We modern humanoids (something resembling humans) suffer under the debilitating illusion that we are individual selves in an infinite, isolating, alien universe from which we must extract a living. Science, we mistakenly believe, through its empirical methodology and objective analysis, will offer us the knowledge and tools to control Nature to our benefit. The opposite has happened – Nature regularly overwhelms our lives and plans and “property” (as just occurred in the Vermont floods), and the more we attempt to control the world the more damage we do to it and to our future prospects. Our methods and our tools are failing us, and yet we cling to them desperately with a blind faith in their efficacy (we just need “better” science and technology).
Stephen Harrod Buhner, who used to live, teach and write in Braintree VT, offers us a different way of apprehending the world – one which we humans relied on successfully for hundreds of thousands of years – and a more wholesome way of living in this world as a cell in the body of Gaia. We are each unique manifestations of Gaia’s intelligence, but no more or less important than any other cell in her body. When we embody that kind of deep humility and understanding, we may have an opportunity to, once again, live in harmony with and proper relation to the Web of Life. – Robert Riversong
Stephen Harrod Buhner is an Earth poet and the award-winning author of fifteen books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. He comes from a long line of healers including Leroy Burney, Surgeon General of the United States under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and Elizabeth Lusterheide, a midwife and herbalist who worked in rural Indiana in the early nineteenth century. The greatest influence on his work, however, has been his great-grandfather C.G. Harrod who primarily used botanical medicines, also in rural Indiana, when he began his work as a physician in 1911.
Stephen lectures yearly throughout the United States on herbal medicine, the sacredness of plants, the intelligence of Nature, and the states of mind necessary for successful habitation of Earth.
He is a tireless advocate for the reincorporation of the exploratory artist, independent scholar, amateur naturalist, and citizen scientist in American society – especially as a counterweight to the influence of corporate science and technology.
The Lost Language of Plants
by Stephen Harrod Buhner
More than once
I have walked
in deep forest
searching for the path
that lay concealed
beneath my feet.
Human beings, throughout most of their habitation of Earth, have been so completely interwoven into their environment that, until recently, there was no separation between them.
This understanding is reflected in information shared by the majority of indigenous and ancient cultures: They did not experience themselves and nature as separate entities. The intimate interweaving of humanity with the rest of life throughout evolution means that the entire development of the human species as a distinct species cannot be separated from the landscapes in which it developed. Such deep interconnectedness to environment is so fundamental to us as a species that, ultimately, it is not possible to understand ourselves as human beings without understanding something of wild nature itself. Because the experience of nature and other life forms is so deeply interwoven into our emergence as a species, human beings possess a genetic predisposition for wild nature and for other life forms – though it must, through specific experiences, be activated. Edward O. Wilson calls this innate feeling or caring for living forms and systems, for nature, biophilia.
This innate affinity for all life forms – for things that do not even appear alive to Western perspectives – has been routinely denigrated since the time of the Romantic poets. It is rarely taught during the educational process at all.
There is a bias among scientists and educators in favor of awarding a special ontological status or fundamental reality to the elementary particles discovered by physicists and an attempt to emulate or give higher value to that orientation in other disciplines. There is an inherent belief that the understanding of the physicality and interrelationship of matter in its tiniest realms somehow connects people more successfully to reality than other approaches. A science-based, Western system is generally assumed to get people closer to the way things “really” are and therefore to possess more value. Underneath this belief is another, deeper assumption that the use of such a system will result in sufficient understanding to allow effective control over nature and disease. In consequence, it is given a kind of first ranking in the hierarchy of approaches to descriptions of the world. Other approaches, such as those concerned with the interiority of nature, for example, appear, from this perspective, more “fuzzy,” less accurate, not as valuable or real. The seat of consciousness and perception, which is trained in this approach to reality is, of course, the brain, especially its frontal lobes.
