Zoë Schlanger makes the case for plant intelligence in 'The Light Eaters' Climate journalist Zoë Schlanger says research suggests that plants are indeed "intelligent" in complex ways that challenge our understanding of agency and consciousness. Her book is The Light Eaters.

Plants can communicate and respond to touch. Does that mean they're intelligent?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Back in the '70s, there were these questionable experiments that claimed to prove that plants could behave like humans, that they had feelings or could respond to music or even take a polygraph test. Now, most of those claims have since been debunked, but a new wave of research suggests that plants are indeed intelligent in complex ways that challenge our very understanding of agency and consciousness.

That's the subject of a new book written by climate journalist Zoe Schlanger, called "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." In the book, Schlanger explores how plants do indeed communicate with each other, see and recognize other plants, store memories and even learn. Schlanger traveled around the world to explore the work of botanical researchers to understand the debate among them on how to interpret the latest findings, which are sometimes at odds with our conception of what a plant actually is.

Zoe Schlanger is a staff reporter at The Atlantic, where she covers climate change. She also writes the newsletter The Weekly Planet, which tells the story of life on a changing planet. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and The New York Review Of Books. Zoe Schlanger, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ZOE SCHLANGER: It's wonderful to be with you.

MOSLEY: I really enjoyed this book - very fascinating. And, you know, from the moment I started to read it, I was thinking about how plant intelligence has been for such a long time a highly contested idea, especially after some of that debunked research from the '70s. What made you say to yourself, I've got to pick up this field of study and explore this new science behind this idea of plant intelligence?

SCHLANGER: Yeah. So as you said, I cover climate change. And a few years ago, I was feeling really burnt out. I'm sure as anyone can relate to, climate is a harrowing subject. And my editor realized that I needed a bit of a change, and he was just like, go find something else to cover. And I've always been interested in plants, and I started perusing botany journals kind of on my lunch hour and after work. And I noticed something that really made me fall off my chair the first time I saw it, which was that at this exact moment I was looking, botanists were debating the possibility that plants were intelligent. And as any science journalist knows, or any scientist, science is an incredibly conservative field. Scientists don't want to be misconstrued. They tend to avoid using words that are mushy or can have multiple meanings. And so the fact that they were using words like intelligence and consciousness and having this rigorous debate among themselves, I knew that would be a huge story, and not one that I had seen break out of the realm of botany journals and academia into the public realm yet.

MOSLEY: That's really fascinating that they're using the word intelligence. It seems like a phrase that we can all understand. We know animals, for instance, have unique intelligence that isn't human. In what you were reading, though, is there a consensus about what consciousness means as it relates to plants?

SCHLANGER: Absolutely not. I mean, consciousness is a fascinating thing because we don't have any consensus for what it means even in ourselves. You and I can...

MOSLEY: Oh, right. Yes.

SCHLANGER: Yeah. You and I can completely feel our own consciousness, but we actually have no way to make certain that anyone else is conscious. We observe consciousness in humans just through inference, through watching behavior or asking a person questions. And we barely have extended consciousness to the world of animals at this point. I think we're all comfortable with the idea that a dog is - most of us have had an experience with an animal that to us would confirm its consciousness. But in terms of science and philosophy and neurobiology, it's still a bit of an open question. I mean, actually, I'm in New York, and just a couple of weeks ago, at NYU, there was a conference of biologists and philosophers and they put out a declaration that extends the possibility of consciousness to insects and fish and crustaceans.

So that's just brand new, and that was an extension of another declaration in 2012 that extended consciousness to mammals and birds. So we're barely on the edge of widening this circle to admit other species. But here were botanists suggesting we might have to widen it even further to plants.

MOSLEY: You prefer this idea that plants have agency. Can you say more about what you mean?

SCHLANGER: Yeah, agency is a little less mushy. You don't need to be certain of consciousness or intelligence to use it. Agency is this effect of having control over one's destiny, so to speak, of having an active stake in the outcome of your life. And when I was looking at plants and speaking to botanists, it became very clear to me that plants have this. They have this lively ability to make choices for themselves, to plan for the future, to use information from their environment and mix it with experiences in their past, to make really wise choices for their future. That can mean changing how their body looks, changing what direction to grow in, changing the conditions that they create for their offspring. There's a whole realm of maternal care in plants. And this is a sort of taking control of one's life, so to speak that we don't even need to get into consciousness to discuss. It's very clear plants are agentive subjects, at least to me at this point.

