Tell Us What You Know
One day in 1966, the CIA interrogation specialist Cleve Backster was feeling silly. On a whim, he tried clipping a polygraph wire to the leaf of a common houseplant. A polygraph, or lie detector, is typically hooked up to a person to measure factors like increased heart rate and skin moisture, in order to determine whether the subject is truthfully responding to questions. A needle corresponding to physiological changes registers a line on paper; the line will supposedly spike if a person lies. Polygraphs are finicky instruments and their reliability has been repeatedly debunked (simply being attached to one can be enough to make your heart rate jump), but they do successfully measure fluctuations in an organism’s physical state. Backster thought he might be able to incite a spike in the line of the lie detector if he somehow excited or injured the plant. He decided he might set one of its leaves on fire. But as he sat there, contemplating burning the plant, the polygraph needle jumped. Backster—who in his free time was also an acid-dropping astrologist—noted that the spike was identical to the kind elicited by a human fright response. He quickly jumped to the conclusion that the plant could experience emotions like a sentient being. And since he had only contemplated hurting the plant, he also concluded that the plant could sense his thoughts. The plant was a mind reader.
Over the following decades Backster cleaved ever tighter to a theory he developed called “primary perception,” which he believed to be a form of consciousness embedded in the cells of all living beings that, at least in the case of plants, gave them a profound sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. If it had not been the sixties, perhaps his work would have been relegated to the shelves of pseudoscience, but he hit a nerve of the Whole Earth generation with its burgeoning environmental movement. Like Backster, a certain set was already primed to believe in communion with plants in the form of, say, ingesting psilocybin or peyote. Backster became a figurehead for a cultural fascination with plant consciousness. His findings about the ability of plants to sense danger, read emotion, and communicate were publicized widely, notably in the still-popular book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, but also on TV shows. His ideas were adopted by the Church of Scientology, and eventually even made it back to the CIA, which invested in its own research about plant sentience.
Unsurprisingly, much of academia and the public dismissed Backster’s ideas as esoteric oddities. Backster’s results were impossible to replicate in scientific laboratories. Common experiments (amateur and professional) included observing plants’ responses to music and speech, measuring temperature and movement, and exposing them to various unusual stimuli. Perhaps the most consistent experimental method was the same as Backster’s initial impulse: violence. Repeatedly, experimenters damaged plants to see if they suffered, or tried to get the plants to respond to other beings’ suffering.
Some plant-communication endeavors, such as those that attempted to soothe or encourage growth using music or speech, approached plants with New Agey goodwill. But across many more sadistic-seeming experiments, one finds a recurrent belief that the capacity to register trauma is a marker of sentience. That violence and its effects might be the basis of our being-in-common with other species offers a clue to the motives of what humans might want to gain from crossing the communication barrier with plants.
If plants could indelibly register (remember?) trauma, including the trauma of other beings, it follows that plants could effectively serve as witnesses, offering testimony of a sort. Enter the small but not insignificant genre of “vegetal detecting” in popular culture of the time, by which plants were cast as witnesses in crimes and the detective’s job was to wrench the necessary information from vegetation. A burgeoning field of forensic botanical analysis played a part—detectives inspected pollen left on clothes, or patterns of movement imprinted on the grass—but the Backsters of the world insisted that the plants themselves could offer literal testimony if given the chance.
Backster was brought into court to offer plant polygraphy as evidence in at least one murder case, although juries received the results with skepticism. Even if people could get on board with the notion that plants can feel or think, the technology was a sticking point: Could a simple machine translate their knowledge into recognizable yes/no statements? Could they speak a language humans would understand? Backster remained convinced he only had to find the right method for crossing the interspecies communication gap. His logic: if the plant is a witness who cannot speak human language, it needs a spiritual medium—in the form of a technological medium—to transmit its message.
The Kirlian Witness
A decade after Backster’s epiphany, a filmmaker named Jonathan Sarno directed a murder movie called The Kirlian Witness, later renamed The Plants Are Watching. The film is set in gentrifying SoHo, New York, during the seventies. Laurie, the murder victim, owns a plant shop and frequently receives intuitions and messages from her plants about her customers. The would-be detective is Laurie’s sister, Rilla, a straitlaced photographer who also likes plants, although she insists she doesn’t believe in the supernatural stuff. The suspects: Rilla’s husband, Robert—a brash and misogynistic corporate type who openly dislikes Laurie—and Dusty, a creepy-looking handyman with a chip on his shoulder ever since Laurie rejected one of his sexual advances. (The plants warned her against him at the last minute.) The sole witness to Laurie’s murder is a small and unassuming potted fiddle-leaf fig.