In contrast, emerging interdisciplinary research – initially begun by “popular” researchers rather than institutional scientists – is indicating that the heart is not merely a muscular pump but a part of the brain with the same number of sensory neurons as that possessed by certain subcortical portions of the brain. There are tightly interwoven biofeedback loops that exist between the brain and heart – what is exchanged is information about the heart’s perceptions of the world. The heart uses a highly detailed emotional language to perceive and describe the world and these descriptions are sent to the brain for analysis and response. The two organs essentially engage in analysis through two differing mechanisms to reach the best understanding of the world in which an individual human lives. While the mind apprehends through analytical modes, the heart uses its capacity for generating unique complexes of feeling-gestalts to apprehend the internal reality of the world around it. The heart apprehends a living world – a world in which all things possess interior depth, point of view, and livingness. As the Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman comments, the heart is the organ that “perceives the correspondences between the subtleties of consciousness and levels of being. . . it is concerned with the interpenetration of consciousness and world.” The heart has a natural capacity to find the eachness of things, to experience an intimacy with each particular event. The ancient Greeks called this capacity aithesis. Developing the capacity for aithesis allows the unique living essence that is present in all things to flow into the human through the organ of perception that is designed to receive it – the heart.
The contemporary Western capacity for this mode of perception is stunted because of the decades-long emphasis on more analytical reasoning during schooling. We are, in fact, taught to quit ascribing aliveness, soul, depth, or intelligence to the external world, to, instead adopt a primary view – the universe-as-machine. We are trained to view all species as isolated units unconnected to the larger ecosystem within which they live or the larger system of the Earth itself. This perspective – that we or any life form can be viewed in isolation from all other life forms – has been encoded in our present cultural epistemology. It is a far from accurate view and has had tremendously negative impacts on the Earth and human ecosystems.
DNA has long been assumed (and taught) to be somewhat like a fixed software program that determines organism shape and behavior. However, DNA is actually a highly flexible organ of the cell. A number of cellular structures, in fact, exist for no other reason than to mediate DNA rearrangement. Bacteria have been assumed to be unintelligent and virulent bringers of disease – hence the medical war on disease bacteria. The combination of these two beliefs, as many epidemiologists and researchers have shown, has been nothing short of disastrous. Bacteria are actually highly intelligent (though researchers tend to describe this as genomic intelligence) and engage in promiscuous DNA rearrangement in the presence of antibiotics. They actively create solutions to antibiotics – even antibiotics they have never encountered – which they then teach to other bacteria. The unrestrained use of antibiotics has created what many reporters have dubbed supergerms – virulent bacteria that are responsive to no known antibiotics. Many researchers are now predicting epidemics of resistant bacteria more virulent than any known before.
These kinds of problems have been generated in part by viewing other members of the Earth’s ecosystem as somehow not quite alive or intelligent, as not possessing interior depth or soul. Ancient and non-technological cultures generally view the Universe as living, not a machine made up of bits that can be understood by dissembly and study. These two perspectives, as they are internalized, not only shift how life is viewed, but also how life itself is experienced.
The tension between these two perspectives – Universe as alive and universe-as-machine – is readily perceivable. Consider Norbert Mayer’s poem:
A rock took fright
When it saw me
By playing dead
and contrast it with Ken Wilber’s observation that:
[A]ll you and your pet rock can
share is, you fall at the same speed.
If you let yourself relax into the statements and internalize them you will notice a distinct difference in how each of them feel.
I recite Mayer’s poem to many hundreds of people each year; the reaction is invariably the same. As the last line is recited their faces light up and they laugh – it reminds each of us of something we have always known – that the Earth, plants, rocks are somehow alive. There is a natural, childlike, joy in this that is immediately felt throughout the body.
Wilber’s statement, in contrast, is quite different in its effects. Sometimes people do laugh, though not nearly so many as with Mayer’s poem. The use of the word “pet” as an adjective before “rock” creates a sense of sarcastic denigration so the laugh is a sarcastic one: At Wilber’s cleverness, the thought of a person being dumb enough to think of a rock as a pet, and the image of a person and his friend the pet rock falling together. Most often there is a silence as the sentence penetrates the body, then a sigh of pain, a general sadness. The childlike joy accompanying Mayer’s poem dissipates. Mayer’s poem activates a sense of personal aliveness and childlike wonder. Wilber’s moves the listener up out of the body into the mind, into thinking, into sarcastic cleverness; some listeners feel dumb or foolish. And perhaps this is the point of the comment – to make foolish the belief, and anyone who would espouse it, that rocks are somehow alive, that they have equal value to people, that there is this kind of livingness in the Universe.