MOSLEY: I'm also thinking about something else - like, when - sometimes when you look at a leaf, you can see the details within that leaf, and it made me wonder, is it right to say that plants have a nervous system?

SCHLANGER: You are touching on something that people are debating right now. I was able to go to a lab in Wisconsin where there was plants that had also been engineered to glow, but only to glow when they've been touched. So I use tweezers to pinch a plant on its vein - exactly what you're talking about, the kind of mid rib of a leaf. And I got to watch this glowing green signal emanate from the point where I pinch the plant out to the whole rest of the plant. Within 2 minutes, the whole plant had received the signal of my touch, of my assault, so to speak, with these tweezers. And research like that is leading people within the plant sciences, but also people who work on neurobiology in people to question whether or not it's time to expand the notion of a nervous system. Maybe we need to imagine a nervous system as something that evolved multiple times throughout multiple taxa of life, like many other things. Flight evolved many times in birds and bats and other creatures, eyeballs evolved many times separately. And maybe a nervous system did too. Maybe it's more fundamental to life than we've known before.

MOSLEY: Thinking about this plant responding to your tweezers, though, also makes me wonder what have scientists found regarding plants' ability to feel? Do they feel pain?

SCHLANGER: We have nothing at the moment to suggest that plants feel pain. But do they sense being touched or sense being eaten and respond with a flurry of defensive chemicals that suggest that they really want to prevent whatever is going on from continuing? Absolutely. So this is where we get into tricky territory.


SCHLANGER: Do we ascribe human concepts like pain...

MOSLEY: Right.

SCHLANGER: ...Or, of course, that's an animal concept more broadly - to a plant, even though it has no brain and we can't ask it if it feels pain? We have not found pain receptors in a plant. But then again, I mean, the devil's advocate view here is that we only found the mechanoreceptors for pain in humans, like, fairly recently.


SCHLANGER: But we do know plants are receiving inputs all the time. They know when a caterpillar is chewing on them, and they will respond with aggressive defensiveness. They will do wild things to keep that caterpillar from destroying them further.

MOSLEY: Like what - like actually emitting tannins and things like that to stop them from eating them?

SCHLANGER: Exactly. The defenses are spectacular and precise and actually kind of cruel in some cases. Tomato plants have been found to encourage caterpillars towards cannibalism when they're eating their leaves. Apparently, caterpillars tend towards cannibalism anyway when there's not enough food around. But the plants will put their - will fill their leaves with something that makes them so unappetizing that caterpillars will look up from their leaves and start eating each other instead.

Another example that absolutely blows my mind is that corn plants will sample the saliva from a caterpillar that's eating it. And then it will know what species that caterpillar is or at least know what species of wasp it needs to summon to come parasitize the caterpillar. So it'll...


SCHLANGER: ...Emit this volatile chemical that floats on the air. And it will summon the exact parasitic wasp that wants to come inject its eggs in the caterpillar, the larva hatch, and then eat the caterpillar from the inside. And there...


SCHLANGER: That takes care of the caterpillar for the plant.

MOSLEY: You touched on - of course, plants don't have a brain. But you also wonder at the same time, what if the plant itself is just one big brain? Explain this to me.

SCHLANGER: I had this moment in the middle of reporting this book where I admitted this very sheepishly to a botanist, thinking that she would wave me off and think I was very silly. And I asked her, what if the whole plant is something like a brain? And she sort of leaned in and whispered, I think that, too. I just don't talk about it very much. This is an idea bubbling up on the fringes or among more open-minded botanists, I would say.

MOSLEY: Why did she say she doesn't talk about it much? - because something that you actually encountered was a lot of reticence of talking about this, even for those who are studying it, because what they're actually doing right now is redefining the very meaning of intelligence and consciousness. And there's been so much past around pseudoscience that has invalidated their work.

SCHLANGER: Exactly. You mentioned "The Secret Life Of Plants," this book in 1973, that was a mixture of some reasonably good science. But then a huge part of it was not something that anyone could reproduce. And it really tarnished the field for about 30 years. Funding bodies were really hesitant to fund botanical behavior research, the realm of how plants behave.

And that taboo is still on the plant sciences a little bit. It's worn off, which has allowed certain research to come through. But scientists across any discipline are wary of saying anything too outlandish. They need to check their facts first. They need to have peer review processes in place to make sure they're not saying something to the public that can't be proven. And I feel scientists are aware that they're writing the first draft of knowledge of their field. And if that draft has flaws, anything built on top of it would also have flaws. So they have tremendous responsibility to not mess this up.

