Discover the Joy and Meaning of Life through Science by Planting a Tree

Geobiologist Hope Jahren: studying the natural world of plants helps us transcend our human form, find joy and meaning in life, and feel more at home in this world we all journey through.

Hope Jahren:  I think plants present an opportunity for people to look closely at something and get invested in something that's truly very much outside of themselves. Plants are not like us and the more you study plants the more different and deep ways you see that they are not like us. All the important things that we do from how we move around to how we reproduce to how we react to the sun. Any human activity you could point to you/re going to see something very different in plants. And the more you know about how plants function and the more you watch them function and test their functioning the more deeply you understand how different they are. I think that's useful because I think people have a need to transcend themselves. And I know that when I get bogged down in the dysfunctionalities of how people treat each other and conflicts between men and women and money problems and science and all this kind of thing that I can take some comfort and joy in transcending what seemed like very small scale human noise and look at the differences in a life form that's been successfully occupying the planet for 400 million years.

So, quite frankly I get a lot of joy and comfort and happiness from considering these things. I mean I think that's the main reason to do science is that it feeds the soul. I think that, and I see this in students year after year that the more you know about the world the more you feel like you're part of it. And it's like nothing else. You teach somebody not to just walk up by a tree but to look up at it and say yup that one's deciduous and that one's evergreen and that one is going to lose its leaves this fall but that one is going to stay green just very basic things like that. And you see people's sense of self and self-esteem rise and all of a sudden they know something about the world that they journey through and it makes them a little bit bigger as a person. And that's really a wonderful thing to watch in students and to be able to facilitate.

So I think we should plant trees not to save trees, I think planting a tree is not unlikely to be a method you use to save yourself and to find meaning in something that will be with you and grow with you and be something you can come back to and contrast your own life with.

I'm very influenced by some research that came out I think in the '80s that compared retention during learning. And I remember very strongly that the main result of that was the larger the number of senses that you invoked, if you were touching something, if you were writing and listening and watching and even smelling something or tasting, the more senses that you could engage during learning the more effectively that information was integrated into the person and learned. I think with digital media we're very, very strongly going towards a medium that is visual only. I mean you do hear the message, et cetera, but I worry that it's a passive stance just in terms of using the five senses and that you can't learn passively. I think the best learning is done with active manipulation. And we need to be able to work with our hands; it's not just about using our brains. I mean eventually we have to manipulate the world with our hand in order to make tangible change. And students need practice with that. Kids need practice with that. We need to do that in life. And for better or worse our screen experiences will never, never give us that.

It's very important to put children in an environment where they can take things apart; where they can break things and then learn to fix them; where they can trust their hands and know their capacity to manipulate objects. And I see that as a much more active interaction than what the newer types of technologies offer as they supply learning. So, I'm not anti-screen, et cetera, but I do worry that the hours we spend that way are replacing some of the things that are going to be important.

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.

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