Each statement represents a distinct epistemology. As each is internalized they shape individual experience and perception.
In earlier times, when nature was perceived as alive, with intelligence and soul, a natural process took place. People bonded with nature much as people bond with their pets or family now. This bonding process – which has decreased in frequency the more the mechanistic worldview has pervaded society – engendered a certain kind of attitude toward nature. It is an aspect of biophilia – the genetically encoded or innate emotional affinity towards all other life forms on Earth that Wilson has described. But it also represents the emergence of a deeper aspect of biophilia, that of biognosis.
The continual immersion in nature where the bonding process is supported and encouraged allows it to deepen into a direct, depth knowledge of nature that cannot be reduced to the assembly of a collection of bits of accumulated information. Knowledge of the complex interactions of natural systems or the contribution of individual members is gained without being able to pinpoint each step in the process. There may in fact be no steps; it comes in dreams or a flash of understanding. The knowledge, because of immersion in biophilia, is directly communicated from the landscape, plants, or animals themselves. There may be a predicating factor that bursts the knowledge into awareness but the many elements that went before are and remain unconscious – an expression of the ancient interplay between organisms interwoven in the matrix that gave them birth as species – an interplay between species that are, at their core, relations.
Plants and Their Language
It was in 1803 that Frederich Seturner isolated the first individual plant constituents from opium and named them alkaloids, some 140 million years after complex land plants created them for reasons of their own. Plant chemistry has not been studied very long in the scheme of things; it is still not very well understood.
Consider: each of the estimated 275,000 different species of plants on Earth contains several hundred to several thousand unique chemicals. The majority of these species manifest as millions of different individuals, all of them generating different variations, sometimes significantly, on their species’ chemical theme. A plant with one thousand different chemical constituents can literally combine them in millions of different ways. To compound the complexity, these combinations, added to those of other plants or of other organisms, produce synergistic results that are not predictable. Even a tiny change in dosage or combination can produce significantly different outcomes. Basically, the little that people currently know about plant chemistry is not very much. This ignorance is magnified by our tendency (because of our upbringing) to think of plants as insentient salads or building materials engaging in chemical production processes that just happened by accident and, in consequence, have no purpose or meaning.
Still, here we are.
Plants, it turns out make and release their complex chemistries for specific reasons. Spider mite-infested lima beans will release a blend of volatile oils (terpenoids) that attracts a predatory mite that feeds on spider mites. The plants can tell exactly what kind of mite is feeding on them through analyzing the chemistries of their saliva. Each plant species then produces a different blend of volatiles depending on what kind of spider mite is feeding on it. That mix will only call the predator that feeds on that kind of mite.
Their chemical responses, however, go far beyond defense – far beyond nature being red in tooth and claw.
Plant pollinators range from bats, to mosquitos, to mice, to ants, to possums, to bees, to monkeys, to beetles, to lizards, to flies, to birds, to butterflies, to flying foxes. There are at least 1,500 bird species, 15,000 wasp, 40,000 bee, 20,000 butterflies and moths, 14,000 flies, 200,000 beetles, 165 bats, and 300 other mammals that pollinate plants. Perhaps 80 percent of all the flowering plants are pollinated by beetles. Forty percent of the angiosperms have a primary, dominant pollinator with a number of other, less regular pollinators. Some plants have only one. The 700 to 900 fig species in the world, for the past 40 million years, have each been pollinated by its own individual kind of fig wasp. Their lives are often mutually interdependent; neither can survive without the other.
The vast majority of pollinators are called to their plants by specific chemical compounds made uniquely for them, which are active in extremely tiny quantities. The fruit fly Dacus dorsalis, for example, will respond to as little as .01 micrograms (one/hundred millionth of a gram) of the pheromone compound methyleugenol produced by Cassia plants. The compound is so specific that even minute changes in its chemical makeup will produce little or no response from the fly. Because of this kind of specificity, plants create a wide range of volatile compounds that appeal to pollinators. The smell of rotting meat, fresh feces, decaying fruit, or aromatic floral scents all contain chemical cues that pollinators respond to. However, most chemical cues, millions of them, have no “smell” at all. They are picked up by receptors which in vertebrates are called vomeronasal organs (VNOs). In mammals, VNOs are located in the nose and their only function is to take in and transport to the brain the complex aromatic chemicals given off by plants and animals in tiny quantities. They are so sensitive in human beings that as little as one ppb of a woman’s sweat in distilled water dabbed with a Q-tip on another’s upper lip will stimulate her body to begin menstruating in harmony with the first. All pollinators, all land life, possesses VNOs or their equivalent; they are the receptors for the complex chemical communications expressed from plants.
