The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth (Hardcover)

The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth By Zoë Schlanger Cover Image
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“A masterpiece of science writing.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass

“Mesmerizing, world-expanding, and achingly beautiful.” –Ed Yong, author of An Immense World

“Rich, vital, and full of surprises. Read it!” –Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky and The Sixth Extinction 

“A brilliant must-read. This book shook and changed me.” –David George Haskell, author of Sounds Wild and Broken, The Songs of Trees, and The Forest Unseen

Award-winning Atlantic staff writer Zoë Schlanger delivers a groundbreaking work of popular science that probes the hidden world of the plant kingdom, “destabilizing not just how we see the green things of the world but also our place in the hierarchy of beings, and maybe the notion of that hierarchy itself.” (The New Yorker)

It takes tremendous biological creativity to be a plant. To survive and thrive while rooted in a single spot, plants have adapted ingenious methods of survival. In recent years, scientists have learned about their ability to communicate, recognize their kin and behave socially, hear sounds, morph their bodies to blend into their surroundings, store useful memories that inform their life cycle, and trick animals into behaving to their benefit, to name just a few remarkable talents.

The Light Eaters is a deep immersion into the drama of green life and the complexity of this wild and awe-inspiring world that challenges our very understanding of agency, consciousness, and intelligence. In looking closely, we see that plants, rather than imitate human intelligence, have perhaps formed a parallel system. What is intelligent life if not a vine that grows leaves to blend into the shrub on which it climbs, a flower that shapes its bloom to fit exactly the beak of its pollinator, a pea seedling that can hear water flowing and make its way toward it? Zoë Schlanger takes us across the globe, digging into her own memories and into the soil with the scientists who have spent their waking days studying these amazing entities up close.

What can we learn about life on Earth from the living things that thrive, adapt, consume, and accommodate simultaneously? More important, what do we owe these life forms once we come to understand their rich and varied abilities? Examining the latest epiphanies in botanical research, Schlanger spotlights the intellectual struggles among the researchers conceiving a wholly new view of their subject, offering a glimpse of a field in turmoil as plant scientists debate the tenets of ongoing discoveries and how they influence our understanding of what a plant is.

We need plants to survive. But what do they need us for—if at all? An eye-opening and informative look at the ecosystem we live in, this book challenges us to rethink the role of plants—and our own place—in the natural world.

About the Author

Zoë Schlanger is a staff writer at the Atlantic, where she covers climate change. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Time, Newsweek, The Nation, Quartz, and on NPR among other major outlets, and in the 2022 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology. A recipient of a 2017 National Association of Science Writers’ reporting award, she is often a guest speaker in schools and universities. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Praise For…

"The contemporary world of botany is divided over the matter of how plants sense the world and whether they can be said to communicate. But research in recent decades has prompted the question that animates Schlanger’s book: Are plants intelligent? Schlanger writes about scientists who are studying how plants change their shape and respond to sound, how they use electricity to convey information, how they send one another chemical signals. Along the way, she becomes a sort of anthropologist of botanists. The book’s focus on the researchers themselves overcomes a challenge inherent to science writing: where to find drama. The Light Eaters is a special piece of science writing for the way it solves the genre’s bind; it doesn’t force people or their findings into narrative engines. Instead, the field of botany itself functions like a character, one undergoing a potentially radical change, with all the excitement, discomfort, and uncertainty that transformation brings. The book’s power comes from showing a field in flux and reminding us that ideas have their own life cycles: from crackpot theory to utter embarrassment to real possibility to the stuff of textbooks." — The New Yorker

“To read The Light Eaters is to be astounded by the complex behaviors of these ostensibly lower life-forms. Ms. Schlanger’s prose is precise yet loving….There are lots of gee-whiz moments here….Fertilize your brain with The Light Eaters and you’ll never look at your favorite, or least favorite, plants the same.”
Wall Street Journal

“Schlanger's captivating exploration renders a rich world of plants: weird fern sex, sagebrush chemical communication, scientific debates on flora intelligence, and more.” — Vanity Fair

"Schlanger’s extensive reporting on the latest scientific thinking, paired with her own salient observations, allows for a fresh understanding of plants and their role in the world."
Washington Post

“A stunning book…. will transform how you see not only plants but the nature of all life.” — Scientific American

"The vegetable kingdom is full of wonders and mysteries, as Schlanger lavishly demonstrates in The Light Eaters . . . These are the unsung miracles that surround us daily . . . The Light Eaters ushers those marvels onto center stage."  — Slate

"Schlanger’s well-crafted descriptions provide a rare and welcome glimpse into the humanity and dedication of botanists . . . The Light Eaters overflows with the author’s infectious enthusiasm. Plant lovers will find much of interest in Schlanger’s inspiring tale of where her curious mind has led her." — Nature

The Light Eaters is a masterpiece of science writing. Burning with open-minded curiosity, this exploration of the emerging revolution in plant science will challenge what you think you know and ignite a new way of seeing the plant world. Part detective story, part field trip and part philosophy, this brilliant book stretches the mind, toward a profound new understanding of the sophistication of under-appreciated plants. I feel it as an antidote to arrogance, as it engenders humility, respect and awe for the light eaters who make the world.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