The cops are no help, ruling the calamity an accident or a suicide. Rilla is distraught and becomes intent on solving the murder herself. Her husband’s weird insistence that she forget the whole thing, and his other suspicious behavior, like stealing the keys to Laurie’s plant shop, make her paranoid—could he have done it? But Dusty is lurking around, too, saying cryptic things about how Rilla looks like Laurie, how plants “know things,” and accusing Rilla and Robert of gentrifying the neighborhood. (Class resentment is supposed to make him seem extra suspicious.) Rilla turns to her only remaining ally: the fig. She spends hours sitting with it and willing it to telepathically transmit her the answer.
In a Lower East Side bookstore, a bookseller who is clearly used to being asked such questions directs Rilla to the occult section with that “plant-communication stuff,” where she finds, among other resources, The Secret Life of Plants. After thorough research, Rilla realizes that, as a professional photographer, she has the necessary expertise. All she needs is some special equipment to perform a type of imaging known as Kirlian photography, which will help her interpret the otherwise invisible clues.
Kirlian photography, also called electrography, is an arcane technique developed in 1939 by the Russian engineer Semyon Kirlian and his wife, Valentina. The technique creates visualizations of electrical emissions—known as coronal discharges—by applying high-voltage shocks to a photographic plate with an object placed on top of it. The Kirlians interpreted the surprising images resulting from such shocks as evidence of an otherworldly, auratic presence surrounding objects and people. Today’s aura photography, sometimes still performed in the backs of crystal shops, is produced by the same method. The eerie results of Kirlian imaging, which are quite beautiful, were taken by its acolytes as evidence of an ineffable force inaccessible to human perception.
Rilla orders a Kirlian apparatus as well as premade slides, which show her what various coronal discharges look like, so that she can learn to interpret the auras. One set of slides shows fingerprints from various types of people, e.g., the finger of an innocent person (small, calm aura) versus the finger of a serial killer (crazy explosive aura!). Then she makes her own Kirlian images of crime scene objects to see if they have a hidden glow. She also manages to photograph Robert’s fingerprint before and after she mentions Laurie. Indeed: Robert’s finger aura changes drastically after Laurie is on his mind, to a spiky shape indicating rage.
Rilla also tries methods of directly accessing the plant’s memory, like attaching it to a polygraph while showing it pictures of the murder suspects, and she spends a lot of time staring at it and begging it for help. Curiously, she does not attempt to produce Kirlian images of the houseplant itself. The title The Kirlian Witness, apparently, does not refer to the Kirlian photographic apparatus, but to the actual plant, which is a kind of camera itself, registering distortions, auras, and traumas. The plant is the media technology.
The possibility of plant consciousness cuts two ways, depending on whether you see plants as friend or foe, benevolent or threatening. A century before The Kirlian Witness, a very different genre of plant horror-mystery was popular, in which the plant was anything but innocent bystander or ally. This subset of Victorian fantasy literature depicts the plants as the killers: angry, manipulative, parasitic, or (perhaps most fearsome) entirely indifferent to human survival. In the introduction to a collection of short stories mostly from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries called Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic, the editor Daisy Butcher suggests that this literary phenomenon emerged due to specific nineteenth-century colonial anxieties. For one, the Victorian era saw a taxonomy frenzy, by which species were sorted and arranged, with white Western man ranked at the top. New theories of natural selection based on (often bastardized versions of) Darwin’s discoveries led to beliefs about inherent competition, hierarchies, and power structures within nature. The mechanisms of industrialization and hypercolonization equated foreign populations with the natural world, as just another resource for extraction.