Many plants facilitate this process. They raise the temperature in their flowers (often considerably) to increase the volatilization of their aromatic compounds into the air. They increase aromatic production when pollen is ripe and vary the amount and type of volatiles being produced at different times to attract different pollinators. Since night pollinators cannot use visual cues many plants increase their volatiles in evening. The different compounds diffuse in the atmosphere at different rates, letting pollinators know how far they are from the source. Using these chemical cues, bees are able to harvest over a range of 60 miles and remember every flowering plant and its location. Plant flowers will continue to release, even increase, aromatics until all their seeds are fertilized or until the flower withers and falls. This often takes a great many pollinator visits. Tobacco capsules, for example, contain 2,500 tiny seeds, which require 2,500 fertilizations (which, in the case of tobacco, must occur within 24 hours) in a space less than 1/16 of an inch wide. As soon as fertilization is complete aromatic production and volatilization ceases.
Since nectar is an essential component of most pollinators diets (for some it may be the only food) nectar constituents are altered depending on when primary pollinators are likely to feed and what kind of pollinator is expected. For example bumblebees need (and get from their flowers) a much higher amino acid content than honeybees because of their inability to consume large quantities of pollen. Such plant/pollinator interactions can be exceptionally complex and involve multiple plants and insects.
Heliconius butterflies lay their eggs on tropical passionflowers, acting as the plants’ primary pollinators. The butterfly larvae feed on the passionflower and sequester its alkaloidal compounds in their bodies to protect themselves from birds after their transformation into butterflies. And while the 45 species of Heliconius butterflies each specialize in a particular type of passion flower the passionflowers intentionally limit their own range of growth. There are never more than ten different species growing in any area. And though similar leaf shapes exist among the scores of passionflower species none of those ten species will have similar leaves. Each passionflower in that area uses different chemical and visual (leaf shape) cues for its own butterfly species. But this interdependency is even more complex; other local plants, Anguria species, come into play as well. Heliconius collect food pollen from anguria, cross-pollinating the plants during their visits. The anguria generate exactly enough nitrogen in their pollen to support the egg production of Helconius butterflies. And though the butterflies collect pollen from other sources it is only the nitrogen from anguria pollen that is incorporated directly into their eggs. The anguria and passionflower plants coordinate the opening and chemical emission of their flowers so that they are visited in succession.
This use of plant chemistries by the life in ecosystems is pervasive. Plant chemistries are used as molting hormones; sexual pheromones; dietary precursors to protective chemicals; essential proteins, amino acids, and lipids; and healing medicines. Plants always produce more chemistries than they need merely for their own health; they are released into plant communities and ecosystems to maintain them. As with so many other aspects of maintaining ecosystems, plants sense when members of their community are ill, and they offer up chemistries to heal them. These chemistries are either sent through underground fungal or mycelial networks to where they are needed or chemical cues call the ill animal or insect to the plant who needs it.
Plants, and their chemistries, do even more, of course. They are intimately interwoven into the lives of all organisms on Earth. And their roles are still more complex. They exist not for themselves alone; they create and maintain the community of life on Earth, they produce the chemistries all life needs to live, and they heal other living organisms when they are ill.
Plants as medicines for all life on earth
Imagine a ball of twine the exact size and shape of the Earth. Better yet, telephone line. Take the end point of the line and weave it back into the beginning so that there is no beginning and no end. Every place the line crosses itself (you could think of them as synaptic junctions) messages cross over; communication travels quickly throughout the entire line itself as well. Academic disciplines are areas where a segment of line is cut out of the ball and studied. They explore its tensile strength, its molecular structure, its chemical composition, the colors and types of wires that run through it. Any communications that were flowing or might flow through it cannot be studied once it is cut out of the whole – only a tiny part of the picture can be seen. Misunderstandings easily arise, especially if the communications that flow through the line are the most important thing.
