Bonsai and the Ecological Self
In a previous post, I wrote that a lack of interaction with the natural world is associated with a decrease in biophilia, the human tendency to affiliate with plants and nature. Scientists fear that decreased affiliation with nature, in addition to its negative effects on human health, makes it harder for humans to reverse species loss and to prevent the worst aspects of climate change. If this is indeed true, how do we as a society strengthen our collective biophilia? The simple answer of course is that we need to increase our exposure to the natural world. In this essay I will focus on people-plant interactions for reasons discussed below. I will also discuss the art of bonsai as an example of a particularly “active” type of interaction.
In 1998, Wandersee and Schussler introduced the term plant blindness, broadly defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” (1) Many people, especially young children, see animals as more “alive” than plants, some suggest that our educational systems are “animal-centric” (2). As an example of people’s lack of understanding or plants, recall that some visitors to bonsai exhibits held in the late winter or early spring think that the absence of leaves on deciduous trees means that they are dead.
Fig. 1 The Cycle of Plant Awareness Disparity (Plant Blindness). (2)
Researchers believe that the phenomenon of plant blindness (also known as “plant awareness disparity”) is more common in highly urbanized societies, where humans are relatively alienated from the plant world. As Ulrich noted, “dense human environments and infrastructures can isolate individuals from contact with plants, as people spend their days peering out of windows onto paved streets or staring at concrete walls and towers”. (3). The lack of daily awareness of plants by most people is remarkable considering the role that plants play in our lives.
…Human societies need plants, even in an era of high- speed technological transformations. We wear plants, sit on plants, use plants to get to work, write on the pulverized remains of plants, and ingest plants. Plants are a backdrop to ceremonious events. We exchange plants to communicate condolences, congratulations, or care…– DelSesto, 2019 (4)
Unfortunately, this current level of “plant-people interaction” does not seem to be enough to sustain, much less increase, mankind’s biophilia.
Haller et al. have documented various plant-human interactions as part of their work within the field of therapeutic horticulture (5). Horticultural therapists use plant-human interactions to help people manage post traumatic stress disorder, recover from a stroke, overcome addiction, or manage depression.
Fig. 2 Spectrum of people-plant interactions. Haller, 2019 as published in DelSesto, M. People, plant interactions and the ecological self. 2020;2:201-211
Fig 2 displays a spectrum of plant-people interactions extending from passive to active. Ulrich published a study in the prestigious journal Science that showed that patients undergoing a common surgical procedure and whose room looked out on a natural scene (a passive interaction) experienced shorter hospital stays and took less pain medication than matched patients who underwent the same operation but whose room looked out at a brick wall. (6) Studies of patients with depression have shown that more active types of people-plant interactions (such as working with soil, digging, pruning, watering) “interrupted depressive rumination” and “lead to the activation of new, more ecological selves and behaviors” (7).
The Ecological Self, Bonsai and Climate Change
People-plant interactions expose us to existing natural systems, and if we play a more active role (grow and care for plants), they teach us that we need to pay close attention, to learn not only what plants do for us but also what they need, what we need to do for them. Arne Naess (“pronounced Ness”), the Norwegian philosopher and ecological activist, described a philosophy of “ecological harmony or equilibrium”, urging mankind to expand the narrow concept of self to include the entire ecosystem, to develop an “ecological self”. (8) If we accept this concept, then according to Naess and others, doing something for the environment is not altruistic behavior, it becomes instead self-interest (a much more powerful motivator).
It should not escape the reader that the activities shown in Fig. 2 (except perhaps for making food…) encompass the full range of bonsai practice. Most bonsai practitioners would find it hard not to pay daily attention to our bonsai (or to ask someone we trust to do that for us). We engage with nature, we play (hike, photograph, explore) in plant environments. We engage with representations of plant environments such as artworks or scrolls (bonsai themselves represent plant environments). Furthermore, bonsai as an art form engages our imaginations and as a result we see the world differently. Bonsai practice also teaches us to think long-term (see my previous post, Harvesting Time).
Conservationists and others who study climate change recognize that one reason for mankind’s (so far minimal) response to the serious threat that climate change represents is that it is hard for humans to think long-term, on the time scale needed to grasp what is happening. The human brain is good at seeing and responding to more immediate problems. Threats in the distant future must compete with ever increasing demands on our daily reservoir of attention. Short-term thinking, plant blindness, and lack of affinity for the natural world (decreasing Biophilia) all combine to exacerbate the problem of climate change.
To be sure, a bonsai practice is not for everyone for a variety of reasons: it is physically and attentionally demanding, the results of our interactions take a long time to manifest, many do not have access to an outdoor growing area or cannot provide proper winter protection for temperate species. A practice focusing on tropical bonsai can overcome many of these issues. Tropical plants can be grown indoors with no or minimal supplemental lighting and they are fast growing, providing feedback on our actions in a shorter period of time.
Other plant activities can and do provide benefits similar to those that I believe a bonsai practice can provide, and these activities should continue to be encouraged in our schools, in popular media, and by community garden and horticultural societies. However, to me, bonsai represents a special case because it is an art form, because we often discuss it in aesthetic terms, because bonsai represent nature on a larger scale. Local bonsai clubs and regional societies, the national bonsai organizations and public and private collections deserve our continued support to help spread awareness of the bonsai art form and its benefits for society.
(1) Wandersee, JH and Schussler, EE. Preventing Plant Blindness. The American Biology Teacher, 1999, 61(2), 82-86.
(2) Stagg, BC and Dillon, J. Plant awareness is linked to plant relevance: A review of educational and ethnobiological literature (1998-2020). Plants, People, Planet. 2022,;4:579-592.
(3) Ulrich, RS. “Effects of gardens on health outcomes: Theory and research.” In C. C Cooper Marcus and M Barnes (Eds.), Healing gardens: Therapeutic benefits and design recommendations (pp27-86). New York: John Wiley& Sons, 1999.
(4) DelSesto, M. People, plant interactions and the ecological self. 2020;2:201-211.
(5) Haller, RL, Kennedy, KL, Capra CL. The profession and practice of horticultural therapy. Boca Raton, Fl. CRC Press. 2019
(6) Ulrich, RS. View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 1984; 224(4647), 420-421.
(7) Gonzalez, MT. (2013) “Therapeutic horticulture in a green care context for clinical depression: Cognitive benefits and active components.” In C. Gallis (ed.), Green care for human therapy, social innovation, rural economy and education (pp. 111-138). New Your, Nova Biomedical.
(8) Naess, Arne. Næss, Arne (1989) . Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Translated by David Rothenberg. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511525599. ISBN 0521344069. OCLC 17621528. “Not a direct translation of Arne Naess’ 1976 work, Økologi, samfunn, og livsstil, but rather a new work in English, based on the Norwegian, with many sections revised and rewritten by Professor Naess”. Wikipedia, accessed 2/28/2023.
copyright, Walter J. Scott, 2023.