How to see plants again: The plant blindness phenomenon

Plant blindness, or the lack of attention to plants as active agents in ecosystems, may seem to be a harmless ignorance. However, its consequences are directly related to the current state of environmental deterioration.

Plants have been of crucial importance to maintaining ecological processes of the planet Earth as well as for sustaining cultures and societies around the world. Plants themselves are complex, sensitive organisms that employ intricate signalling strategies to monitor, adapt to, and benefit from their environment.1 Baldwin, Ian 2015. Plant Science: Rediscovering the Bush Telegraph. Nature 522: 282–283. ,2 Ryan, John C. 2012. Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature‘s Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS). Societies 2(3): 101–121.

However, despite their complexity and the central role in functioning of the living world of the planet, in Western society plants have been habitually marginalised and described in neutral collective terms, such as, e.g. landscape or agriculture, a tendency which is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness.

Paeonia leaves
While the flowering parts of plants or stand-alone trees may attract our attention, groups of plants or the less conspicuous parts, such as these Paeonia leaves, may more likely blend into the undifferentiated green mass. Image credit: Yekaterina Lukina

In his book Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall observes that “most places on Earth which contain life are visibly plantscapes”.3 Hall, Matthew 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. p. 3 Indeed, plants comprise the major part of the Earth‘s biomass4 Bar-On, Yinon M.; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron 2018. The Biomass Distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(25): 6506–6511., being of crucial significance to maintaining the planet‘s environmental balance and ecosystem stability.5 CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) 2010. Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020 [online]. Retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/gspc/intro.shtml

Thinking on the larger temporal scale, plants feel much more on home ground on the planet Earth than any animal species that ever existed. “If millions of years could be measured in meters” – state Gagliano, Ryan, and Vieira – “the history of plants would equate to a 500-meter-long walk, while ours would be no more than a few centimeters”.6 Gagliano, Monica; Ryan, John C.; Vieira Patrícia (eds.) 2017b. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. vii.

Yet even this tiny footprint of the human species on planet Earth is profoundly embedded in the vegetal world – it is impossible to comprehensively approach the history of any cultural or social formation without simultaneously considering the history of plants.

Nevertheless, in the conceptual framework of the Western cultures, plants, for the most part, have habitually been overlooked and considered no more than a trivial backdrop for daily human practices and activities.7 Aloi, Giovanni (ed.) 2018. Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden: Brill. ,8 Marder, Michael 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Botanists and biology educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler9 Wandersee, James H.; Schussler, Elizabeth 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–8. once argued that these tendencies to marginalise plant forms are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness – the inability of humans to distinguish and appreciate plants as active agents in the ecosystems.

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Love comes when you least expect it

There’s no question that the University of Tartu is alma mater to a number of Estonians and foreigners, but next to education, many have also found their love here. With Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s a perfect time to look past the academic achievements and deep into the hearts of our university family.

Eeva and Ain Heinaru. Swept off their feet

Eeva and Ain Heinaru
Eeva and Ain Heinaru have been together for more than fifty years. Image credit: Annika Metsla

Eeva and Ain Heinaru have been together for more than half a century and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary just three years ago. All that may have never happened if it wasn’t for the eye-catching flat cap that Ain used to wear in his student days.

When asked about when they first met, Ain reflects for a moment. It was so long ago that the exact year eludes him. “It must have been in 1964 or 1965,” Ain finally concludes. However, he clearly remembers the first time they met. “I went to a microbiology practical class and there was a crowd of young ladies there. They took a liking to my funny flat cap and started to throw it around,” Ain says. “One young lady was particularly enthusiastic about it,” he chuckles. The young lady was Eeva.

After that first meeting, Ain and Eeva kept on talking and became a couple. They loved to travel and went on adventurous trips already in student days. Together they also earned money for their travels. “In those days, students used to transport cattle to other countries,” Ain explains. “Mostly it was calves that were transported by train to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. There were two of us in the railway carriage, a bale of hay in the middle, and next to us the animals that we had to take care of,” he tells. “That way we could visit Ukraine, Crimea, the Caucasus and Kazakhstan.”

The pay received was used to finance upcoming travels, including also climbing mountains. “For example, we’ve been to Mt. Elbrus. My wife climbed up to 5,000 metres, I went all the way to the top,” Ain recalls. “We’ve also enjoyed our travels to the Askania-Nova nature reserve in Ukraine and to Central Asian cities – these were great fun.”

Since graduation, they have worked side by side at the Department of Genetics of the University of Tartu – Ain as a professor and Eeva as a microbiology researcher. Today Ain is a professor emeritus while Eva works as a project manager at the Department of Genetics. Working together has made them more appreciative of each other and has taught supportive skills. “For many years, I was more away from home than at home. My wife has had a major role in our life,” Ain confesses. “When you’re abroad, you are not even around to help with raising the children.” Ain and Eeva have two daughters, Piret and Maris.

