State University have been picking apart the cultural, cognitive and even visual reasons for plant blindness.
People tend to notice and reflect on things in their environment that they can identify with, or even just identify. Many people can do neither with plants. “Anecdotally,” said Dr. Momsen, “I do think the public disconnect from wild plants or agriculture are symptoms of the same problem: removal or distance from those ecosystems.” Most of us don’t see plants on the side of the road as medicines, dyes, fuel or food, as our great-grandparents might have, and the loss of that green heritage has a way of reinforcing itself. From children’s book characters and internet memes to nature documentaries, cultural messages tend to feature cute and relatable animals instead of seemingly inanimate plants. Likewise, biology textbooks illustrate their theories with more examples from animals than plants, leading some botanists to grumble about “zoochauvinism.” There’s a visual component to plant blindness as well: plants grow and move on a much slower time scale than animals and often grow in monotonous patches of green that fail to attract the eye or inspire much curiosity. To many, plants are an anodyne green backdrop, a sign that everything is fine and pleasant but nothing much is going on, either.
Occasionally, plants break through this blindness to divulge a showy flower, provide a shady spot, clog sinuses or leave a thorn in our sides. In these fleeting moments when plants butt into our lives and force a relationship, we can see a hint of the dynamic beings they are. Plants scrap for survival just as relentlessly and creatively as any animal. They entice pollinators with scents ranging from the sweet smell of a rose to the rancid stink of a corpse flower, repel herbivores with thorns and poisons, and devour insects with sticky traps. But without someone pointing out how and why that plant is acting up–without compelling education and mentorship–the moment is likely to be lost.
That’s a shame, because that moment of awe hints at a deeper truth: we live in a green world. Plants shape ecosystems from the ground up, and indeed, form the foundation of life on earth, including us. They produce the energy that courses through wild and human food chains, and in the process let off the oxygen that you’re depending on right now, with each breath you take. They regulate temperature, slow erosion and filter water and air. Plants are the fibers and the colors in your clothes, the medicine in your cabinet, the food on your plate and the timber in your house. It’s impossible to overstate how central plants are to our lives and our world, even if we often overlook them.
But plant blindness isn’t just a spiritual loss to be lamented by modern-day John Muirs and Caroline Dormons; public disconnection from plants has contributed to major recruiting problems in agriculture and botanical sciences. Reflecting flagging interest, since 1998 the number of research universities offering botany degrees has dropped by half. The number of farmers is also at historic lows, putting strain on agriculture. The number of new farmers was down 20 percent from 2007 to 2012, the year of the USDA’s last “Ag Census,” and that year the average age of an American farmer had crept up to a little over 58 years old.
The dwindling supply of fresh blood in plant-based professions is particularly alarming as ecosystems around the world change at an unprecedented scale and rate.
As climate change progresses, droughts, floods and temperature swings will shift how we grow crops in ways that are hard to predict. Now more than ever, we need people knowledgeable about plants to grow our food, protect our natural resources, and help humans diagnose and adjust to these changes. Global agriculture must meet the demands of a growing population with rapidly changing tastes in unpredictable conditions. And that’s all before even considering conservation of wild ecosystems and biodiversity. This is no time to be blind to plants.
Increasingly, farmers, botanists and other folks acquainted with our green counterparts look at this sorry situation and see a call to action. New mentorship and training programs, coordinated on a national level, aim to address recruitment issues by smoothing the path to plant-oriented careers. On the farming side, programs funded through USDA’s new Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program are pumping new blood into farming through training and mentorship. On the academic side, dozens of scientific societies and institutions have come together to form an online educational and mentoring program called “PlantingScience” that aims to provide the compelling mentorship and education that might inspire students to take a second look at plants. Education and outreach programs at places like botanic gardens can also have an impact, according to Dr. Susan Pell, the science and public programs manager at the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington D.C. “Students come up and say, ‘You can get paid to do this?’ and I love that response.” Dr. Pell recounted. “People aren’t going to choose a career that they’re not aware of.”
Overlapping with these recruitment efforts are the educational and outreach initiatives aimed at getting a wider audience engaged with plants. “Our goal as botanists, as people who are concerned about the state of biodiversity and agriculture, is to develop a broad net to draw people into the conversation,” says Dr. Allison Miller, a professor at St. Louis University and researcher at Missouri Botanical Garden. “We all have a role to play in the future of our food…people think ‘Oh, I live in the suburbs, I go to the grocery store, I have nothing to do with food, there’s nothing I can do.’ But really there is, and one of the most important things people can do is just be aware of the dynamic nature of our agricultural systems and our ecosystems.”
