Lessons from Plants
Montgomery says her earliest memories of plants include her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts, who all shared an extensive knowledge of and love for plants.
When Beronda Montgomery was growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, she and her older brother and sister spent the long, hot summer days exploring the wild places where plants grew and thrived, largely ignored by humans. “It was the rhythm of our summers,” Montgomery says.
Although they left the house with packed lunches and their mother’s warnings ringing in their ears (“Don’t eat anything!”), the patches of wild blackberries were irresistible.
When they got home, their mother would ask, “Did you eat anything?” They would reply, “No, Mama, we didn’t eat anything.” They didn’t quite get away with it, though. “My brother and sister, being older, were careful, but I would come home with blackberry stains all down my shirt,” Montgomery says.
And so, the lessons began. “She realized she had to teach us really early how to distinguish what was good to eat,” Montgomery says. They began to learn about plants and how to stay safe in their environment.
At that time, Montgomery says, she didn’t fully appreciate her mother’s knowledge of and love for plants, or her incredible green thumb. “I really did not understand my mom’s curiosity with plants. They looked like they were just sitting there,” she says.
Welcoming a New Dean
Montgomery, who is Grinnell’s new vice president of academic affairs and dean of the College, is also a scientist focusing on biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, and molecular genetics. In addition, she is the author of Lessons from Plants, a book that explores the surprising lives of plants. Plants move, they make decisions, they take actions, they cooperate, and they communicate, mostly unseen and unappreciated by people.
Montgomery examines a smooth blue aster blooming on the Grinnell campus. The aster is native to the prairies of the Midwest and attracts many pollinators.
As an author, Montgomery blends her keen understanding of ecosystems with her gift for storytelling, reflecting on how we can apply what we learn from plants to our lives, from the personal to the professional.
And perhaps, even to the life of Grinnell College.
A Passion for Plants
Montgomery had originally planned to be a lawyer. When she took a plant physiology course almost by accident because it was the only course that fit in her schedule, Montgomery got swept up in her professor’s passion for plants.
She went on to earn a doctorate in plant biology from University of California-Davis, conducting research focusing on how plants respond to light and nutrients. After a postdoc in microbial biology, Montgomery joined the faculty at Michigan State University.
It wasn’t until she was well into her study of plant science that Montgomery reflected on the impact of the time she had spent with her mother and how much she had learned about plants just by watching and listening.
The Importance of Light
Montgomery remembers being astonished by a photo of two genetically identical plants growing in identical conditions, with just one difference: one was growing in the light, the other in darkness.
“They were completely different,” Montgomery says. The plant in the light thrived; the plant in darkness struggled.
“What’s going on around them really determines whether they have success or not,” she explains. “That has changed the way I think about myself as a teacher, mentor, and leader.” For biological organisms with similar potential, success or failure depends on the environment.
For example, children who go to school without breakfast often can’t focus in class. It’s easy to assume that they aren’t as capable as other children; however, we should be thinking about what’s happening around them, which factors in their environment might be keeping them from living up to their full potential.
“Humans are just biological organisms,” Montgomery says. “We are subject to the principles of the universe like anything else.” And yet, she adds, we often don’t apply lessons from the natural world to ourselves. In the process, we miss out on what can be learned about how we see ourselves and our interactions with others.
In the biological world as well as our own, these reciprocal relationships result in more resilient communities.
The Three Sisters
One example is the “three sisters” approach to growing crops — an indigenous farming practice that has inspired Montgomery. The three sisters are traditionally corn, beans, and squash, grown together for the good of all three.
Corn is the first sister, and as all Grinnellians and Iowans know, it grows tall.
The second sister, beans, grows on a vine that uses the tall cornstalk for support. By growing up rather than staying low to the ground, the beanstalk can better access sunlight. In return for that support and protection, the bean plant transforms nitrogen into a liquid fertilizer shared with the corn.
The third sister is squash, which forms a ground cover that protects the soil from drying out and prevents weeds from gobbling up resources. The squash gets some of the nitrogen fixed by the bean plant, as well as some of the shade provided by both sisters. “There’s this kind of reciprocity, and they do indeed grow better together than if they were growing in isolation,” Montgomery says. When eaten together, the three sisters also provide complete nutrition.
Montgomery cultivates the principles of the three sisters in her work as a teacher, leader, and mentor. We do better when we work together in communities, she explains — just like the three sisters. By building coalitions with others, we nurture and support each other to develop stronger individuals and communities.
During a recent Scholars’ Convocation, Montgomery spoke about the indigenous farming practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together for the mutual benefit of all as a lesson from plants about the value of cultivating a community of reciprocity at Grinnell.
Like many of us, Montgomery has felt pulled in many directions by the demands of a busy life competing for her time and attention. Inspired by the three sisters, she began to see that different aspects of her life could exist in reciprocity. Her teaching could feed her research, and research could enrich her teaching and service.
She also thought about how the three sisters could apply to her role as a mother. Perhaps there were opportunities to include her son in her work? By bringing him with her to the greenhouse, for instance, he could learn about plants while they both enjoyed time together.
“For me, that was really transformative because I started to see if I was spending one hour doing something, it was actually enriching several parts of my faculty life.”
As a leader at Grinnell, Montgomery says she looks at faculty, staff, and students as the three sisters. By examining the competing commitments in our lives and considering how they can enrich each other, we can gain a new understanding and mutually beneficial approach to work and life, Montgomery says.
“How we actively think about the work we do to enrich the classroom also changes or impacts other parts of life,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of work that can happen when we understand this interdependence.”
She hopes these principles, learned from indigenous cultures and plant communities, can allow her to contribute meaningfully to the common good and the thriving community of Grinnell.
So Many Things to Learn
Montgomery says one of the happiest outcomes of her career as an academic has been the permission it gives her to be a lifelong student. “I have always loved being a student, loved learning,” she says. Opportunities to mentor students and younger scientists, along with her love for writing, have combined to create a rewarding life in higher education and research.
“In many ways, being a professor is a way for me to stay a student forever. Being an administrator is also about asking questions,” Montgomery says.
“It really is a wonderful life. So many things to learn!”
What Would a Plant Do?
Grinnell College’s new dean, Beronda Montgomery, combined her love of plants and her love of writing in a book titled Lessons from Plants (Harvard UP, 2021), which explores the ways that plants live vigorous, creative lives. Plants’ transformative behaviors help them survive in a constantly changing, often unfriendly world. They move, act, and communicate, and their actions and adaptation skills offer valuable insights for humans as well. Montgomery encourages readers to think differently about plants and to consider how we can learn from their example — what would a plant do?
Montgomery, who is also the vice president of academic affairs, says that talking with her about plants is the best way to get to know her. “I do love them,” she says. “I’m really thrilled to be able to share some of this.”
Montgomery discussed her book with host Marshall Poe ’84 on Grinnell’s Authors and Artists podcast, which showcases Grinnellians’ latest creative work. You can find it on your favorite podcast site or at New Books Network (search for “Grinnell”); or visit the College’s podcast page.
In addition, you can buy a copy from Grinnell’s Pioneer Bookshop, 641-269-3424.