MOSLEY: Well, back to the idea of a plant itself being one big brain, what made you come to that idea after looking at the research and the ways that plants behave?

SCHLANGER: When you look at plant sensing and the way a plant senses its world, it's doing it with all of these disparate limbs. I mean, a plant is growing constantly. And a plant is modular, much unlike us. We evolved in a situation where we evolved to run across long distances and seek our food across long distances. So our processing evolved in a very compact, portable brain. It makes sense for us to have this centralized place that stores our information and our senses. But a plant evolved rooted in place, and that evolutionary heritage means maybe there wasn't any good reason to make a compact, centralized processing center.

Maybe plant sensing is a more diffuse phenomena. Maybe it is something that doesn't need to be all packed into one place. And, you know, a plant is able to lose a limb and not be that harmed by that. So it would make sense that it was more of a diffuse sensing ability. And it seems like a lot of the research bears that out.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Zoe Schlanger. She is a staff reporter at The Atlantic, where she covers climate change. And we're talking about her new book, "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." In the book, Schlanger explores what it means for humans to understand the capabilities of green life and the latest science and ongoing controversy around the idea of plant consciousness. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Atlantic staff writer Zoe Schlanger. She's written a new book called "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." And in this book, Schlanger delves into the latest research that explores the capabilities of plants to hear, feel and communicate. Schlanger covers climate change for The Atlantic, and her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, Time and Newsweek. Schlanger's work is cited in the 2022 "Best American Science And Nature Writing Anthology," and she is a recipient of the 2017 National Association of Science Writers reporting award.

So thinking like a skeptic here - and, really, many researchers said this to you - this idea of consciousness or intelligence - it's just really a matter of chemical reactions. How widely accepted is this notion of plant intelligence in this moment with all of this burgeoning research that you found?

SCHLANGER: The reality is that scientists won't be the ones to decide whether plants are intelligent or conscious. It will be a debate that goes on in more of the humanities, in philosophy, in ethics because science is there to show us observation and to experiment. But it can't answer questions about this ineffable, squishy concept of intelligence and consciousness. And part of me feels like it almost doesn't matter because what we see plants doing, what we now understand they can do, simply brings them into this realm of alert, active-processing beings, which is a huge step from how many of us were raised to view them, which is more like ornaments in our world or sort of this decorative backdrop for our lives.

And intelligence is this thing that's loaded with so much human meaning. I mean, it's too muddled up sometimes with academic notions of intelligence, and it has to be said, has been used as a tool to separate humans from other humans forever. So is this even something we want to layer onto plants? And that's something that I hear a lot of plant scientists talk about. They recognize more than anyone that plants are not little humans. They don't want their subjects to be reduced in a way to human tropes or human standards of either of those things.

MOSLEY: Yeah. One of the bigger challenges, though, is that humans have a hard time being able to understand other creatures outside of our own selves. You actually mentioned there's this phenomenon where we can't really relate to entities without faces. We even still with that have to put human attributes on it in order to understand.

SCHLANGER: That's right. And that's where metaphor can be really useful and maybe a little bit of light anthropomorphization, which I know certain people would hate. But I think that there's ways we can build little bridges between ourselves and plants. If we're ever going to understand what plants really are, it's going to take holding a lot of complexity that we may not be used to holding, including what you said - that something without a face might be considered intelligent is sort of anathema to everything we've ever really experienced. But can we imagine a sort of intelligence that is beyond our human ideas of what that is, that is a form of plant intelligence distinct from, but maybe parallel to our own? Really holding that difference will be hard. It's going to be the biggest challenge of our age in terms of our relationship to plants is somehow not reducing them in our minds to little cartoon characters, holding their alienness while also being in awe of what they can do.

MOSLEY: How do you and other botanists avoid putting on human characteristics to plants when trying to have an understanding of plant intelligence? Did you have within your own self a system or way to find the language not to do that?

SCHLANGER: What's interesting is that scientists in botany journals will do somersaults to avoid using human language for plants, and I totally get why. But when you go meet them in their labs, they are willing to anthropomorphize the heck out of their study subjects. They'll say things like, oh, the plants hate when I do that, or they really like this when I do this or they like this treatment. I once heard a scientist talk about, we're going to go torture the plant again. So they're perfectly willing to do that in private. And the reason for that is not because they're holding some secret about how plants are actually just little humans. It's that they've already resolved that complexity in their mind. They trust themselves to not be reducing their subjects to simplistic human tropes, and that's going to be a task for all of us to somehow come to that place. It's a real challenge for me. So much of what I was learning while doing research for this book was super-intangible.