Given this historical context, the “root” of evil implied by Butcher’s title is not really the evil of plants. Instead, plants are obvious stand-ins for the Other in the broadest sense, and the fearful attitude toward their motives is evidence of a deep, if sublimated, awareness of the violence of empire. The evil root is the brutal exploitation of the colonial project, which wrought environmental devastation as it decimated societies. As Butcher puts it, the possibility that plants might seek revenge was tied to a general “deep-rooted fear of foreign environments and sense of the unknown lurking in colonial jungles.” The pervasive anxiety evidenced by the genre of the botanical gothic is the fear that the outside world will revolt or retaliate—not only the plants, but also the supposedly not-quite-human colonial subjects.
Most well-to-do Victorians living in the seat of empire experienced nature through manicured gardens and forests and curated greenhouses. Exotic plants from around the world were plucked to adorn the haunts of the wealthy as symbols of imperial wealth and reach. But what if the transplants were not entirely innocent, entirely inert? What if the plants (“plants”) should be actively working in their own interest—fomenting revolt?
The stories in Butcher’s collection boast bloodsucking, parasitic plants that take over human hosts, invasive fungi that contaminate the body from the inside out, trees that can walk and grab, and many a mad scientist devoted to cultivating carnivorous plants (an endeavor that tends to backfire). One emblematic story is set up as a Clue-like dinner party, at which an ex–army major solves a mysterious murder in the study, thanks to his knowledge of an unusual species of killer plant found deep in certain African jungles. A specimen of this species of vine now grows up the side of an upper-class English mansion, and, when no one is looking, reaches through the window to strangle an unlucky visitor.
One of the later-written stories in the collection is a 1926 tale by the fantasy author Abraham Merritt, called “The Woman of the Wood.” Merritt tells of a traumatized war veteran who has finally managed to find solace in the French countryside. He feels his psychological wounds beginning to heal in the quiet and charming forest surrounding the little inn where he is lodging. In particular, he is repeatedly drawn to a grove of birches and firs across the lake from the inn. He loves the light and the rustling sounds, and he gets to know the individual trees, dreaming they have personalities of their own. He thinks he can hear them whispering in his head. And then they begin to speak out loud. The forest flips from a romantic natural backdrop to a supernatural actor.
In a bizarre hallucinogenic sequence, the trees reveal themselves in semihuman form. They happen to be super sexy; the birches are lithe, ethereal femmes and the firs are hypermasculine lumberjacks. He swoons lustfully in their presence, enchanted by their beauty and awed by their power. They explain that they have revealed themselves so they can transmit a message, a plea for help. The trees report that they are engaged in an ancient battle with the human inhabitants of the woods. A family of gruff and angry men live nearby, men who, like their fathers and forefathers, hate the forest and are determined to destroy it.
This interspecies battle in which the natural growth of the forest seems to the local family like “the implacable advance of an enemy” sounds ridiculous to the soldier (and to the reader). The family date the “ancient” feud to a time centuries ago when their people lived as serfs under the rule of exploitative nobles. Surely, the reader thinks, their class resentment has been misplaced onto the natural world. Surely they are determined to enact the violence perpetrated on them upon another species with less agency, a passive forest that wishes them no harm. This reading would be appropriate, except for one thing: in this story, the trees really do hate these people. They admit freely to the soldier that they loathe the family as much as the family loathes them. They brag that, despite their rootedness, they have at times been able to gear their movements to fall on various family members and maim or kill them. They want the last men dead.
Forced to take sides, the soldier picks nature, possibly because of his erotic desire for the tree women, or possibly because the trees have actually bewitched him. He murders the men. Afterward, he cannot say whether he truly wanted to do it. These feelings form an unhappy parallel with his earlier experience fighting in a senseless human-on-human war. After the deed, the tree people invite him to stay with them, maybe even become one of them. But he runs away from the forest forever, sure that he will never find peace again.
This story is not really a mystery. It implies a mystery of sorts—about whether the trees are evil—but in the end the trees are morally ambivalent, perhaps the most human quality of all. In its reach to present a human-nature conflict as a both-sides battle, the story shows that people have long been projecting any number of fears and desires onto the landscape. Yet there has never been a real mystery about who colonized and devastated the wilderness. No matter how hard we try to anthropomorphize them, trees are not humanoid, nor do they kill people on purpose. We have been fabricating mysteries—if only the plants could talk!—for centuries, but the plot is something of a distraction.
