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Good Reads  Botany  Plants & Botany: Biology & Ecology

Lessons from Plants

Popular Science
By: Beronda L Montgomery(Author)
220 pages, 15 b/w illustrations
Revealing the surprising abilities of plants, Lessons from Plants is neat little book that asks what life lessons we can draw from their biology.
Lessons from Plants
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  • Lessons from Plants ISBN: 9780674241282 Hardback Apr 2021 In stock
Price: £19.95
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

We know that plants are important. They maintain the atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. They nourish other living organisms and supply psychological benefits to humans as well, improving our moods and beautifying the landscape around us. But plants don’t just passively provide. They also take action.

Beronda L. Montgomery explores the vigorous, creative lives of organisms often treated as static and predictable. In fact, plants are masters of adaptation. They “know” what or who they are, and they use this knowledge to make a way in the world. Plants experience a kind of sensation that does not require eyes or ears. They distinguish kin, friend, and foe, and they are able to respond to ecological competition despite lacking the capacity of fight-or-flight. Plants are even capable of transformative behaviours that allow them to maximize their chances of survival in a dynamic and sometimes unfriendly environment.

Lessons from Plants enters into the depth of botanic experience and shows how we might improve human society by better appreciating not just what plants give us but also how they achieve their own purposes. What would it mean to learn from these organisms, to become more aware of our environments and to adapt to our own worlds by calling on perception and awareness rather than reason? Montgomery’s meditative study puts before us a question with the power to reframe the way we live: What would a plant do?



Introduction: A Sense of Self
1. A Changing Environment
2. Friend or Foe
3. Risk to Win
4. Transformation
5. A Diverse Community
6. A Plan for Success
Conclusion: Groundskeeping


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A neat little book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 May 2021 Written for Hardback

    Plants are so drastically different from us mobile mammals that we struggle to fully grasp them. With Lessons from Plants, Beronda L. Montgomery, who is the MSU Foundation Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, reveals their surprising abilities and connections. Along the way, she reflects on how we as humans can draw lessons from this to live better lives, both for ourselves and for those around us.

    With Lessons from Plants, Montgomery wishes to raise what she calls plant awareness: a deeper appreciation and understanding of plants. It is a mission she shares with, for example, Matt Candeias from the In Defense of Plants podcast (and now also book) who regularly speaks of his desire to cure plant blindness. That is a term Montgomery is not fond of: "[It] has become increasingly controversial because it is based on a disability metaphor; that is, it reflects deficit-based thinking around blindness" (p. 2). She rather calls it "plant bias", which I do not think is a great term either. Feel free to skip the following linguistic tangent.

    Maybe I am just being a blunt Dutchman, but I have little issue with the term "plant blindness". Still, one can argue that it is not quite precise. We see plants alright, we have just stopped noticing them. However, without an accompanying preposition, "plant bias" strikes me as an unclear term. Does it refer to a bias against or in favour? Plus, the opposite of having a bias is being neutral – not quite the plant awareness Montgomery is trying to raise. Plant unawareness is also a bit of a mouth full. In a discussion over the kitchen table with my partner, we raided the thesaurus and came up with "plant apathy" or "plant indifference".

    Linguistic tangent aside, what Montgomery does here in six chapters is discuss a plethora of botanical research and conclude with life lessons that we could draw from it. Thus, the fact that plants are rooted in place and need to carefully monitor their environment at all times has taught Montgomery "the importance of intentional self-reflection, or the equivalent of taking time to perceive my environmental conditions" (p. 30). She marvels at how some plants can form synergistic relationships when grown together, paying particular attention to the so-called Three Sisters garden. This is a Native American cultivation practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together. Each plant helps the others thrive by offering protection or structural support. Montgomery finds inspiration in this practice to try and shape her commitments and activities into a synergistic whole, rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive tasks that compete with each other for her time and attention.

    The language and ideas employed here made me think of the glut of mindfulness books that have been published in recent years. Whether Montgomery's lessons will resonate with you no doubt depends on whether such books appeal to you. It is a genre that normally annoys rather than inspires me, but there was one lesson here that I could strongly relate to from my experience as a student. Asks Montgomery: when we care for a plant and it fails to thrive, do we blame the plant? No, we try and find out how to adjust its environment so it flourishes. How different is our approach when it comes to e.g. mentorship or supervision. Poor outcome here often leads to us judging the individual we are supposed to look after. Yep, been there.

    Now, before anyone draws the wrong conclusion, Lessons from Plants is not a self-help book dressed in green. Her lessons are a minor facet and most of the book consists of her regaling the reader with the latest botanical research. She enjoys this so much that fully a quarter of the book is given over to footnotes with references to all the studies that she mentions. I found this part to be particularly enjoyable.