I mean, you can't see a plant communicating. You can't watch a plant priming its immune system or manipulating an insect. A lot of these things are happening in invisible ways. For me, it was really that moment in that lab I told you about where I pinched the plant and watched it become - and watched the whole body of the plant receive that signal, this glowing eminence. That was a moment for me when the intangible really became tangible. And I began to be able to imagine all of these things playing out around me. And now when I go into a park, I feel totally surrounded by little aliens. I know that there's immense plant drama happening all over the place around me.

MOSLEY: My guest today is climate change reporter Zoe Schlanger. We're talking about her new book, "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." We'll continue after a break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


STEVIE WONDER: Hello, flower. Boy, do you look juicy. And you know just what I'm coming to get, right (laughter)?

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and my guest today is Atlantic climate change reporter Zoe Schlanger. She's written a new book called "The Light Eaters," where she explores the unseen world of plant intelligence and the latest science that explores plant consciousness. Schlanger says that after years of focusing on the devastating impacts of climate change, she became fascinated with plants and their continuous ability to grow in the midst of massive environmental shifts.

In addition to The Atlantic, Schlanger writes a newsletter called The Weekly Planet, which tells the story of life on a changing planet. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Time, Newsweek and The Nation. Her work is cited in the 2022 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, and in 2017, she received the National Association of Science Writers reporting award.

What were some of the surprising ways you learned plants actually communicate with each other?

SCHLANGER: The primary way plants communicate with each other is through a language, so to speak, of chemical gases. There's this whole sense that plants have that we have absolutely none of, which is this ability to synthesize extremely complex, specific chemical gases quite spontaneously. And there's little pores on plants that are microscopic. Under the microscope, they look like little fish lips. They're actually quite funny-looking. And they open to release these gases, and those gases contain information.

So when a plant is being eaten or knocked over by an animal, or hit by wind too hard, it will release an alarm call that other plants in the area can pick up on. And this alarm call can travel pretty long distances. And the plants that receive it will prime their immune systems and their defense systems to be ready for this invasion, for this group of chewing animals before they even arrive.

So it's a way of saving themselves. And it makes evolutionary sense. If you're a plant, you don't want to be standing out in a field alone, so to speak. It's not good for reproductive fitness. It's not good for attracting pollinators. It's often in the interest of plants to warn their neighbors of attacks like this.

MOSLEY: What does it mean for environments that we create, like plants in our homes or at gardens or at landscapes? In the case where they're sharing soil and maybe they aren't with their kin, are then plants fighting for resources? Or, yeah, how does that work?

SCHLANGER: My understanding is that these relationships can run the gamut. I think we've all been taught since, you know, high school biology that competition is the rule in life, that all organisms are competing ruthlessly with each other. It's this red in tooth and claw concept that is taken from Darwin but that really has forgotten a lot of other Darwinian writing and just a lot of other ecology that's finding that that may be overstated. The concept of competition may be overstated.

There's definitely competition in ecosystems, but it may not be the dominant factor. I've seen research looking at plants that actually shows, for example, sunflowers to be quite sharing in their relationship with other sunflowers, regardless of whether they're kin or not. They won't dominate a patch of nutrients if another sunflower is exactly the same distance from that patch of nutrients. The two sunflowers will sort of share it with a certain degree of politeness. It may not be true that competition is the true driver of what happens in ecosystems all the time. But we also know that some plants actually do well together. Any home gardener probably thinks about companion planting.

MOSLEY: Right.

SCHLANGER: I always think about the fact that borage, which is this beautiful, blue, star-shaped flower, this herb, when planted with strawberries will actually attract more of that strawberry's pollinator. And strawberries can choose to reproduce without having sex or with having sex. And when more of the pollinators are attracted to the strawberries, thanks to the borage, they will actually be sweeter. You'll get better berries for that. So there's these very exquisitely layered, complex relationships between plants that don't always follow the rules we might expect.

MOSLEY: Let's talk about memory for a little bit. So we now know, of course, we know that plants don't have brains. Scientists are studying, though, how they store their memories. What does memory mean in the context of a plant?