Some academic botanists, like Bucknell University professor Dr. Chris Martine, have also begun to weave public engagement into their work. Dr. Martine’s YouTube series, Plants are Cool Too!, has tens of thousands of views. The series explores weird and fantastical aspects of plant life and humanizes the scientists who study them. “When it comes to sharing science with the public, the biggest challenge is getting people in the room,” said Dr. Martine, and he’s not timid about taking advantage of whatever hook he can use. When he recently described a new species in the potato genus, Dr. Martine named the species Solanum watneyi, after Mark Watney, the hero of the blockbuster movie and book The Martian. He timed his press releases to correspond with buzz about the movie, and now Solanum watneyi’s minor internet celebrity has reminded thousands of people that there are still botanists out there discovering new plant species.
Importantly, different plant-oriented professions and societies see the need to make common cause in getting people engaged with plants. “We should all be working together to enhance the public’s awareness and value of plants” said Dr. Ari Novy, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. Dr. Novy is working with Dr. Miller and others to coordinate botanic gardens with schools, universities, federal agencies and agricultural groups like 4-H, all in an effort to increase public awareness and understanding of the role of plants in our lives. Agriculture and food are center stage in this effort, both because of their vital importance and because it’s a great way to pique people’s interest in plants. “People are engaged with plant topics that relate to them. As such, food is probably the most engaging topic, because everyone eats.” explained Dr. Novy. These different stakeholders are working together to craft messages and educational tools to combat plant blindness as it relates to food literacy through major food- and agriculture-based exhibits at botanic gardens nationwide, such as the “Amber Waves of Grain” exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Gardens or the “Foodology: Digging into the Roots of Your Food” program at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The botanists I spoke with emphasized that this renewed push against plant blindness must instead be a two-way conversation. Here, grassroots efforts to reclaim our green heritage, such as the Slow Food movement and the growing interest in organic, local and craft food and drink, offer a real opportunity for plant-oriented folk to meet people where they are. Hipsters pickling in their kitchens or building community vegetable gardens are showing a genuine desire to meaningfully reconnect with plants. Botanists have an important supporting role to play in these movements, by providing well-curated, scientifically sound information. As Dr. Novy noted, “One of the big challenges now, in my opinion, is to take the cultural interests…and help translate them into a more science-based understanding of the issues.”
Indeed, botanists entering bars, restaurants and other spaces where these trendy food movements hold sway are finding excited and welcoming audiences. Bartenders and restaurateurs “are already one foot in the door with science literacy, and you just feed them what you think is interesting, so they can pass it on to all of their customers,” said Dr. Rachel Meyer, who studies the genetics of crop domestication but moonlights as the co-owner of Shoots and Roots Bitters, a cocktail bitters company. As the company website proclaims, “Our mission is to promote botany education and biodiversity in exciting bitters for your soda water, cocktails and other drinks. We are scientists celebrating science.” Dr. Meyer holds public classes at places like the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, where she walks audiences through the botany and chemistry behind her bitters. By talking about a topic that her audience already cares about, Dr. Meyer is able to turn what could be a dry science lecture into an engaging conversation. The stiff drinks probably don’t hurt, either.
It’s been nearly two decades since the wake-up call that came with the introduction of the term “plant blindness.” People from all plant-oriented professions are now working together to foster a new generation of botanists and farmers ready to take on the challenges from climate change to food security. Just as importantly, they’re stepping down from the tractor and the ivory tower and reaching out to the public to talk about the vital, central and astonishing role plants play in our lives and our world. Whether the medium is a YouTube video, a botanic-garden exhibit, or cocktail bitters, they have found that messages that are resonant and relatable will find a deeply receptive audience. In this disconnected time, when many don’t know what an asparagus plant looks like, people still have an abiding love for the plants around them, especially once they understand what they’re up to. Indeed, many of the botanists I spoke with saw their role less as curing people of plant blindness than as refocusing their gaze. “Plant blindness to me would say people don’t have the ability to see…that’s not true, said Dr. Martine, the professor and YouTube star. “Small amounts of new understanding about what they’re looking at completely changes their world view. It’s not a true blindness, it’s more like a skewed view, and it doesn’t take that much to correct it.”