Cultivating a plant theology for the whole world

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Cultivating a plant theology for the whole world

Monday, 21 August 2023  | Danielle Terceiro

Our environment is in crisis, and humans are debating the way out. I believe it is time to go back to the beginning and to remember the quiet hospitality plants showed humans and animals as they prepared for our arrival on earth. It is time for human voices to fall a little silent and to appreciate anew our kinship with plants. Can our listening skills help cultivate a plant theology that will save us from our human-focused selves and cultivate a respectful and regenerative relationship with our environment?

I will try to make a start at cultivating a plant theology. Sci-fi fiction has already helped to till the soil of my imagination, and in particular the recent graphic novel LaGuardia, which imagines possibilities for human and plant reconciliation. I believe that a plant theology can be cross-fertilised by scientific thinking, which is increasingly interested in exploring the nature of plant wisdom and the interconnectedness of plant and human flourishing. I have turned to the writing of Basil the Great and his early Christian imagination as an example of the way a respectful and healing relationship between humans and plants could be re-elaborated.

Plants as Family

LaGuardia is a graphic novel written by Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American author who has written the manifesto for africanfuturism, an optimistic and African-centric version of sci-fi. LaGuardia encourages the reader to explore possibilities opened up by a kinship between human and plant communities.

LaGuardia is a future world into which alien plant life has arrived. Nigeria is the only place on earth that welcomes alien life forms. This welcome is threatened by the political protest of those who wish to keep the country ‘pure’, even though plant DNA has found to have healing and regenerative properties when applied to humans. Citizen and Future are Nigerian humans who are engaged to be married, and Citizen follows Future to New York, where these travelling alien life forms are treated as ‘illegals’. Future is pregnant with their baby, and this baby will carry the DNA of an alien floral person because of an accidental interaction between Citizen and a sentient plant. Future has smuggled a sentient plant into New York. She tends to it and lets it take root and spread across her urban backyard. This floral person, called ‘Letmelive’, will become a sort of messianic figure: Future will bring it into the sterile hospital environment (not officially friendly to aliens) and she will be invited to eat its seed at the point she gives birth, and then Letmelive will die.

Future notes at this point in the story that she and Citizen have been transformed in ways that ‘science can’t understand’ because they have alien DNA. Letmelive, the alien floral person, encourages Future and Citizen ‘to look to family for answers’, implying that alien plants are now incorporated into the human family. When Future asks whether Letmelive would be happy with the reverse, that is, having human DNA, Letmelive replies: ‘My people travel far, we root and then travel more. We are used to and happy to pick up family along the way’. Letmelive’s family is not insular or sedentary: it is dynamic, adaptable, inclusive and on the move.

The philosopher Emmanuele Coccia says that our contemporary understanding of the city is based on an old-fashioned, romantic framework that sees nature as wild and free and the city as pure space. In reality, Coccia says, agriculture is everywhere. Every living creature is tending the garden of another living creature. This idea is conveyed in the human and plant interaction in LaGuardia. Coccia is critical of our idea of ecology, which has fixed ideas of which life forms should be part of a given community and which should be weeded out. Letmelive’s travelling plant family in LaGuardia also challenges this fixed and settled idea of ecology. This is a challenge for us. How can we avoid fixing our plant life within inappropriate borders? How can we facilitate healthy human and plant interaction in all our shared spaces?

Plants as Wisdom

Monica Gagliano is an ecologist who has investigated plant intelligence. Her memoir, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants (2018), invites us to attune ourselves to the wisdom and intelligence that is already out there, in nature, and which plants are willing to communicate to us.