These days, Ain and Eva do not travel as much. Instead, they often visit their country house near Elva that they fixed up as a side hobby. “My wife has created a beautiful garden there that she tends to. You’re in nature, breathing in clean air – this is very important,” Ain says.

What could today’s students do to find a suitable partner from the university? “There’s nothing you can do because love comes when you least expect it,” Ain replies. So all you can do is hope for that to happen. “When young people spend time together, things always happen,” Ain says and concludes that people who are not too alike are the best match. “There must be some differences so that you can complement each other. Living together is a form of art.”

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28 days of the arduous journey from Nigeria To Tartu

Emmanuel Jonathan

I have always wanted to travel abroad for postgraduate studies to see the world and meet new people. I did not just want to study, I wanted it to be in a calm, scenic, and affordable place.

It was therefore love at first sight when I came across the University of Tartu on studyportals.com late December 2019. By January 2020, I had put together my application and applied for the MA programme in International Law and Human Rights. My joy knew no bounds when on 7 May, right amidst the gloomy lockdown and the Covid-19 global pandemic, I received a conditional offer from the University of Tartu.

I proceeded immediately to fulfil the conditions of my offer and mailed the relevant documents to the admissions department for consideration. On 30 June, I received an email confirming my enrolment, and my arduous but rather exciting journey to Tartu began.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and most countries under lockdown, it was not clear how I was going to make it to Estonia. To compound my worries, there is no Estonian embassy in Nigeria, my home country. The closest Estonian representation is in Egypt.

I got really agitated when other institutions in Estonia began to cancel or postpone admission offers of third country students, but my worries were laid to rest when I received an email notifying me that studies would be held online until most students were able to make it to Estonia.

I paid my tuition even when it wasn’t yet clear that I would make it to Estonia. The closest Estonian embassy to Nigeria is in Egypt, so I wrote to the consulate to book a date. I got a prompt response and the meeting was scheduled for 3 November. To travel to Egypt, however, I needed an Egyptian visa and also had to apply to the Egyptian embassy in Nigeria.

On my visit to the Egyptian embassy I was informed that visit and tourist visas were as then suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I met similar disappointment at the Turkish, Israeli, and Belarusian embassies. I was considering deferring my studies to the next academic session when I got the good news that a new Estonian embassy would be opening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I quickly wrote to the embassy and secured 12 November for an appointment, and I cancelled my appointment with the Estonian embassy in Egypt. I had no problem securing a tourist visa to the UAE. However, the Estonian Embassy, following the regulations in the capital city of Abu Dhabi, required that all visitors to the embassy must have stayed within the UAE for at least 14 days before their appointments.

So, on 26 October I left Nigeria for the first time in my life after taking the Covid-19 test and getting a negative result. I was excited about what lay ahead, but I was also sad about leaving my family and friends. I boarded Rwandair with two stopovers in Accra and Kigali, the longest I have ever travelled by air.

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Five herbs and spices to boost your health

Everybody has used herbs for making tea or seasoning food – for most of us, this is nothing special. But have you thought about the health benefits of the herbs you use? I believe you already know onion, chicory, lavender, rosemary and mustard, but did you also know they may have healing powers?

Onion

Onion
Onion. Image credit: Helje Eelma

Nowadays, onion has a place in almost every kitchen and is easily available at the shop and in the garden. In ancient Egypt, however, it was dedicated to the great goddess Isis and forbidden to be eaten by common people. Eating onion was also prohibited during festivals, as it made you cry and could thus ruin the happy event.

One of the best-known riddles in Estonia – “seest siiruviiruline, pealt kullakarvaline” (“intricate on the inside, golden on the outside”) – is about the onion. The intricate inside can also refer to its various health benefits.

The onion is an excellent food plant and seasoning and according to traditional medicine, most of its health benefits are related to its external use. Experts of the European Medicines Agency consider the liquid extracts of onion as traditional and science-backed medical products. For instance, the liquid onion extract with soya-bean oil as the extraction solvent is recommended for the prevention or relief of mild or moderate bacterial upper respiratory airways infections and of hay fever.

Based on the traditional use of onion, some research findings and the similarity of its composition to that of garlic, we can assume that using onion for lowering the cholesterol levels in the blood, preventing the related atherosclerosis and relieving the symptoms of colds is also most likely justified.

The witticism “Söö sibulat ja kala, siis tõuseb nagu tala!” (“eating fish and onion gives you a good erection”) has a pretty good rhyme in it, but not so much truth. However, there is a possibility of a certain link to sexual performance: several studies have shown that freshly prepared onion juice significantly affected the sperm number, percentage of viability, and motility in male rats. The studies indicated that using 4 g of freshly prepared onion juice per kilogram of bodyweight effectively improved sperm health parameters. Also, fresh onion juice increased the production of androgens in rats. Whether it also applies to men is not known, just as the link between onions and erection.

