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Plant Awareness Disparity

Photo of a forest, blurred by movement

By Ian Seamans

Any time you are on a roadtrip, someone is likely to point out some deer, a hawk, or just a herd of cows. You all crane your heads and make appreciative noises as you pass them by. Few trips, however, involve someone pointing out a beautyberry bush, a patch of Beardtongues, or a cluster of Hackberry trees. Plants just don’t tend to grab everyone’s attention the way animals do.

In 1999, a label was coined for this phenomenon. Plant awareness disparity (formerly called plant blindness), is the idea that most people don’t particularly care about plants, they don’t notice plants very much, they don’t understand the role of plants in the ecosystem, and they find animals much more interesting than plants.

Some researchers proposed that this disparity is at least partially natural, due to the sheer number of plants compared to animals, or the evolutionary necessity of looking out for predators. However, cross-cultural evidence finds that one of the largest factors is cultural values.

In the United States, our relationship with plants, and most of the natural world, is hierarchical. We use the natural world like an object. The land is divided into property, and the owner typically either uses the property to extract something, tames the property for aesthetics, or protects the property for moral or legal reasons. In numerous indigenous cultures across the globe, the relationship with the world is different.

Instead of being set apart from the world, a nonhierarchical view is that humans are part of nature, just like everything else. While humans are different from plants, we have a shared ancestry, and a shared relationship. Personhood may not be the right word, but it is viewing plants and animals with something like it. 

When you shift your viewpoint to think about plants as equals, it naturally moves you towards reciprocity and sustainability. An example is the Honorable Harvest. In Native American traditions, there is the idea that when we take something from the Earth, it should be a gift, and that gift requires reciprocity. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an environmental scientist and author of the book Braiding Sweetgrass, characterizes the idea with 10 principles.

“Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.

Never take the first. Never take the last.

Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. 

Take only what you need and leave some for others.

Use everything that you take. 

Take only that which is given to you. 

Share it, as the Earth has shared with you. 

Be grateful. 

Reciprocate the gift.

Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.”

These principles are the foundation of sustainability. On a limited planet where everything organic is interdependent on each other, the only way for us all to survive and thrive in the long run is to be reciprocal.

Now, if you look outside you can see the plants in two ways. As a static object they may not be very interesting, but thinking about them non-hierarchically brings an explosion of thoughts. If they are other living beings with their own complex webs of relations and dependencies, then there is a rich life occurring with each of them. 

Photo of Sugar Hackberry tree
Photography by Sam Kieschnick, distributed under a CC BY 4.0 license.
Sugar Hackberry Leaf
Photography by Sam Kieschnick, distributed under a CC BY 4.0 license.

As an example, this is the Sugar Hackberry tree. The Hackberry is known across North America for its bark that looks like little ridges of cork and its hearty disposition. This tree can be found across north Texas, including in cities since it tolerates nearly any kind of soil and treatment. Once you look at the Hackberry more closely however, you begin to see that it is remarkable for being the midst of a vast ecological web.

Images from left to right, top to bottom: Question Mark Butterfly (© Stephen Shepherd, some rights reserved(CC-BY)), Pileated Woodpecker (© Kevin Krebs, some rights reserved (CC-BY)), Tufted Titmouse (© Doug Brush, some rights reserved (CC-BY)), Mourning Cloak Butterfly (© Robin Noel, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC-SA)), Hackberry Nipplegall Psyllid (© Sam Kieschnick, some rights reserved (CC-BY)), American Snout Butterfly (© José Belem Hernández Díaz, some rights reserved (CC-BY)), and White-Tailed Deer (© Corey Farwell, some rights reserved (CC-BY)).

All of these organisms and many others, including the Tawny Emperor butterfly, the White Tussock moth, the Banded Tussock moth, Mockingbirds, Wood Ducks, Raccoons, and Squirrels use the Hackberry as a place to lay eggs, to feed, to or to shelter.

Humans have used the trees gifts as well! Although it isn’t popularly known today, The Houma used the bark as a medicine, the Comanche, Acoma, Navajo, and Tewa ate the berries in food, and the Navajo boiled leaves and branches to make brown and red dyes.

This single humble tree species provides gifts for dozens if not hundreds of species, including our own. But what is truly amazing is that the Hackberry is far from unique. Every species provides many gifts and plays many roles. In turn, each of the species that benefits, also contributes in its own way, creating an ecosystem of reciprocal action.

Maybe now, when you’re out on a walk, you’ll pause and say to someone, “Look! A Hackberry tree!”


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