Turn the ball of telephone line back into the Earth. Each plant, plant neighborhood, plant community, ecosystem, and biome has messages flowing through it constantly – trillions and trillions of messages at the same time. The messages are complex communications between all the different parts of the ecosystem. There is no beginning and no end, no cause and no effect. The three and a half billion year old feedback loops of the Earth are so closely intertwined that there is always another cause underneath whatever cause you begin with. Impacts at any one point affect every other point in the system. Life is so closely coupled with the physical and chemical environment of which it is a part that the two cannot legitimately be viewed in isolation from one another. As James Lovelock says: “together they constitute a single evolutionary process, which is self-regulating.”
It was the recognition of the Earth’s self-regulating nature that led Lovelock to understand the Earth as a living being, not a ball of resources inhabited by human beings hurtling through space. The novelist William Golding, a neighbor, suggested a name to him – Gaia, an ancient Greek name for the living, intelligent, and sacred Earth. And Gaia, at four billion years of age, is very old compared to us. Even the plants are ancient compared to our tiny lifespans, having begun to appear some 700 million years ago.
The closely intertwined feedback loops in plant communities automatically note when any member of the plant community is ill and the mycelial networks just under the surface of the soil transports necessary chemistries to them. Healthy plants connected to the mycelial network increase their production of whatever chemical is needed and send it to the mycelia for distribution. Trees that are intentionally girdled by scientists (they cut a circle of bark from around the trunk of the tree which will kill it so they can see what happens) are supported with nutrients transported through the mycelial network from other plants. They can live for years while plants that are disconnected die within a year. A wide variety of chemistries have been found to be transported this way, carbon, phosphorus, sugars, and more. Feedback loops are constantly analyzing the needs of the mychorrizal community, plants that are ill receive whatever it is they need. Injured plants respond much the same way that people do to analgesics and anesthetics; compounds like the alkaloids in opium poppies affect plant physiology just as they do ours. Such compounds may be taken up through root systems, transported by mycelia, or breathed in through plant stomata as a gas. Scores of living beings; birds, insects, bears, butterflies, wild boars, and chimpanzees have all been found to use plants as medicines as well.
When suffering from pathogenic intestinal parasites chimpanzees will select from a variety of plants depending on the nature of the parasite. For example, they ingest pith of Vernonia species to kill and stop the reproductive activity of schistosoma parasites. Vernonia contains a variety of potent chemistries, including toxic sesquiterpene lactones and steroid glycosides. The glycosides vernonioside B1 and vernoniol B1 suppress parasite movement and egg-laying, reducing their population density. When infected with oesophagostomum parasitic worms, on the other hand, chimpanzees seek out entirely different plants. They pick rough, bristly haired Aspilia leaves, which contain a unique compound – thiarubrine A. Thiarubrine A is active against a wide variety of nematodes and intestinal worms that commonly affect chimpanzees. The chimpanzees fold the leaves like accordions and swallow them whole. The thiarubrine A weakens or kills the worms and the unchewed leaves, because of the folding and rough bristles, catch the worms as the leaves move through the GI tract, pulling them loose and out of the system. By not chewing the leaves the chimpanzees ensure they will pass into the small intestine in their whole, folded form and also ensure that the thiarubrine A will not be broken down in the stomach.
Chimpanzees are, as well, exceedingly particular about which part of the plant they choose. They only use the pith of the Vernonia; it is lowest in toxic sesquiterpene lactones and highest in the steroidal glycosides. Chimpanzees actively test Asphilia plants for activity by holding a leaf in their mouth for extended periods of time before deciding to pick it or go on to another. As they sit, allowing their VNO to analyze the chemical content of their chosen plant, in return, the plant, as it does with spider mites, analyzes the saliva of the chimpanzee. In a short period of time, the plant begins altering its chemical production to enhance the necessary chemicals needed by the chimpanzee for healing.
Plants create and release their complex chemicals primarily in response to complexly interwoven feedback cues from the world around them. When information comes to them from the outside world, they respond by creating specific chemicals and releasing them into the soil or into the air.
Plant chemistries, unlike pharmaceuticals, are released into the world for a reason. Each chemistry a word imbued with import, all together a language that possesses its own grammar and syntax. