Dialogue 2. On Plants

Sonya to Fiona, 10 October 2020

I am again touched by what you write, and even if an ant has a different body that us, we are still made of the same in a way. If I start thinking about it – which I sometimes do – it creeps me out and it gets very hard to even walk on soil at all. Because each of my free steps means the possible death of another creature or a plant.

Plants are our oldest teachers. They made life on this planet possible and started the cycle of growth and prepared the land for all species to follow them. They provide everything we need. They are our medicine and they distribute it for free. They give us the food that makes us survive. How do they speak to us as the keepers of knowledge with no voice to speak? Plants tell their stories not with what they say, but what they do. They carry strength of the earth within them.

This means that we don’t have to figure it all out by ourselves, we have our teachers that we can observe and listen to. The land allows us every minute, every second, to learn from it by listening to these intelligences of the living world. Nature has developed all the solutions that we need – if we are willing to listen and learn. They are part of the solution, but we are too. We need to acknowledge that we don’t need a climate change, but a system change and a change of behaviour and re-learning. We must take from the earth, but how we do so is crucial.

I have to think about how plants are used within warfare and suppression of nations. I think in particular of the Palestinians that as you know are pushed back into very limited patches of land within a country called Israel. Since centuries they are planting and harvesting olive trees. They are cut off their lands by checkpoints through which they can only pass at certain times. But those might not be the hours and weeks and months to do the maintenance and harvesting. I saw those checkpoints. The system is about dehumanizing the peasants who are strongly connected with their soil and the trees growing on them since centuries. The earth seems to cry there, not only the people. You can feel it when you look at it.

Its crazy how plants and animals are not granted any rights within the juridical concept of our Western society.

Much love, my fellow Libra-friend.


Fiona to Sonya, 14 October 2020

I love your description of teacher plants. I feel this very deeply, and also I feel alienated from it. Both at the same time. A kind of longing. The possibility that we can enter into direct communication with plants (and fungi) perhaps through a shared space of consciousness, is deeply precious and also still mysterious to me. I am often all too aware of my edges, my failures. My Western rationalist upbringing forms a barrier, and so does the way I have eaten food and taken medicine from corporate shelves most of my life.

Many non-western epistemologies and cosmologies allow for a far deeper and more expansive view of plant intelligence and plant consciousness than ours. Shamans ritually ingest, or ‘diet’, the plants they request knowledge and healing from. The learning comes directly out from the body (and spirit) of the plant into the body (and spirit) of the human. In Thus Spoke the Plant, scientist Monica Gagliano describes her experience of dieting plants in Peru as learning through deep listening, which she describes as having, in contrast to empathy, “the quality of a perfect surprise” (Gagliano 2018: 17) The plant shows her new, unexpected things – as images, even as designs for scientific experiments!

When she returned to her Australian research job, Gagliano used the visions the plants gave her to design experiments without projected outcomes. Through them, she discovered that plants can communicate through sound. It was a ground-breaking study. Her book (and many others over the last decade) show that (finally, after a few hundred years) at least some colonial subjects are taking indigenous philosophies and teachings more seriously.

Another thing your text made me think of how plants emerged from the sea! The earliest land plants evolved from green algae, that living in the water, had little use for specialized structures to absorb water and nutrients. So many of the earliest land plants, like mosses and liverworts, didn’t have root systems at all, but had a modified stem, or rhizome, which served mainly as anchors to the soil. They were really vulnerable to drying out. They weren’t yet really adapted for life on land. Instead, they had help. Fossilized plants dating from 400 million years ago show well preserved structures that look identical to modern arbuscules, the most common form of mycorrhizal association, characterized by the presence of hyphae that penetrate plant cells and form highly branched structures.

That relationship between plants and fungi has continued to blossom – more than 90% of plants rely on mycorrhizae! As well as helping the plants to access water and nutrients, they act as a kind of shared brain and communication network. So when we are thinking about plants as teachers, we shouldn’t forget the fungi.

As you know, I love and inspired by the science. I don’t want to deny the wonder that it brings me. But I also want to learn through these more direct experiences. A lot of my work is about putting me into situations to do that. This Vibrant Turf was another opportunity to spend time looking really carefully, and just being with, plants. The microscopic videos that I took of the plants are especially exciting to me because I feel that they afford me (and the viewer) really quite a nonhuman view. The images are blurry and hard to control, but you can feel that you are immersed in the flower, like an insect might be immersed, while pollinating and feeding.

I didn’t do much eating of the plants though. I would like to do a ‘plant diet’ with you!

Much love


Sonya to Fiona, 15 October 2020

Thank you lots for the insights you shared. I know that you produced an amazing work on mycorrhizae, which I am really intrigued by. Maybe you can share this work here with some images and links?