SCHLANGER: Plants are moving through their lives, in some ways, much like we do. They have youth and old age, and they go through the seasons and they have day and night. And a lot of what happens to them informs their future growth. There's one concept that I think is very beautiful called the memory of winter. And that's this thing where many plants, mostly -most of our fruit trees, for example, have to have the memory, so to speak, of a certain number of days of cold in the winter in order to bloom in the spring. It's not enough that the warm weather comes. They have to get this profound cold period as well, which means to some extent they're counting.

They're counting the elapsed days of cold, and then the elapsed days of warmth to make sure they're also not necessarily emerging in a freak warm spell in February. This does sometimes happen, of course. We hear stories about farmers losing their crops to freak warm spells. But there is evidence to suggest there's parts of plants' physiology that helps them record this information. But much like in people, we don't quite know the substrate of that memory. We can't quite locate where or how it's possibly being recorded.

There's this flower that grows high up in the Andes, and it can count the elapsed amount of time between pollinator visits and then parcel out its pollen in order to just offer the right amount of pollen according to how many pollinators are around. And it will also raise its stamen with this pollen when it expects the next pollinator to arrive. So it's really exquisitely keeping track of these intervals, which makes sense. It's high up in this mountain range. There's not going to be a ton of pollinators around, so they have to make every single potential moment of pollination count.

MOSLEY: You went to South America to observe the behavior of a Chilean plant that had what you describe as spontaneous mimicry. What did you witness?

SCHLANGER: I went down to the cold rainforest of southern Chile to meet a researcher named Ernesto Gianoli, who had a few years before been walking through the forest studying something else, taking a break, and he noticed that this very common vine in this forest called Boquila trifoliolata was twining around a bush. And then all of a sudden, it sort of disappeared into this bush. He looked closer, and he realized the vine was still absolutely there, but it had changed its leaves to match exactly the leaf of the bush it was growing on. And so he started looking around and realized it was doing this all over the place. And...


SCHLANGER: And Boquila is this incredibly boring-looking vine. It's got three little round leaves, a little bit like a bean plant - nothing particularly interesting about it. And it had been pretty overlooked in the sciences. And I flew down there to see this myself. It turns out this plant is able to mimic the leaf shape, color, size, vein pattern, texture - like, whether or not a leaf is glossy - of whatever it's growing beside.

MOSLEY: This plant in Chile, is it rare? Is there documentation of other plant species that also mimic?

SCHLANGER: So we have no other example of a plant that spontaneously mimics anything it's nearby. There are other plants that can mimic, but normally, these are long, evolutionarily paired relationships between one plant and one other species. So take, for example, mistletoe. It's very funny to me that we use that as a symbol for romantic love because mistletoe is a parasite. And they...

MOSLEY: I didn't know that. Wow.



SCHLANGER: So mistletoes hook their systems into the plant that they mimic. And it's a one-to-one relationship. For example, the sheoak mistletoe in Australia will only mimic the leaves of a sheoak, and it does it beautifully. Like, they're basically indistinguishable once they're mimicking each other.

MOSLEY: How long does it take it to mimic it? Is it spontaneous in the same way as this other plant, or is it over time being in the same environment with it?

SCHLANGER: Presumably, these relationships are old evolutionary relationships. They are nothing like the spontaneous mimicry we're seeing with boquila, which is why it is baffling these botanists.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Zoe Schlanger. She's a staff reporter at The Atlantic, where she covers climate change. We're talking about her new book, "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." In the book, Schlanger explores what it means for humans to understand the capabilities of green life and the latest science and ongoing controversy about the idea of plant consciousness. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking to Atlantic staff writer Zoe Schlanger. She's written a new book called "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." And in it, Schlanger delves into the latest research that explores the capabilities of plants to hear, feel and communicate. Schlanger covers climate change for The Atlantic. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the ethical issues around big farming. So we often talk about the ethical issues and treatment of animals in this context. How are you reconciling the use of pesticides and genetically modified plants? Basically, how do we factor in big agricultural farming into all of this?

SCHLANGER: I think my understanding of plant communication is the thing that has most shaped my thinking around this. There's plenty of evidence now to suggest that plants can defend themselves in ingenious ways if we let them. There's some thinking that suggests that planting plants in vast monocultures in which they're all typically a single cultivar, meaning they're all incredibly closely genetically related, robs plants of their innate ability to communicate and by communicating, defend themselves. We talked about how plants can summon beneficial predators to come eat the thing that's predating on them or produce these chemical compounds when alerted by other plants to the fact that something is eating their fellow plants in that field. But one wonders if some of this communication is ultimately stifled in our crop plants.