Recipe

Against colds, add one glass of 70% spirit to one tablespoon of chopped onion. Let it sit for three days. Then strain the liquid and take a small shot (10 ml) three times a day. If it tastes too strong, add some water.

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30 exquisite maps to teach a great deal about Estonia

Last November, a bunch of University of Tartu geographers participated in the #30DayMapChallenge on Twitter: Evelyn Uuemaa, Anto Aasa, Tõnu Oja, Janika Raun, Alexander Kmoch, and UT Mobility Lab.

Three geographers – Tõnu Oja, Professor of Geoinformatics and Cartography; Evelyn Uuemaa, Associate Professor in Geoinformatics; and UT Mobility Lab – managed to make thirty maps in a row, one each day. Evelyn repeated her 2019 accomplishment, which was when Finnish GIS professional Topi Tjukanov initiated the challenge for the first time.

In 2020, at least 1378 people tweeted the hashtag. 797 people made 6,882 maps. Geographers used open data and open-source software to make the maps.

Here come 30 selected maps by the University of Tartu geographers, grouped by topic. They visualize both essential and fun facts about Estonia. Clicking on a map opens a larger view.

Population

1. Population map of Estonia

Population map of Estonia
Population in Estonia. Data: Estonian Statistics. Map credit: Evelyn Uuemaa

2. Another population map of Estonia

Map: population in Estonia
Let’s repeat the population map in green. Data: Statistics Estonia. Map credit: Anto Aasa

3. Population map: Estonians and Russians

Map: Estonians and Russians in Estonia
A population map, where each person is shown as a random point in a residential building. 2011 census data was used to differentiate between ethnic Estonians and Russians.
Data: 2011 Population and Housing Census. Map credit: Ago Tominga / UT Mobility Lab
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Risk-loving managers bribe more with no payoff

I studied the role of managerial traits in company-level corruption among Vietnamese small and medium enterprises. Vietnam is a Socialist republic that has experienced high economic growth; however, they also have widespread corruption.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Vietnam is ranked 96th out of 198 countries (for comparison, Estonia ranks 18, USA 23, Russia 137).  It is interesting to investigate how companies, and in particular managers, do business in corrupt environments like Vietnam.

Vietnam has experienced high economic growth and widespread corruption. Image credit: Tran Phu on Unsplash

My study builds on two different streams of literature. Firstly, previous research has indicated that an individual’s five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) can predict behaviour. This includes deviant and anti-social behaviour, such as plagiarism, criminal decision making, and workplace deviance. Corruption could be also specified as deviant behaviour that breaks legal or moral norms. Hence, one may argue that there could be a link between personality traits and corruption.

Another stream of literature posits that managerial personality traits are important determinants of business success and company performance. Although managerial personality traits seem to be identical to the five personality traits, they are specific to entrepreneurs and managers. For example, the traits of innovativeness and locus of control are positively associated with revenue. At the same time, risk aversion negatively relates to revenue.

In addition, there is evidence that suggests positive effects of corruption on company performance. This happens in cases where institutional quality is weak. Institutional quality refers to how good the rule of law, control of corruption, government effectiveness and accountability, and political stability are. (NB! There are also studies that show negative effects of corruption on company performance).

Accordingly, a manager’s personality traits serve as possible predictors of corruption. As managers are the ones who participate in corrupt negotiations, their personality traits could play an important role in deciding to pay bribes to public officials.

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Our top 10 most-read stories from 2020 are personal

Our most popular stories from last year are mostly very personal. These include quarantine diaries, a love story, a journey on the way to scientific discoveries, a quest for freedom, proud stories of graduation, and professional success. Enjoy!

1. Student diary: About self-care in quarantine

Anja Tovirac, our exchange student from Germany last spring, shared her fresh quarantine experience from Tartu in March:

COVID-19 is omnipresent at the moment. Coronavirus has reached Tartu and we are all affected. To prevent the spread of the virus and due to the state of emergency declared by the Estonian government, not only the university, but most of our personal social life now takes place at home.

Anja
Anja at the window of her Tartu apartment, looking for the signs of spring. Photo from a private collection

2. Our big day: It all started in Tartu

Anna Beitane and Stefano Braghiroli shared their Tartu love story:

A couple of weeks ago we had our big day, a day in a long path that has changed us both and will change our lives forever: a path of responsibility, commitment, respect, and – most of all – love. On 25 July we tied the knot and it was a sunny day of happiness! It was a moment that we had planned and imagined for almost a year, but had been very much threatened – until the final weeks – by the global pandemic and the unprecedented uncertainty related to it.

Anna and Stefano
Anna and Stefano descending the stairs of Modena’s City Hall. Photo credit: 10 Photography – Francesca Pradella

3. Why is Hong Kong protesting?

Two University of Tartu students from Hong Kong, Litman Huang and Aubrey Yung, wrote about the protests against the Chinese Communist Party in their home city. In their story, they also draw parallels to the Estonian past in the Soviet Union and point out the mechanisms of Chinese soft power.

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