Metaphors and learnings inspired on the behavior of Andean plants

What can we learn about caring for life from the plants of the Andean landscapes? The mountains of Chile are frequently perceived as the background landscape that accompanies us, where sports activities take place, or where people can enjoy panoramic views. But the high mountains, which might seem lifeless from afar, are inhabited by a diversity of species that can only be appreciated if we get closer to the ground or, sometimes, if we use a magnifying glass.

 Jardinera subantártica altoandina ©Manuela Méndez.

One of the characteristic forms of life found in our mountains is the llareta or chartreuse cushion plant –that mainly belongs to the Azorella genus–, which has learned to live in the mountains by performing actions such as stabilizing the soil, collecting water and nutrients or reducing its inner temperature variation. This has allowed it to live in this stressful environment while also acting as nurse plants, facilitating the life of numerous species that are sheltered by them.

Various ecological studies have pointed to the fact that harsh environments have more frequent facilitation interactions[1], as can be seen in the book Positive Interactions and Interdependence in Plant Communities by the ecologist Ragan M. Callaway. As a consequence of climate change and the rise in temperatures, mountain plants are expected to migrate altitudinally to higher elevations, in most cases. In this context, chartreuse cushion plants would have an important role in supporting this move, decreasing abiotic cold stress by maintaining temperatures relatively stable inside the plants. This is just one example of the importance of collaboration, specifically in adverse scenarios.

During my studies I researched the interaction of high mountain plants in southern South America, using the methodology of Field Environmental Philosophy, developed by Ricardo Rozzi and collaborators. This methodology integrates transdisciplinary research, the composition of metaphors and communication through simple storytelling, the design of guided field experiences with an ecological and ethical focus, and the implementation of conservation areas. It was during this that I was able to pause on the experience of inhabiting the mountain to get closer to thinking, feeling and learning from the epidermis of these plants.

I was still for long periods of time and tried, with my body, to understand this way of growing. I could feel the protection of the wind as I curled up on the ground and got close to other bodies. I then had the necessary visual perspective to rediscover an everyday environment and various beings that I had not previously perceived.

From this investigative experience arises the metaphor “Subantarctic High Andean Gardens,” upon perceiving that the mountains are not “deserts” or wastelands, but are inhabited by various beings, such as chartreuse cushion plants. In addition, I observed that, in its apparent inaction, cushion plants act as gardeners. They create fertile places, absorbing humidity, organic matter and stabilizing temperatures to house and care for a living community. From this experience, I was able to appreciate the pedagogical potential of metaphors that integrate ecological and ethical notions, which allow us to widen our perceptions and understandings of our surroundings.

Detalle de una jardinera subantártica altoandina.

The field activity “Cohabiting like high Andean plants” arose from the same research, which promotes aesthetic experiences in the mountains with its coinhabitants. Territorially situated aesthetic experiences connect cognitive, sensory and affective dimensions in learning processes. Specifically, it is through simple exercises that we deepen and make more complex our understanding of caring relationships in harsh environments, seeking to develop a perspective beyond the human.

On the other hand, the aesthetic experience allows for transdisciplinary learning. In this case, we linked ecology, pedagogy, philosophy, conservation and linguistics, among other areas. Aesthetics stimulates ecological literacy in a comprehensive way and takes control of the limitations often associated with decontextualized and abstract practices of current sciences. An aesthetic perspective allows us to reconnect scientific learnings with the situated lives of people, following the recommendations of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “It is necessary for scientific thought […] to be placed again on the floor of the sensible world and of the worked world, as it is in our life, for our body” (Merleau Ponty, 1964/ 1986, p. 11).

There is a current need to develop aesthetic sensibilities in educational practices, considering the indissoluble unions between bodies, emotions, minds and territories. Often, in formal education and in everyday life, there is more space for the development of certain senses that allow us to learn, but without getting closer to experimentation. Just think about our common experiences of school; sitting on chairs in closed spaces, where the ecosystems we study are far away from our everyday territories. We rarely have opportunities to learn through touch, taste or smell in formal education. In this sense, aesthetic experiences are an opportunity to engage in multisensory learning in connection with our emotions.

During the research on mountain plants we learned about care within the territory, along with various species. This care implies relationships that connect ethical and aesthetic dimensions, as the philosopher Yuriko Saito mentions in her book Aesthetics of Care: Practice in Everyday Life. The author suggests that both the ethics of care and the involvement in an aesthetic experience require: attention, open-mindedness, receptivity, respect, imagination and collaboration. These capacities are necessary to learn new ways of relating with each other in pursuit of regeneration.

Bolax caespitosa © Sebastián Carrasco

So then, returning to the first question of this reflection: what can we learn from plants? In times where narratives abound of desperation, isolation and paralysis in the face of world catastrophes, mountain plants remind us of the importance of collaboration and symbiosis to be able to flourish in adverse environments. The presence of these gardener plants increases survival and reproduction, collectively driving this regeneration. In conclusion, asking ourselves what we can learn from diverse beings can be a way of transforming narratives and points of view in favor of regeneration and care. In this sense, openness to new sensorialities, from aesthetics and in connection with other disciplines, as well as the metaphors that emerge from this dialogue, allow us to open ourselves up to imagining and practicing careful ways of cohabiting.

[1]Facilitation is a type of positive interaction that takes place within the same trophic level (for example, between plants or herbivores) in which one individual benefits from living next to a neighboring species in terms of survival, growth or reproduction (Callaway, 2007).

Manuela Méndez Herranz

Manuela Méndez Herranz recently joined the Fundación Mar Adentro team as Director of Education. She is a Biologist with a special focus on the environment and a professor of biology, with a Master’s degree in Botany from Universidad de Concepción, and is a candidate for a Doctorate in Education from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Her areas of work include biocultural conservation, education for sustainability, and civic ecology. She has worked in schools, outdoor education, universities and long-term socio-ecological study centers.