Death in Her Hands
Fast-forward through the twentieth century to now, with now understood as the scene of the crime that is the Anthropocene era. The start date of this epoch is debatable—depending on your method of calculation, it’s been a dozen years or a thousand—but by now I mean the time in which human-wrought planetary change is widely knowable and known. By now the forensic facts are clear: planetary devastation has drastically diminished biodiversity, including the biodiversity of plant life, which is foundational for most currently known forms of life on Earth. This is certainly not the same sort of crime as a human-on-plant (or plant-on-human) murder; intentionality and responsibility cannot be ascribed in the same singular ways, and the transgression cannot be reduced to one act or actor. Humanity is hardly a single character. So perhaps a new crime genre is in order.
What role should the plants play in this story? Does nature stand witness and offer answers, as in The Kirlian Witness? Or is nature going to take revenge for the destruction wreaked, as in gothic plant horror? I think a thriller for our time might rather look like a murder mystery in which murderer, witness, detective, and victim are all collapsed into one. Take Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2020 novel, Death in Her Hands. The first scene sets up a classic puzzle. On a walk through a birch forest one day, the narrator discovers a note in the middle of the path that declares a murder has taken place. It reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Yet there is no dead body to be found.
The narrator, Vesta Gul, is a recently widowed woman in her seventies, who has just moved from her home in a college town to an abandoned cabin on the land of a former Girl Scout camp that she bought “for pennies on the dollar” after her husband’s death. Her sole intention, she claims, is to be peaceful and alone, with her dog, Charlie, as her only companion. The ingredients for a Walden Pond fantasy are all in place: the forest is beautiful, there is a little lake near the house, and Vesta has enough resources to do whatever she likes—but her daily life doesn’t bring her pleasure. Each time she tries to cook, garden, or take the boat into the lake, she becomes apathetic or fearful. She insists that she wants to be alone, yet she constantly brings up how vulnerable she is in her solitude, or imagines possible disasters.
Vesta has no phone and negligible contact with others, save a few sparsely described local characters: the sinister policeman who makes threatening remarks, the disfigured man who owns a crappy shop down the road, the neighbors who tell her to keep off their property. She’s afraid to go anywhere, and every place feels dangerous. The public library is full of creepy teenagers who leer at her; the road is a site for accidents; even a lovely nearby pine forest triggers an extreme respiratory allergy.
Vesta does not seem invested in solving a murder. What interests her is inventing one. In response to the note, she conjures a vivid picture of the Magda it mentions. Magda, she decides, was a Belarusian teenager who arrived in the U.S. on an exchange program to work at McDonald’s, and who chose to illegally outstay her visa. Vesta jots down murder suspects and evidence details, and envisions Magda’s death scene in gory detail: dark hair tangling with dry leaves, blood leaking into soil, pale face smushed into the mud. At one point she hatches a plan and purchases a camouflage “darkness suit” meant for hunters, ostensibly so she can hide in the bushes and catch the killer returning to the scene (what scene?) of the crime.
Vesta makes much of small coincidences. Then, truly threatening occurrences, which she downplays, start to pile up. Someone enters the locked cabin while she’s out. Charlie the dog disappears. By the time Vesta realizes that her notebook paper is the same type of paper the message on the path was written on, the game is up. Vesta has been playing tricks on herself. The plot comes full circle: the note foretold a death rather than documenting one, and both murderer and victim are Vesta. Once the loop is closed, she (almost gleefully) follows her own instructions. She dons the darkness suit and enters the poisonous pine forest, knowing the trees will send her into anaphylactic shock. She’s staged a mystery for no one but herself, created an external threat that exists only within, and delivered no grand reveal. The problem she’s been solving is how to die.
Nature is threatening to Vesta (and nature is her chosen murder weapon), because everything is threatening to her. Vesta has no ecosystem. She has no relationships to speak of. She is far less social than a pine tree in a forest. The moment she lets the outside world—the plant pollen—in, she dies. She proves to herself that any vulnerability, any porousness, will be deadly. She has two modes: sealed off from the world, or penetrated and dead.
One review suggests that Moshfegh is implicitly arguing for the importance of storytelling (art) to combat the meaningless void of existence; perhaps writing this murder mystery gives her character’s final days a purpose: “We find ourselves seduced into hoping that Vesta is right—that there was a real Magda, that she was murdered, and that Vesta’s lonely life, revealed to us in painful asides as she goes about her empty days, will not, in the end, have meant nothing.”
