• Interviews

Docs: Monica Gagliano is “Aware”

Originally published on Oct. 7, 2021:

We first met Italian scientist Monica Gagliano while watching the documentary Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness, directed by Frauke Sandig and Eric Black; later, we had the opportunity to interview all three of them as journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press. An exploration of the interconnectedness of human beings with the natural world, leading to the realization that we are not separate from the ocean, the animals, and the plants, this film features the reflections of six researchers in various fields: Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk in Nepal, Josefa Kirvin Kulix, Mayan healer in Mexico, Roland Griffiths of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at John Hopkins University, Richard Boothby, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University and Monica Gagliano, who studies plant behavior and cognition at the University of Sydney. Aware had its world premiere on television when it was broadcast nationwide on April 25, 2022, on the PBS program Independent Lens featuring documentaries.

We conducted an exclusive interview with Monica, author of the book “Thus Spoke the Plant. A remarkable journey of groundbreaking scientific discoveries & personal encounters with plants.”

You grew up in Italy. What inspired you to leave your country, study Marine Science in the UK, and then move to Australia?

I grew up in a small town outside Turin, but I never really felt that Italy was my home: ever since I was young, I knew I was going to go somewhere else.  Even though Turin is not close to the sea at all, and I was scared of the sea, I was always obsessed with the sea and I wanted to study the creatures in the sea; like many kids, I wanted to study dolphins when I was little. When I was about 9, with my very poor English that I barely learned in school, I wrote a letter to this professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, which is one of the biggest institutions for Marine Science in the world. “My name is Monica, I love the ocean and I want to work with you.” And he replied, “Maybe you need to finish school first, but then you could consider going to a university closer to you instead of coming to the US. I’m sure you can find something in Europe, which might be easier.”  And that remained with me, so, before I was finished with high school, I started looking and I found a university in Britain that offered Marine Biology as a degree, so I applied, I got a scholarship and I went. And that started my journey.

In the documentary Aware, you say that you were studying fish on the coral reef in Australia, and something happened one day that made you change direction. Can you explain what that was?

My book “Thus Spoke the Plant” starts with that episode because that moment changed everything. I went through the entire training: I was a Marine biologist, I received a post-graduate Fellowship after my Ph. D. and I was in the field doing my research on the Great Barrier Reef with this fish (Ambon Damselfish) that I had worked with for years. I was doing a long experiment for three or four months, so I was in the water every day and these wild animals would come and sit in my hand – I could close my hand around them because they knew who I was. Then, on the last day of the experiment, I knew I had to finish with the capture of the fish, to pull them apart and take the organs, because that is what we have to do as scientists.  So in the morning, I felt like I needed to go and say goodbye. I went in the water carrying nothing, no bags, no knives, except I had that thought, “This afternoon when I come back, I have to kill you all because it’s part of my science.” And I took it for granted that nobody could know what was in my head, but nobody came out. The fish knew exactly what I was going to do, and with their behavior, they told me, “Not only do we know, but this is not good news for us, you’re betraying our relationship of trust, and now we know that you’re not trustworthy anymore.”


What did you do after that life-altering experience, and how did you change the direction of your research to study plants rather than animals?

A few months later I ended up going for a Vipassana retreat, a silent meditation that I used to do every year, and I had this big experience; I started sobbing and I felt the blood on my hands of all the fish that I sacrificed, all of the animals that I killed throughout my career because this is how we do science. And the message was clear: “You have no right to take anybody’s life,” especially when the objective is so that you have a data point on a graph.  So I came out feeling, “I cannot do science as I have done, maybe I can’t be a scientist anymore.” Then I decided on two compromises: one, I turned vegetarian right then and there and never turned back, and two, I tried to do more experiments that involved no killing of the animals.  The entire process took a while, but this is when the plants came into the picture.  I started experimenting with plants, trying to ask similar questions that I was asking with the fish.  That’s when I looked at the possibility of plants’ communication through sound.

You illustrate your lab experiment with the pea plant, which is able to learn how to find water, and many other studies now also prove that plants communicate with each other. But how are we humans ever going to understand their language?

Maybe we will never be able to, and the way we want to do science right now may not be the right medium, but there are many other places in the body of humanity’s knowledge where the question is not even a question because we already know that plants are communicative beings. In many indigenous cultures, this is not a big discovery, because they’ve known this forever.  I feel that my job has been only to create a bridge between these two different bodies of knowledge. As a scientist, I know that science needs a particular language, but it’s not to translate the language of plants, it’s to translate their knowledge so that humans can hear it.  The plants are very clear, and in my own experience, especially with the psychedelic plants, the communication is pretty simple and straightforward.

