Creative writing students at UBC’s Okanagan campus link literature, art and science in a novel, collaborative study.

Call it sowing the seeds of a new idea. Budding writers in the Department of Creative Studies at UBC’s Okanagan campus are blending plant metaphors with plant science to discover their emerging literary voice. 

It takes fertile imagination and plenty of spadework: live plants, text, art objects, experiments exploring art and science, integrating references of n’syilxcen, the Okanagan native language, and non-humanities research in a live presentation called the Plant Intelligence Project. 

Creative writing lecturer Sonnet L’Abbé says the project is inspired by the Okanagan’s growing reputation as one of the best places in Canada for eco art, combined with scientific evidence that plants behave in oddly intelligent ways. 

For instance, it is long proven that plants fight predators, maximize food opportunities, and partner with other organisms to share resources. John Klironomos, a biology professor in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, told CBC that an estimated 90 per cent of plants have recognition and associative tendencies. 

“Having been exposed to evidence for arguing plant intelligence, the project assignment is to create a work of environmental art that engages that question,” says L’Abbé. “Students are free to create any suggestion of plant intelligence or plant communications they wish and reference any kind of plant research.” 

As writers, they have learned to seriously ask the question of how language shapes perception, so L’Abbé expects to see students take the stories behind the idea of plant consciousness or sentience seriously. “I’m certain they can take this in so many different directions,” she says. 

As a doctoral student in English at UBC Vancouver, L’Abbé’s PhD thesis explores associations between plants and poetry. She switched to fine arts from engineering as an undergrad and recognizes similar principles of experiment and innovation to be at play in both the humanities and scientific investigation. 

“It’s important for creative writing students to understand that an artistic way of questioning the world has the same value that science has in questioning the world.” 

Art and science can inform each other and there is no question that both disciplines are equally relevant, says L’Abbé. 

“If there is that mutual respect where art can say, ‘we look to science’ for new ways of doing things, and science can look to art for different ways of understanding what it does, then we are bridging the knowledge gap between the disciplines.” 

The Plant Intelligence Project also honours the close relationship UBC’s Okanagan campus has with the Okanagan First Peoples. 

“I’ve asked students to put one n’syilxcen word into their work, as an entry point to thinking about the smartness of the First Nations ‘all my relations’ way of seeing each other and the planet, since we’re inviting people to consider the plants as our ‘relations’,” says L’Abbé. 

The Plant Intelligence Project offers a vivid example of intercultural understanding and sustainability on the Okanagan campus. 

“By bridging cultures between academic disciplines and by recognizing the ecological wisdom of Okanagan Peoples’ philosophy, we are transferring knowledge in meaningful ways,” says L’Abbé. “The goal of higher education and UBC is to contribute to society’s understanding of the world around us, and I believe we help accomplish this with the Plant Intelligence Project.” 

Keith Culver, director of the Okanagan Sustainability Institute, says the research underway by L’Abbé and her students contributes to the objectives of campus sustainability. 

“When students and faculty integrate thinking about values and culture with thinking about science, we build interdisciplinary understanding of what sustainability requires,” says Culver. “Examples of this kind of thinking are growing and thriving on the Okanagan campus and it shows that we are making real, practical difference to sustainability practice.” 

The Plant Intelligence Project will soon get its coming out party in the wider community. Student group presentations, which will factor into course grading, are scheduled to be the opening act for the launch of the latest issue of arts and environment journal LAKE. There will also be a reading by ecological writer Tim Lilburn, all taking place at the Accelerator Gallery in downtown Kelowna on April 19. 

Interim presentations of the work proved popular during March’s Celebrate Research Week on the Okanagan campus. The multi-media exhibition included big-screen displays of live-tweet poetry and commentary. Plant munchies and local-herb cookies were crowd pleasers. 

Guerilla theatre staged by a Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies performance instructor fired up the crowd. Onlookers engaged the class, observing and asking questions. And somewhat surprisingly, the event drew curious scientists out of their labs to scrutinize the proceedings. 

Science’s integral role in the Plant Intelligence Project is well defined. To support their research, L’Abbé’s class attended a guest lecture with Prof. Susan Murch to better understand botany and apply it to their literary endeavours. 

Murch, Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry, is fascinated by the teaching and research approach of the Plant Intelligence Project. “As scientists, we frequently think that we know what we are talking about and that there is one ‘right’ answer to be found,” she says. 

“The Plant Intelligence Project’s approach rethinks the language that we use to describe our science. When we do this, we uncover the unconscious biases that influence the questions that we ask, the hypotheses that are formed and the experiments that are done,” says Murch. “I think that this sort of collaboration between arts and sciences can lead to many new ideas.” 

Kate Ball, a fourth-year psychology student taking a minor in creative writing, says she is excited about the Plant Intelligence Project and her hopes for discovery. “It’s worth it for creative writing students to go beyond their comfort zone, expand their knowledge base by engaging plants and plant science in their writing,” she says. 

Ball’s group project consists of a board containing a spider plant and poetry text surrounding the perimeter. The installation is photographed daily to log changes in the plant. 

“Our whole experiment theory is to see how the spider plant’s leaves grow and how the plant reacts,” says Ball. “We’ll see what text the leaves grow towards and we will create a narrative based on the plant’s actions.” 

L’Abbé expects the Plant Intelligence Project will see life well beyond the classroom as she pursues further research and collaborative study. 

“The Plant Intelligence project is not just an experiment in pedagogy but an experiment in creative knowledge transfer,” she says. Her research has many avenues of inquiry. 

“The question: ‘How do scientific research ideas get out there?’ is in fact a creative question, a multi-media question. The question: ‘How does language shape those ideas?’ is my passion and my specialization.” 

While it might be considered novel, research such as the Plant Intelligence Project is quickly gaining recognition as its own area of study, L’Abbé says. 

“The question: ‘Have our stories about plants shaped ways of knowing our own bodies and minds?’ is at the heart of an emerging branch of philosophy called Critical Plant Studies, and I’m super excited to be asking it.” 

Visit the Plant Intelligence Project at