Gagliano surveys the closed system of reasoning typically used by scientists to explain away the possibility of plant intelligence. The scientific community explains and understands processes such as learning and memory by the physiological mechanisms that underwrite them – that is, (usually) the brain. But plants have no brain and no synapses to retain memory, so how can they do any remembering? (p. 67) Gagliano carefully frames a set of ‘drop training sessions’ to see if the Mimosa plant will learn not to close its leaves in reaction to being dropped without harm. Her experiments show that learning (‘habituation’) sticks for the Mimosa even where it has a break from the experiment for three days. The shock of this experiment for Gagliano was the learning it entailed about being human:

My disbelief and surprise revealed an embedded conditioning – I expected Mimosa to fail. Yes, fail! And not so much because plants have no brain – a rather superficial discrimination I had drawn my own attention to at first – but simply because they are not us. (p. 68)

Gagliano seeks a personal encounter with her plants through initiation into some shamanistic practices of First Nations peoples across the world. This could offend those who adhere to the scientific method. However, we can be reminded that, even as Europeans emerged into the modern era, the practice of modern medicine as we know it was shaped by a personal relationship with plants. ‘Behold the herbs!’, exclaims Paracelsus in the sixteenth century, and then notes:

“Experience” as needed by the naturalist and physician consists entirely in making himself part of the object understanding it by listening to its inner mechanism. It cannot be acquired by those that lack the ability to identify themselves with natural objects. Hence the physician must be “born” and “called” to his profession, he must be “earthbound” for it is from the earth that the medicinal herbs grow. (As compiled by Walter Pagel in Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 1958)

Joseph F. Borzellica, writing for the Society of Toxicology, extols the scientific work of Paracelsus: ‘What a role model for toxicologists and physicians!... He challenged the experts and demanded that they rely on data/facts and not on authority; one cannot/should not argue without facts. He identified issues, deliberated on them and developed approaches to resolving them. His approach was scientific’ (‘Paracelsus: Herald of Modern Toxiciology’, Toxicological Sciences 53, 2000). We should not give Paracelsus the cold shoulder because his passion for observation and experimentation was grounded in an approach that may seem mystical in our context. Similarly, the silent treatment Gagliano experienced in a university corridor is an ironic cautionary tale: ‘[H]e had decided never to respond to my “hello” or “how you doin”’ as a form of prophylaxis, just in case my research ideas on plants turned out to be virulent maladies that could infect his mind and, by mere association, irreversibly taint his career’ (p. 45). Just as we shouldn’t give Paracelsus a cold shoulder, we should also not give Gagliano and other contemporary scientists the cold shoulder because their passions do not fit within an academic culture, or their personal stories do not fit into an accepted narrative of what or who a scientist is. Their work shows that we have a lot to learn by entering the world of plants and seeking out plant wisdom on its own terms.

Plants as Theology

God commands the land to produce vegetation on the third day of his creation. In Byzantine Tree Life: Christianity and the Arboreal Imagination, Arentzen, Burrus and Peers (2021) note that:

Trees sprouted out of the naked soil on the third day. Animals, birds, and fish had not entered the scene. The first fruit of the earth, the first thing on God’s mind, the first creatures, were plants. Indeed, God seems deeply involved in plant thinking, separating land from water and irrigating the fertile soil, before greenery sprang abundantly from the earth. (p.71)

While the biblical text does not use maternal imagery to describe earth, early Christian teachers such as Basil the Great (330-379) explored the idea of sprouting plants as arriving on earth after a period of pregnancy and labour: ‘the earth was in travail with it in virtue of the power she had received from the Creator. But she was waiting for the appointed time and the divine order to bring forth’ (p. 22). Basil believes it is the Divine Word that allows the earth to conceive its plants and to bring forth vegetation after a period of pregnant anticipation. After that, the earth has the ability to bring forth plants constantly. The initial seedless conception of plants within the ‘untouched womb of creation’ makes them unique: ‘Beginning is vegetal’ (Arentzen, Burrus and Peers, p.71). The idea of new birth remains one of hope for our natural environment: that is why Future gives birth in LaGuardia, and why the New Testament reports the current groaning of creation, as if it were in childbirth (Romans 8:22-27).