But then again, I think there's really promising research into ways we can use certain crops that are very, very good at this kind of personal defense and use hybridization and use genetic engineering to sometimes enhance the plant's natural abilities to defend themselves without the need to douse them constantly in pesticides. I mean, there's a lot of downsides to pesticides, not the least of which is farmworkers' safety. I mean, a huge number of farmworkers are poisoned every year just by interacting with these compounds. But what if we let the plants do more of the speaking for themselves instead of using these other materials? I think that's something that technology could actually bring forward for us.

MOSLEY: You also have me thinking about how insects and plants - that relationship is vitally important.

SCHLANGER: Yeah. I think it's so fascinating - these interrelationships between insects and plants. If we were able to communicate directly with, like, a rhinoceros, that would feel incredible - sci-fi unbelievable. But...

MOSLEY: Right.

SCHLANGER: Plants are communicating across the species divide all the time. Plants are able to lie to animals and make them do their bidding in these incredible ways.

MOSLEY: What do you mean by that?

SCHLANGER: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: OK (laughter).

SCHLANGER: Well, one example is the yellow monkeyflower, which I've seen grow wild in California. It probably grows wild lots of places in the U.S. And bees that are flying by are able to sense whether or not this yellow monkeyflower has a lot of pollen for it by sensing some chemical compound that the flower emits. But somehow, monkeyflowers have intercepted this and understand the rules of the game here and have figured out how to sabotage this prescreening process by emitting that volatile chemical anyway and not making the heaps of pollen. I mean, making pollen is very energetically demanding. And it's a bit of a bait and switch. The bee will show up and show up to nothing, but the flower will get pollinated anyway. So in a sense, it's kind of harnessing the will of another animal to do the plant's bidding. And there's a lot of examples of this. There's a whole class of orchids that are called sexually deceptive orchids because they produce a chemical compound that is very, very, very close to wasp pheromones. So the orchid will let out this exact copy of a wasp pheromone, and a male wasp will come along and grab onto this appendage that the orchid grows, that sort of bounces around. It's this modified petal that has a little bulb on it. So then you see this wasp, like, hugging this bulb, attempting to copulate with it.

Eventually, that bulb and wasp will smack into the middle of the orchid and the orchid will deposit its little sack of pollen on the wasp and the wasp will go on its way, and essentially then be attracted by another orchid when the pollen sack is deposited there. So it's this fascinating dialogue between plants and animals that are -that is ongoing and at times incredibly manipulative. There's a lot of deception going on here. Or incredibly collaborative - there's whole classes of plants called ant plants because these plants produce sugar to feed ants, and then the ants act as their bodyguards by literally pulling out like if an aphid is coming to try and burrow into this plant. You see these ants to march up to the aphid, pull it out and march it into their nest, never to be heard from again, because there's a mutually agreeable situation there between the ant and its ant plant.

MOSLEY: How has writing this book actually changed your outlook on your climate reporting? I mean, you took a break from that in order to focus on this issue. And you're going back to climate reporting. How does learning about plants help us maybe look at this larger problem in new ways or tackle it?

SCHLANGER: Yeah, I came to thinking about plants from a place of despair around climate and reporting on climate change. And I have to be honest - I'm not anywhere more hopeful about climate change. It didn't solve that one for me, but it did do something else. It kind of re-enchanted the world for me, which has really strong effects in how I come to my job now covering climate change. I feel much more attached to the material stakes of what we stand to lose. It starts to seem that much more absurd that we're doing anything that could impede the continuation of all of these different lines of evolutionary genius, which are embodied in plants and any other species. But, you know, I'm thinking a lot about plants. And I even feel in myself, like, what sitting with all of this wonder around what plants can do - what that's done. I mean, I think a lot about Rachel Carson, who at the end of her life wrote a lot about this, that wonder is a transformative emotion. It leads away from exploitation.

Once you have awe for something, it's very hard to feel a lack of respect for it. Respect sort comes naturally out of that. And I think I sense that. I sense both the system in which we're all part, this ecological web, but also the lack of any excuse for turning away from destruction, that snuffing out any one of these lines of plants through early extinction, through deforestation, just becomes patently absurd. There's just no excuse for it.

MOSLEY: Zoe Schlanger , thank you so much for this conversation.

SCHLANGER: It's wonderful to talk to you.

MOSLEY: Zoe Schlanger's new book is called "The Light Eaters: How The Unseen World Of Plant Intelligence Offers A New Understanding Of Life On Earth." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new Netflix series "A Man In Full," starring Jeff Bridges. This is FRESH AIR.


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