Plants are such a familiar part of our landscape that we easily take them for granted. And our proclivity for ascribing human characteristics to non-human things — a helpful way to understand the world — often has us comparing the similarities between plants and animals. Both need water oxygen, and nutrients to grow, for example, and a host of loose metaphors are found: plants are said to be able to see, feel pain, and even speak to one another. But what really distinguishes plants, says career biologist Hope Jahren, is how different they are from human beings. "The more you study plants," she says, "the more different and deep ways you see they are not like us. ... Any human activity you can point to, you will see something very different in plants."
Whether plants are like or unlike humans is more than a point of fact. Because plants are so different than us on a granular level, they are a source of spiritual connection — plants allow us to transcend our worldly existence. The almost religious devotion that writers like Emerson and Thoreau offered plants is deep cultural evidence: what separates plants from us makes them more essential, not less, to how we experience life. And the more we know about the world, the more we feel at home in it.
As an educator, Jahren has seen the transformative effects of plants first-hand. When students work with plants, they are engaging all of their senses, which is known to increase the rate at which new information is retained by the brain. At a time when technical innovations in education are driving students toward the screen — computers, tablets, and smartphones — we shouldn't forget the very real benefits of physically engaging with the world of information.