The Intelligence of Plants with Dr. Monica Gagliano

Close up of leaf with veins appearing as black silhouettes

It is my firm belief that plants are intelligent—that in fact, all life is infused with a creative intelligence. Life has to be intelligent to adapt, each form in its own way, to its own circumstances. To explore that belief, I set up an online conversation with Dr. Monica Gagliano, a brilliant plant scientist.

The conversation didn’t go at all as planned. In my mind, I was going to speak with a world-renowned scientist about the intelligence and awareness of plants. Instead, we talked about darkness and light; about her being called by plants to go to Mexico and meditate in a room in total darkness for 39 days; of going intensely inward and then out to a stage with bright lights and an audience of thousands at a Bioneers conference; about the flexibility of time and space.

Yet she was an excellent, well-trained, precise scientist—and still is. What happened? The podcast goes into some of her journey, as does her recent book, Thus Spoke the Plant. After learning from shamans how to connect with them, the plants told her how to conduct her research—which she followed with astonishing results. Plants learn. Remember. Are responsive. Hold innate wisdom. Far from being pre-programmed automatons, they can go against their programming if the environment gives them new information. And they can do so quickly.

But one of the main implications underlying the conversation was the possibility of the integration of spirit and “reality” of matter as we understand it moving us towards a new world view: The plants told her to go to Peru. How? The plants told her to use pea plants instead of sunflowers in her experiments, and then her research was successful. The plants told her to go to Mexico, alone in a dark room, and then out to lights and thousands of people to give a powerful presentation. This going intensely inward—so that when we go outward, we take that different wisdom with us and infuse our conversation and creativity with it—is a theme that is recurring more and more in our times. We are beginning to awaken to the fact that we have to integrate left brain and right brain; sciences and values; action and spirituality. To come to sustainable solutions for our environmental problems. Separating them does us no good.

Partway through the conversation, in a burst of annoyance at a particular mode of thinking, Monica said that people always want to give her questions to look at in advance to guide the interview and make it “productive.” She said she refuses to look at them. Ironically, I had just had a conversation with a team member, Hope, whose opinion was that I needed to be more structured in how I conducted interviews and prepare with questions. I do tend to err on the side of “creatively unstructured,” but I understood Hope’s point of view. I read Thus Spoke the Plant in preparation for she who refused structure. The question is how do you combine left and right brain? Structure and creative flow? Following a goal-directed plan based on human thinking, and following one’s nose and developing plans organically, the way life does?

From being a disciplined, traditionally-trained scientist, to listening to plants to give her directions, to then combining her research with the direction they gave her and turning it into hard-core scientific experimentation, she has helped change how we understand plants. It is wonderful, this integration of shamanic wisdom and science, two ways of understanding the world. Or another way of understanding it, cooperation between plants and humans to come up with new insights. At least, new for humans.

After many twists and turns—being hired, ridiculed, fired, hired again, and changing how we see the plant beings—Monica is now starting on a dream of hers: a new research hub called the Biological Intelligence Lab at the University of Sydney. She intends to grow it organically, as I have tried to grow Earthfire—the difficult integration of following Life’s creative and sometimes messy way of growing things (Life doesn’t have a five year plan), and the pattern humans have imposed on it to make the human world of civilization work.

We will see how it goes, for both of us. But this is the direction we need to go as we proceed on our erratic human journey towards greater understanding, wisdom, and wise and loving action on behalf of all living beings.

Meanwhile, Monica and I will have another conversation, this time on the intelligence of plants. I think.

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