From this beginning, plants were in healthy communion with God, humans and animals. The Bible suggests that, before they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the ‘coolness of the evening’. The healthiness of the whole ecological community is evoked here in a simple yet atmospheric way.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes research in Korea that found that forest walks had positive effects on the health of elderly women: blood pressure, lung capacity and the elasticity of their arteries improved (p. 151). Wohlleben notes that similar feelings of wellbeing are not generally reported when people walk through fragile, artificial plantings in urban contexts; he believes this is because the scented ‘alarm calls’ trees send out about their ill-health in these situations are intuitively registered by humans. Our health, and the health of plants, are bound up in intricate and intimate ways that we humans can only intuitively (multi)sense. In the series of books on Kinship by the Centre for Humans and Nature, Sunil Chauhan writes about the ‘Healing Forest’ initiative walks, which are designed to immerse humans in diverse, healthy ecosystems in a mindful way. Chauhan believes that wellness culture fails because it does not recognise that material or spiritual wellness is rooted in nature wellness:

When we speak of wellness, it has to be holistic. If it remains solely bound to human wellness, we are restricting our own ability to heal ourselves, because our own healing depends significantly on nature. So the goal is simple: helping humans heal, helping nature heal. (p. 102, vol. 5, Practice).

Jesus Christ used plant imagery to describe the healthy flourishing of his ministry: he described the kingdom of God as beginning as a tiny mustard seed:

“…which is the smallest of all seeds on earth, Yet, when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

While it appears that Jesus was using some hyperbole to describe the size of a mustard plant, the idea is that healthy plants can grow into their own kingdom communities – each of them a ‘tree of life’. Jesus’ arboreal kingdom is the happy opposite of the redwood trees planted in European city parks by princes and politicians as ‘giant trophies’ (Wohlleben, 111). These redwood trees are miserable transplants suspended in an arboreal childhood: they long for their community, and never reach the heights they do in the forest, although they have a few years where gardener’s attention means they have a childish growth spurt that would not occur within the discipline of the forest (117). By contrast, Jesus’ kingdom community is organic and not planted for exotic effect. It doesn’t need the support of empires to grow, and indeed it becomes a refuge for the whole world.

Plants are a theology for the world. Plant theology recognises that God created the world with plant life that was pregnant with meaning, and that this meaning has become hidden and corrupted because of the failure of humans to be in respectful and loving relationship with their environment. Plants are in crisis, and are looking forward to the reconciliation of all things in and through the resurrected life of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20) and the rebirth of a renewed creation that is ‘in Christ‘ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus’ resurrected life is like the firstfruits of this renewed creation (1 Corinthians 15: 20-22).

Plants are living symbols of what went wrong at the beginning of the Age of the Anthropocene. Humanity ate the forbidden fruit, with disastrous results, way back when its footprints on the Earth were fresh. But, thankfully, plants are always more than symbolic: they are living sources of our ultimate healing. According to the Bible, the leaves of trees will provide healing for all of us (Revelations 22:2). The extent to which human and plant wellness is interconnected will become perfectly visible: plant life will no longer be hidden to us. This is suggested by the Revelation at the end of the biblical story, where we are told that creation will unfurl anew, clear of the curses we invoked. The trees in the city at the end of the world will not be a backdrop for polite platonic conversation, nor will they be literary tropes or pretty aesthetic embellishment, nor will they simply be a source of food or medicine to exploit. They will be rooted within a healthy plant community. The ‘tree of life’ will pop up on both sides of the river in the middle of the main city thoroughfare and will bear ‘twelve crops’ of fruit every month – it is everywhere and for everyone, all at once. The tree of life will be a living reminder not to take the hospitality offered to us humans by plants for granted (again), and a reminder to let plant theology take root wherever humans make their home.


Danielle Terceiro is a PhD candidate at Alphacrucis University College. She is completing her PhD by publication, researching how multimodal texts such as graphic novels make meaning through the interaction of word and image.


Reading list

Thomas Arentzen et al., Byzantine Tree Life: Christianity and the Arboreal Imagination (Springer Link, 2021).

Joseph F. Borzellica, ‘Paracelsus: Herald of Modern Toxiciology’, Toxicological Sciences 53, 2000.

Sunil Chauhan, ‘Forest: A Festival of Friends’, in Gavin Van Horn et al., eds, Practice (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), pp. 94–103.

Emanuele Coccia, Metamorphoses (Polity Press, 2021).

Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants (North Atlantic Books, 2018).

Nnedi Okorafor, LaGuardia (Berger Books, 2019).

Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers, 1958).

St George Monastery, On the 6 Days of Creation by St Basil the Great (Hexameron), (, 2020).

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (The Illustrated Edition) (Black Inc., 2018).

Main image credit: ‘Finding my Roots’ by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.

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