    Thus, plants may not be able to move away from adverse environments the way animals can, but they have another trick up their sleeve: phenotypic plasticity. They can drastically alter for instance their biochemistry, physiology, or morphology to cope better. They can grow taller to reach sunny spots or change the ratio of photosynthetic enzymes in response to different light regimes. They can tell apart self from non-self through the release of volatile organic compounds. They can transform their environment by for example liberating trapped nutrients or changing soil chemistry and consistency. That last one is most dramatically shown in pioneering species: the first wave of plants to colonise an environment devastated by a disaster, such as happened after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens or in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

    This book would be incomplete if it did not ask whether plants have intelligence. Montgomery discusses research that shows plants capable of for instance memory formation, risk analysis, and behaviour (if that is defined as modifying decisions in the face of information gathered from their environment). But how do plants do this without the kinds of organs that animals have? Montgomery does not mention Stefano Mancuso's mind-blowing insight served up in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. He argued they do this by distributing vital functions throughout their body in a diffuse fashion rather than concentrating them in organs, which coincidentally makes them virtually indestructible.

    The other topic that prominently featured is the underground symbioses plants form with microbes and fungi. Especially the network of threads formed by fungi – mycelium – allows plants to exchange nutrients and information, a notion popularised as the Wood Wide Web. Some researchers, notably Suzanne Simard, evocatively talk of mother trees supporting younger trees via nutrient transport between them. My impression is that quite a few scientists are sceptical of such interpretations, which is not discussed here. I will, on that note, prominently mention Merlin Sheldrake's criticism in Entangled Life. He calls these metaphors very plant-centric and points out that mycorrhizal networks are not all about "sharing and caring".

    Scholarly disagreements aside, there is no doubt that plants are marvellous organisms capable of far more than we give them credit for. Lessons from Plants is a neat little book that will appeal to readers of What a Plant Knows or Thus Spoke the Plant, and, given its discussion of what we can learn from plants, particularly to readers of Braiding Sweetgrass.
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Beronda L. Montgomery is MSU Foundation Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University. A Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, she was named one of Cell’s 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America.

Popular Science
By: Beronda L Montgomery(Author)
220 pages, 15 b/w illustrations
Revealing the surprising abilities of plants, Lessons from Plants is neat little book that asks what life lessons we can draw from their biology.
Media reviews

"[Montgomery's] knowledge and enthusiasm will have readers looking at plants in a new light."
Publishers Weekly

"An invitation to awareness, awe, and curiosity. Beronda Montgomery takes us deep into the sophisticated and life-giving behaviors and community lives of plants, giving us evergreen lessons about resilience and diversity along the way."
– David George Haskell, author of Pulitzer finalist The Forest Unseen and Burroughs Medalist for The Songs of Trees

"Lessons from Plants is an astonishing and luminously written work. By drawing surprising connections between the largely hidden world of plant behavior and the deep problems of human existence, Montgomery vividly illustrates the importance of paying close attention to the intentional behavior of stems, branches, and roots that often escapes our awareness. At once moving, accessible, and edifying, Lessons from Plants is a tour de force of science communication and a profound meditation on the nature of being."
– Crystal M. Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race

"A wonderful portrait of life as a plant. In an accessible style and fluid prose, Montgomery teaches us modern plant biology interwoven with personal stories and philosophy, and ultimately, how to live meaningful, sense-filled lives."
– Jo Handelsman, Director, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and HHMI Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin–Madison

"Whether you are a budding plant biologist, interested in the scientific process, or excited about learning more about the natural world, Lessons from Plants is a must-read."
– Pamela Ronald, co-author of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food

"Lessons from Plants brilliantly highlights principles of plant self-recognition, growth, resources, and adaptations to gift us a newfound level of awareness. These insights illuminate how we might help those around us thrive – I plan to put key lessons into practice."
– Prachee Avasthi, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

"Beronda Montgomery studies the secret life of plants, and her findings might surprise us. Plants have communities and can identify and favor their genetic kin. They adapt to complicated conditions in their environments. They are also more productive in a diverse ecosystem. In a beguiling set of observations, Montgomery notes how humans are similar creatures – this book is a call not only to plant awareness, but to self-awareness."
– Teresa A. Sullivan, author of Census 2020: Understanding the Issues

"A love letter to the natural world. This extraordinary, brave, and thoughtful meditation considers the connection between plants and mentoring, a link I'd never before contemplated. Through gorgeous storytelling and scholarship, Lessons from Plants will speak to scientists, naturalists, and everyone who has experienced the evocative relationship between a mentor and mentee."
– Mary Deane Sorcinelli, coauthor of Faculty Development in the Age of Evidence

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