You have sampled the Ayahuasca brew with the Shipibo people of the Peruvian Amazon, and later you participated in the peyote ceremony of the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Can you describe what the peyote ritual involves?

I was invited by Frauke and Eric to meet them in Mexico, so I went. We traveled to the middle of the desert in the Sierra Madre, and suddenly I was there having this incredible adventure with them.  When we arrived at this place, which was pretty remote, we floated into the ceremony almost immediately. I felt very honored that it was in the right context, because the Huicol are the keepers of peyote, their sacred plant, so it was really amazing to be part of their normal routine.  It’s a long ceremony that usually lasts for days, there is a beautiful fire, a lot of singing and dancing, the plant is shared amongst everyone in the community, the children are there, all the ladies and all the men are there, everyone is sitting together.

Michael Pollan’s 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind” features Roland Griffith’s experiments with Psilocybin at John Hopkins University, as well as the experiences of Paul Stamets, the mycologist promoter of magic mushrooms, also featured in the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi by Louie Schwartzberg. What is your opinion about the possible future decriminalization of these psychedelic plants, as has already been accomplished with marijuana?

Mushrooms are not plants – scientifically speaking, they belong to their own kingdom – and I don’t do research on magic mushrooms, but I am watching that space very closely for two reasons, which are actually paradoxically in conflict. One is, what a great thing that magic mushrooms could be used as a tool, instead of some artificial pharmaceutical chemistry, to support people who have been through very traumatic experiences.  Two, what I am concerned about are the big businesses promoting these uses because financially it would be lucrative for them. Psilocybin is going to get legalized because Big Pharma is behind it, and that worries me because it will be abused and appropriated, which is not how this medicine works in an Indigenous context.  The very fact that someone would put magic mushrooms in a lab, extract the chemical and then sell it, is reducing them to just another product on the shelf. Where is the spirit of the mushroom, that is the one that you are supposed to be encountering?  It’s in the relationship and in the communion between these two spirits, yours and theirs, that healing can occur. So I’m ambivalent about this movement, and I can’t share the excitement. Especially in California, I knew people who were growing their own marijuana plant and now they can’t do it, while big companies can come in, buy land and do it industrially. So it’s a very dangerous situation because the sacred should remain sacred.

What are your thoughts about the climate crisis and the destruction of the natural environment on Planet Earth?

I feel the anxiety that everyone is feeling about the urgency of the situation, because how long do we want to wait? It’s very complex because there is an entire question of culture and politics, but I do believe that, if we regenerate everything, not just the environment, but also the human spirit, that means that we won’t any longer be able to do some of the activities that we are engaging with at the moment, and those that do, they will be totally put aside, it will not be tolerated.  Just like any other system that works as a collective in nature, we know that the collective comes first, because it’s about the integrity of the entire system, not about the few individuals who decide they can abuse it. Our society is based on exactly the opposite of what nature does, and so we will have to grow and evolve into that.

What is your opinion of the coronavirus epidemic that has killed millions of people all over the world?

As an ecologist, in the first year at university, we are taught how ecological systems work. As a population of anything grows, it’s using resources, and then, if it grows too fast and uses too much, it runs out of resources, it doesn’t have enough to sustain itself, and it collapses, and usually, it’s because of disease and mortality imposed by the environment.  So the coronavirus is doing what it would do to any population that is totally out of whack, it’s another way of showing us that we are part of an ecological system.  We think that we can control everything and that we are immune from natural laws, but we are not. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m happy that people die!  What I’m saying is that the virus is showing us that we are nature, we’re not different, not separate from nature, so we’re under the same laws and rules. And we need to collaborate with the nature that’s around us if we want to be able to thrive as a species, because we are just one of the many species on this planet, except we’re not behaving like we are.  My feeling is that COVID is only the beginning, we’re not going to finish this and all be back to “normal.” The normal was sickness, it wasn’t good. So we should be preparing ourselves for change, and if we’re not prepared, change will come regardless. The important thing that can come out of coronavirus, and I hope that people can really hold that close, is the fact that a lot of people had to finally take the time to reevaluate what’s really important to them: what does it mean to work differently and place the work in a different position in respect to your family, your loved ones, the environment, your time in nature, the time that you have to live your life?  And that in itself is part of the regeneration of the human spirit.