August 23, 2019 · reviews writing

[PEOPLE ARE PLANTS]

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta / Unsplash

One of my favorite books to grab off the shelf and flip through is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. It argues that the foundation of language and thinking is metaphorical, and that once you start to trace the structure of metaphors you begin to realize how fluid our worldview must necessarily be. It is utterly wonderful to read, in part because the authors catalog all sorts of metaphors built deep into daily, common speech.

I recently read one of our school library's new books: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It is a description of trees as if they were sociological beings. The author is a forester in Germany, an amateur but extremely knowledgeable tree scientist. He links all his observations and descriptions to contemporary science and primary research. He'll write things like:

"Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of 'class' doesn't quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree's colleagues will be."

Or,

"But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other's direction. The trees don't want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of 'non-friends.' Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together."

Another utterly wonderful read.

The texts are both concerned with metaphors — one with how human language is constructed, and one with using metaphors of human behavior to understand tree-being. Wohlleben's controlling metaphor is:

PLANTS ARE PEOPLE

One of the richest metaphors, in my opinion, in Lakoff & Johnson is:

PEOPLE ARE PLANTS
(Related: ORGANIZATIONS ARE PLANTS.)

We tend to think of students in plant terms: they "bloom," they "blossom," they "branch out" and so on. Lakoff catalogs many more examples, and we could think of even more. We think of ourselves in plant terms, as well. Many of us in overseas education have a desire to "put down roots" as opposed to being perpetually peripatetic. Maybe we "cultivate" skills or experiences.

Poking around the Internet, I stumbled on a database of metaphors maintained by the International Computer Science Institute. It appears to be some kind of resource that could, I assume, be used to train computer models of language. But it's also just fascinating to browse. You can add to the database (it's a wiki) if you can parse the very technical structure of the linguistics framework.

Here are a few metaphors I found thought-provoking:

Knowledge itself is a tree. Of course we have the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but many others besides, and you can explore the history of trees as metaphors for thinking in another interesting book: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, by Manuel Lima.