Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, with an unnamed tree. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy-Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, with an unnamed tree. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy-Pool/Getty Images)

ScienceNovember 22, 2019

Prince Charles shakes hands with trees. Here’s why that makes a lot of sense

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, with an unnamed tree. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy-Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, with an unnamed tree. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy-Pool/Getty Images)

Our kinship with plants is etched out in the mythology on which our societies are founded, and in the web of life it is a scientific fact that we are indeed close kin to the plant kingdom. So why do we not live like we are, asks Matt Hall.

There are no prizes for guessing the reaction to the revelation that Prince Charles shakes hands with, and gives well wishes to, every tree he plants. And yet, while it is easy to mock, the future king is in keeping with both a long narrative tradition about and contemporary scientific knowledge of the photosynthetic beings that make all life on Earth possible.

A sense of kinship with all living beings is found in many of the world’s oldest narratives, our myths of creation. My new book, The Imagination of Plants, illustrates that in such narratives kinship with plants is expressed in a variety of ways.

A common expression of kinship is through acknowledgement of common origins. Here in New Zealand, Māori trace their whakapapa back to the sky father (Ranginui) and earth mother (Papatūānuku), from whom the forests (Tāne, god of the forest) and then the first human beings were created. In pagan Europe, the Gylfaginning (a text of Snorri Sturluson’s The Prose Edda) tells the story of the god Ymir, whose death creates the entire natural world. Ymir becomes a common ancestor when his decaying body makes the earth and the trees, the sea and the sky a motif found across many Indo-European cultures.

Kinship is also expressed through metamorphosis from plant into human form (and sometimes in the reverse). In Ancient Greece, Hesiod wrote of “mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash trees” and in the Aeneid Virgil describes humankind springing forth from the oak tree in the manner of a birth. Such stories of kinship resonate with those in the Americas, including the Inca story describing the first humans being created out of clay and then being born out of various orifices of the earth, including the trunks of trees.

Like the heir to the British throne, mythological tradition combines notions of both kinship and sentience. Many myths contain depictions of plants that are both spoken with and spoken to, including numerous talking trees in the Karelian mythological compilation The Kalevala and the salmali tree in the Indian epic the Mahābhārata, which has a long and unsuccessful dialogue with the wind. In the Māori myth of Rātā, the untold violence human beings are capable of wreaking on the plant kingdom is also recognised.

While a collection of myths from around the world is perhaps as easy to dismiss as the views of an eccentric king in waiting, notions of plant kinship and sentience also align with scientific evidence.

Ever since the publications of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on natural selection in the 1850s, science has known of our fundamental kinship with nature. Modern phylogenetics reveals that in the vast and complex web of life the rice plant (Oryza sativa) and the human being (Homo sapiens) are closely related. As an undergraduate biology student, I had a lecturer who delighted in telling students we share 50% of our genes with banana plants. Another of my undergraduate teachers, Tony Trewavas, has catalysed the contemporary study of plant behaviour that is revealing the remarkable abilities of plants, including memory and learning. Plant sentience and intelligence are now being openly debated in the scientific literature.

If in the web of life it is a scientific fact that we are close kin to the plant kingdom, why do we not live like we are?

We have deep philosophical and religious roots that put plants at the bottom of a hierarchy in nature. My previous research on the perception of plants in western culture illustrates that we have inherited the notions, from both Aristotle and the Book of Genesis, that plants are incapable of sentient behaviour and exist on Earth for our exclusive and privileged use. Rather than narratives of kinship, we’ve constructed stories of domination, possession and human exceptionalism.

As plants are the foundation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, it should perhaps be not too much of a surprise that we find ourselves on the cusp of imminent ecological collapse. Despite the best efforts of many, most people seem not care about the rapid loss of the living world.

Yet, however much we’ve suppressed it, our kinship with plants is etched out in the mythology on which our societies are founded. Writers such as Richard Powers, whose novel The Overstory explores the notions of human-plant kinship, are beginning to tap back into these ancient sources. In a world made to serve humanity at every turn, we urgently need many more such narratives to undercut our human-centredness and bring forth the kinship relationships that lead us into care, respect and responsibility. More of us then may look differently on someone engaged in planting trees and wishing them well on their way.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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