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Republic of Georgia, (c) S Tsopurashvili 2016

  • 22 Jan 2020 by Ellen Arnstein

    In thinking about climate change and the impact it will have on our lives and environment it can sometimes become overwhelming. We wonder: What can I do to stop or lessen the impact of climate change? What is actually happening to the Earth as a result of climate change? Is this article in the media scientifically accurate? How can I explain the situation to my friends? What resources are out there? As such, once a month, the RPCVS for Environmental Action are pleased to offer you reviews of books that span the implications of climate changes from mosses and corals to global politics and technology to personal action.


    Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola

    This tiny book is jam-packed with perspective-shifting facts about the organisms that cover a third of the Earth -- plants. Can plants think, communicate or navigate? Do they make decisions? These are the kinds of questions that Stefano Mancuso, Italian plant neurobiologist (you heard me), investigates in his academic research and in this book with Alessandra Viola.

    Mancuso and Viola begin Brilliant Green with a curmudgeonly and cherry-picked summary of how plants have been regarded throughout history in (largely Western) religious and philosophical traditions. Among other claims, they write that since plants were not marched onto Noah’s Arc -- even though the patriarch plants olive groves after the flood -- they are not traditionally regarded as alive. Aristotle held that plants straddled the space between inanimate beings and intelligent beings. Even Darwin, who was “pleased to exalt plants” fell short of attributing self-determination (in the form of carnivorous tendencies) to some species.

    After reading The Hidden Life of Trees, reviewed below, I was hoping for a more scientific book full of research results and hard science. Unfortunately for me as a plant nerd, Mancuso and Viola stick closely to the surface, skimming the subject to keep it as pop as possible. I would also like an uncharitable moment to show you Mancuso’s headshot from the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology:

    None of this is to say that the book wasn’t worthwhile. Mancuso outlines the five standard sense that plants have -- sight using light-sensitive cells, touch in mimosa trees and carnivorous plants, hearing through ground vibrations, and taste with root hairs that change direction to avoid pollution and seek out nutrients, smell by sensing stress chemicals produced by other plants – as well as positing fifteen additional senses. A full chapter on plant communication has me convinced that it’s more than mere instinct and I was especially intrigued by thinking of which characteristics a plant might regard as a sign of intelligence.

    In short, this book expanded my viewpoint and gave me much to think about. And it was literally short too.


    If you like Brilliant Green, try:

    The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

    Peter Wohlleben draws on years of being a forester to share with the reader his observations and others’ current scientific research on how trees communicate, share nutrients, and create a more resilient ecosystem for themselves. Like Mancuso’s book, I was expecting more technical information but the intended audience is people who have never really thought about trees. And Wohlleben has certainly succeeded in spreading the gospel of recognizing tree ‘families’ and deep intraspecies relationships between individuals. I mean, if one more person calls my office to offer advice based on the information presented in this book, I will not be held responsible for my actions.

    The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson

    As if he were the reader’s friend having a conversation over a beer, Hanson tells us all about how seeds support our lives and affect our history. The Triumph of Seeds was a light, engaging, and informative book. He covers seed dispersal and defense mechanism, foods and fabrics, selection and evolution with enthusiasm and joy.


    Ellen Arnstein was an Environmental Education volunteer in Bolivia from 2007-08. She is now a certified arborist managing a small urban land conservancy’s tree pruning, planting, and landscape work. In her spare time, she volunteers at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, plays the ukulele poorly, runs slowly, and reads a ridiculous amount of books (mostly about trees). She is also on the Leadership Team of the RPCVs for Environmental Action. Follow her on twitter @Lenni825 or check out her travel musings at