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Big Green Data

Classical painting of man taking a plant material from a woman.

Written by Mikenna Pierotti
Image courtesy of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

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Humans are not the dominant life form on this planet. Not only do plants make up the majority of Earth’s biomass, they are also highly adaptable, with sophisticated methods of reproduction, communication and defense.

They’ve also been here far longer than we have. Our culture and evolution have always been intimately tied to theirs, from ascribing them spiritual significance to experimenting with their bodies in order to heal our own. 


English Professor Lara Farina, who specializes in medieval literature and culture, sensory studies and histories of embodiment, knows this better than most. 


“As a literary scholar, my particular interest is in the interaction of bodies and texts: how bodies produce texts; how texts represent bodies; and, especially, what people do and experience, physically, when they read,” she said in a talk given at the West Virginia University Downtown Library during her 2019 gallery exhibit, “Big Green Data: Herbals, Science and Art.” 


Farina said texts don’t always have to be volumes of literature. Sometimes they are discussions within the popular press or debates surrounding scientific discoveries. 

I ’m interested in the way in which people began to think differently about plants, animals and environment during episodes of extreme climate change.” — Lara Farina, professor of English

In this particular exhibit, she delves into a whole new avenue of research — one inspired by recent discoveries about plants. 


“[Around 2013] new and controversial botanical research about the possibility of plant sensation was being written about for more general audiences,” she said. “The generative example of this, for me, was a piece written by the journalist Michael Pollan for The New Yorker, titled ‘The Intelligent Plant,’ an essay that sparked some sharp responses in letters to the magazine’s editors.” 


Critics of Pollan’s essay argued that describing plants in human terms — feeling, sensing, intending — was unscientific and akin to the way writers of the past anthropomorphized the botanical world. 


“Some of the debates were referring to the mandrake, which is a kind of a plant that was often written about as if it was a vegetable person, as if it had these sensory capacities and ability to communicate,” Farina said. 


The assumption, Farina argues, is that using the language of the senses in relation to the botanical world is somehow false or antiquated. 


“Some of these scientists were referring to that medieval material as sort of superstitious and pseudo-scientific,” she said. “And they were using that as a way of characterizing the current research into botanic sensation.” 


Laura Farina


Having studied medieval writing for much of her career, Farina knew that these texts shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Were medieval writers wrong for ascribing sensory capacities to botanicals? Or were they on to something? 


“As a medievalist, as someone who studies this material, I had something to say about that.” 

Through extensive investigations and research at botanical archives and gardens around the world — from the Huntington Library in California to the British Library in London, England, to the WVU Herbarium — Farina collected a diverse array of examples of the ways in which people have described, categorized and cataloged botanicals throughout history. 


At the same time, this new interest in our ancient connection to botanicals continued to gain momentum in the popular press. Even modern science was taking a fresh look at how people of the past wrote about the natural world. 


“Not long after I began, there was a big discovery [in 2015] of a recipe in an Anglo-Saxon herbal text that is actually highly effective in combating MRSA, the drug-resistant form of staph infection,” Farina said. 


To further this conversation, and open it up to people of multiple disciplines, Farina brought her research to the WVU Libraries. Together with Stewart Plein, curator of the Rare Books Collection in the WVU Libraries, and Donna Ford-Werntz, director of the WVU Herbarium, she put together a visual representation of her findings. 


Her interactive gallery exhibit, which won the 2019 Faculty Exhibit Award, featured botanical art and preserved botanicals, complete with the many ways these herbal beings have been described, named and cataloged over the decades. Her findings show how the botanic world has shaped and inspired everything from art and literature to philosophy to pre-modern medicine. And the ways we humans perceive of that world is still evolving. 


“There is a substantial public interest in not just herbal and alternative medicine but in plants in general,” she said. “There is also an opportunity to learn about how medicine was practiced and conceived. That kind of cultural comparison has a lot of value in itself. I hope that scholars from a number of disciplines, as well as enthusiasts of all kinds, can contribute to a conversation about how we talk about and with vegetal beings.” 


Farina’s research isn’t over. Her findings have inspired her to delve even deeper. 

“Literary representations of the botanic world change during the 14th century, which is the beginning of what is now known as the Little Ice Age, a period of dramatic climate change. I’m interested in the way in which people began to think differently about plants, animals and environment during episodes of extreme climate change.”