The only work I had done in this direction is my series of moss photographs. When I was on a residency in Sweden in 2018, I was really under a lot of stress from the things I had to work on before. And here I was: completely thrown into a tiny village and a world that was guided by nature. No one locked their houses and when it got dark, it got dark and quiet. Not something I had never experienced before, but still a shock in that moment. The pressure inside of me continued and I could only find calm in looking at the different mosses and lichen that were growing all around me offering their amazing beauty and variety that I had never observed before. This close looking is something that we are usually to rushed for, especially living under the circumstances of the city. What I wrote about the plants also amazed me: They can grow on anything, don’t need roots (as you mentioned), fertilize themselves which gives them huge independence and they can also survive for like a million years, for example in ice. I mean, hey, that’s crazy and amazing and I can only admire this plant.

The series was the showing the different plants I had found surrounding me in that place in Sweden. But the mosses and lichen are covering design household objects I had found in beautiful vintage stores also surrounding me. The plants are the main focus of the image, but they carry a form or shape under them. You cannot guess what makes the shapes – only if you read the titles of the individual images. I like this kind of secrecy and the plants as my secretkeepers.

Writing down this word gives me the goose bumps as this was the title of a performance my dear friend Colette Urban and I had done in Rotterdam and Toronto in 2003: We were sitting on chairs during a certain time and people would approach us and tell a secret into a kind of horn that we hold against our ear shell. We promised never to tell anyone. Like the plants keep their secrets when they grow over it.

What kind of plant diet do you propose? Hmmm, I get hungry now!

Much Love, Sonya

P.S.: Looking out of my studio window. The birds are migrating.

Fiona to Sonya, 22 October 2020

Secretkeepers – what a delicious phrase. And I love the images you conjure, both of the moss covered objects, and of the listening performance. It makes me think of the collaboration I did with Marcus Coates called Ask Somerset’s Plants, where people sent us in questions – life problems, political issues, and we answered them by learning about the strategies, adaptations and life choices of the plants that grow in some very special habitats in Somerset. The podcasts we made with naturalists are available to listen to at www.askthewild.net.

I have special places and trees that I visit regularly, feel close to, and gain a certain kind of grounding and succour from. The other day I was walking in the woods that I took you to, but I was walking right around the back of the woods, near the motorway, and I took a slightly different wandering route, up away from the path, and came across a huge Holly tree, whose trunk rose high before the branches spread out wide, and then small branches curved back and smaller ones again dropped down, so that the leaves formed a thin veil almost to the floor, in a broad oval. The tree (there are two trunks, so maybe this pair of trees) creates a space inside, like a church made of leaves. You can see out, but it is much more difficult to see in. I am amazed that I have never seen this tree before, in eight years of exploring these woods. But from the outside, it kind of disappears, it stays in the background. Like Magic.

The Mycorrhizal Meditation that you mentioned has been performed live in these woods many times, to groups of people who visit the Quadrangle Trust, who I have worked with on various projects. Everyone stands in a circle among the trees, and the meditation draws them into the plant and fungal network. The meditation starts by journeying down slowly through the listener’s body, and then carries on as their feet meet the soil, they grow roots, which spread and delve into the ‘underworld’ of living soil, meeting and mingling with the mycorrhizal network formed of plant roots and fungal hyphae. The listeners enter into deep communication with each other, and with the nonhuman beings of the wood, under the soil. In the digital version, the spoken word of the guided meditation combines with sound recordings of wooded spaces and sonifications direct from plants, trees and fungi. It is available to listen to via my website www.feralpractice.com 

When I think about the patch on Fackenden Down that I have worked with during This Vibrant Turf, it really feels as I have barely scratched the surface, and that the images and videos and rubbings and writings really don’t do it justice… I don’t mean that in an art criticism kind of way, but in considering what it might take to really connect, to this patch, to its plants. To know a patch of turf one must really learn it over a whole year, don’t you think, through all the seasons? And then, of course, things change, so the year after, the patch will have a slightly different group of plants and insects and microorganisms, each with their own unique signature, or song. Within each species there is so much variation. Each plant is an individual, much as each human is, but plant individuality usually only gets noticed by humans in very exceptional cases, like veteran and ancient trees. Or, perhaps, the plants in one’s own garden, the places that you tend, and visit, and ponder again and again and again…the plants that you care for. I haven’t quite got there yet with the patch. I have seen some plants flower and seed, and now they are dying back. After we had a long dry spell and then rain in September, there was also a period of fresh new growth, like a mini Spring. Some Scabious plants flowered, that I had missed flowering earlier in the year, and also there were lots of new fresh dandelion leaves. I wish I had eaten some. I picked two leaves from each species of plant, to make this ‘tablecloth’ photo and do some rubbings, but I felt a bit bad even doing this, because it’s a nature reserve, but after all they manage the site with cattle. I want to deepen my connection to these plants, and I think that eating them, becoming corporeally enmeshed, would help.

That is partly what I mean by the plant diet. But also, in its full Hedgewitch or Shamanic sense, a plant diet is a practice far beyond ingestion, it is full of ritual and knowledge, which I would need some guidance to do. I do feel a need for that. I am seeking someone who can draw me into a differently embodied experience of learning and working with plants. Perhaps that is something we can investigate together. For now, we pause…

Vegetally yours ❤