In The Light Eaters (Harper, May), Atlantic writer Schlanger delves into the scientific literature on plant intelligence.

What were your literary inspirations for this book?

Robin Wall Kimmerer was a huge inspiration, as was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I read early on in my writing career. She did exactly the thing I most hoped to do, which was to make the ordinary woods appear uncanny and alien through close observation. Another inspiration was Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal, essentially his diary from a “ferning” expedition to southern Mexico. Like me, he was obsessed with ferns.

When did you decide to write this?

I was covering climate change for a newsroom job, and I was becoming depressed and a bit disconnected from the material. My editor recognized that and said, “Go write about something else for a little while.” I started looking at botany journals because I’d always been intrigued by plants and thought of them as a source of calm. It just so happened that this was around the time the first fern genome had been sequenced. (Fern genomes are very large, and that’s why it took so long.) There was a photo of the fern, and it was so little, with these perfect scallops, and bright green. Ferns exist in every possible ecosystem. I was struck by the fact that this ancient, and what most people would think of as quite simplistic, organism had found a key to living well under any circumstance. Something about that steadfastness really captured me.

Do you think plants are intelligent?

At first, I was skeptical. The discoveries coming out of botany today are miraculous, but you can’t quite connect to them on a personal level because the way that the plants respond is sometimes invisible to our senses. Writing this book gave me a much broader sense of what intelligence should mean. When people hear the word intelligent, they hear everything humans have put on that word, but intelligence is something more fundamental. It’s cleverness, strategy, creativity. These are all things I’m completely convinced plants have. Plants are finely attuned to their environment in a way we can’t imagine because we have the gift of being able to move around. Think of a tree having to survive while rooted in place. That takes tremendous biological creativity!

What would be growing in your garden paradise?

I live in Brooklyn and want a garden so badly. I’d have huge squash vines. They look so ostentatious and ridiculous and bodily. They are the most creaturely plants. You can watch them climb over surfaces, strategize, make choices about how to get from A to Z. They twine in this beautiful way and are just very alive in a way that translates well to our perception of what living looks like.