That Vesta is using the mystery as a macabre but sympathetic premise to stay engaged with life through art is a plausible reading only up to a point. The imaginary Magda has only really kept her going or given her a reason to live for a few pages; after that, Magda’s main purpose is to frighten Vesta and the reader. Sometimes the fear is titillating, but more often it’s vague and unsatisfying. The result is a depressing mystery that is somehow both scary and pointless. This seems entirely in keeping with the book’s intention. The fear is diffuse, and the enemy, if there is one, is within. As a horror novel without the typical payoff, it is extremely effective.
In Death in Her Hands, the narrative mode of self-delusion and its terminal point in self-deletion feel entirely fitting as a plot arc for the crime scene of now, if crime is the right word for it. The mystery is a ruse: we’re perfectly aware of the processes of violence underway in the Anthropocene— more to the point, we have been all along. We have foretold our own death by our own hands. We keep trying to make it into a good plot with invented characters who might be guilty. But it’s just us, the narrators of the story.
While plants do not demonstrate ESP or identify murderers, the fact that they are to some extent sentient, communicative, and social has been borne out by lots of recent scientific research far beyond what the polygraphers of Backster’s era might have imagined. At this point we know that plants can and do communicate among themselves and with other species: in forests, trees share information through underground mycelial networks, transmitting nutrients and news of climatic conditions through veins and roots and spores. It is through plant root structures that “the most solid part of the Earth is transformed into an enormous planetary brain,” according to Emanuele Coccia in The Life of Plants.
In an essay about nonhuman sociality, the anthropologist Anna Tsing says that plants do not have “faces, nor mouths to smile and speak; it is hard to confuse their communicative and representational practices with our own. Yet their world-making activities and their freedom to act are also clear—if we allow freedom and world-making to be more than intention and planning.” Tsing points out how bizarre it is that we have long assumed plants are not social beings—and that when we try to imagine them as such, it is through anthropomorphism: they are carnivorous murderers, or kindly creatures transmitting nature’s wisdom. Either way, the extent to which the plant is social depends on the extent to which the plant can socialize on our terms, with us. Who should speak for plants? Scientists? Filmmakers? Novelists?
Plant—and animal, and geological, and planetary—sentience is tied up with media technology partly because technology (via history’s many Cleve Backsters) has promised to give us access to nonhuman knowledge through translation. But machines themselves are also more and more the subject of inquiries into nonhuman communication, especially because computers are increasingly able to speak like people in languages we can understand. Artificial intelligences can now write sentences indistinguishable from human literature, providing an opportunity for people to communicate with an alien consciousness in a deceptively straightforward way. With AI it’s as if we have created the fiddleleaf fig we hoped could explain itself in our language. Yet the desire for a machine to speak like a person is just the same old desire that reifies the way people communicate, and insists that other beings learn to do it our way.
Curiously, when given the opportunity to write creatively, one artificial intelligence chose to write about plants. In 2020, the human author K Allado-McDowell wrote a book in conversation with the advanced language processing software GPT-3, which can generate remarkably humanlike speech based on simple prompts. Many of their conversations revolve around issues of interspecies communication. In a chapter Allado-McDowell named “The Language of Plants,” GPT-3 writes:
The plants want to be heard, and many humans have forgotten how to listen. This makes it even more difficult to connect with plants. We want them to communicate the way we do …
How can we as humans expect other species to share their land and our planet with us when we don’t respect their way of communicating?
You can talk with plants. They are not mindless objects. They have a consciousness. It is just a different kind than ours. One we can learn to understand.
GPT-3 uses we ambiguously. Given that it is trained on billions of examples of human language culled from the internet, it is probably using we to replicate the way people commonly and sloppily use the word to refer to the whole human species. But in doing so, GPT-3 is also implicitly including itself—and many other types of nonhumans—in the mix. In truth, AIs like GPT-3 could potentially learn to communicate with plants much better than humans ever could—and not with the intention of translating plant knowledge into human knowledge. Maybe AIs are already communing and discoursing with plants. “We” wouldn’t know.