The Light Eaters is riveting and revolutionary and I’m devouring it in small bites to digest how it’s reorganizing my universe.” — Rebecca Solnit, author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Men Explain Things to Me

"I’ll never look at plants—or the natural world—in the same way again, after reading Zoë Schlanger’s stunning book. Instead of trying to ram the square peg of botanical life into the round holes of human biology and metaphors, Schlanger instead considers plants on their own terms, as they actually are. The result is mesmerizing, world-expanding, and achingly beautiful." — Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Immense World and I Contain Multitudes

“A brilliant must-read about the marvels of the green world. This book shook and changed me, revealing plant intelligence as more strange and wondrous than I could imagine. Zoë Schlanger’s explorations brim with curiosity and every page brings new revelation and insight.” — David George Haskell, author of Sounds Wild and Broken, The Songs of Trees, and The Forest Unseen

“Like its subject, The Light Eaters is rich, vital, and full of surprises. Read it! You will look at the world in a new way.”  — Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky and The Sixth Extinction

"Part science journalism, part travelogue, and part introspective journey, Zoë Schlanger's new book, The Light Eaters, explores the remarkable capabilities of plants and how understanding their complex, dynamic nature could change the way we see ourselves."  — Science

"In elegant prose and with a sense of awe, [Schlanger] describes plants’ remarkable adaptive techniques, communicative abilities, and social behaviors."  — Christian Science Monitor, A Best New Book This Month

"Zoë Schlanger offers a mighty antidote to our tyranny of self-reference through the emerging science of organic beings we have long treated as stage decor for the drama of our earthly lives . . . Rising from the pages is that rare achievement of meeting otherness on its own terms while broadening and deepening the terms on which we live our human lives."  — Maria Popova, The Marginalian

“…an astounding exploration of the remarkable abilities of plants and fungi.…There are mind-bending revelations on every page, and Schlanger combines robust intellectual curiosity with delicate lyricism….Science writing doesn’t get better than this.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This is that rare book that fascinates, challenges widely held assumptions, and enlightens in like measure…. it is hard to imagine a more thorough introduction or a writer more dedicated to her subject and provocative in the questions she asks.”   — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Just as books by Peter Wohlleben and Suzanne Simard have deepened our understanding of trees, the discoveries Schlanger shares in this involving, vibrant, and affecting dispatch from the vanguard of plant research profoundly expands our appreciation for plants, their essential role in the great web of life, and how recognition of plant intelligence can help us reverse environmental decimation.” — Booklist (starred review)

“Captivating.”  — The Guardian

"[A] fascinating journey through contemporary botanical research."  — Orion

“In her engrossing new book The Light Eaters, Zoë Schlanger . . . offers uncanny examples of plant intelligence while exploring the possible ramifications of this for humans (and plants themselves).” — The Globe and Mail (CA)

"The Light Eaters is a love letter to the world of plants. In this well-researched look into the way plants have learned to survive, we meet plants with flowers that change the shape of their blooms to better accommodate pollinators and vines that learn to blend in with the bushes they grow around. With her examination of these incredible specimens of the natural world, Zoë Schlanger illustrates what humanity can learn from the never-ending wisdom of plants." — Book Riot

“Schlanger [speaks] about the sometimes spicy and always rigorous world of plant science, undoing the myth of separation, learning to hold the complexity of plants, and what we stand to gain by welcoming them as intelligent kin, rather than simply decoration.” — Atmos

“It's rare that you read a book that makes you want to grab people to tell them what it's about, but this is one of them.” — Daily Mail (UK)

"The Light Eaters delivers: Schlanger’s thinking is rigorous and she describes these contentious intellectual debates with a sense of fairness and curiosity." — Undark Magazine

"Remarkable . . . Read The Light Eaters and you will never again look at the plants around you the same." — Sylvanian

“A thought-provoking read full of mystery, curiosity and empathy.” — Scout Magazine (CA)

“[I] am enraptured by Zoë Schlanger’s The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth. . . . it’s oh-so readable and the breadth of [Zoë’s] coverage is extraordinary.” — Master Gardeners Association of BC

“A fascinating look at the hidden world of plant intelligence.” — Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Garden & Gun, The Great Southern Summer Reading List

“Schlanger shares [countless new realizations] with us, in astonishing detail, along with an infectious enthusiasm." — Charleston Post and Courier

The Light Eaters chronicles an expansive collection of recent, mind-blowing botanical discoveries. Touching on plants’ ability to communicate, be social, sense physical and auditory stimulation (i.e. feel and hear), and even remember, these studies collectively take on the controversial question of whether plants might be intelligent, or even conscious, beings. . . . It’s a lofty statement, but as a devout lover of plants myself, I was more than willing to accompany her rigorous reporting toward new understanding.”  — Pioneer Works

Product Details
ISBN: 9780063073852
ISBN-10: 0063073854
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: May 7th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English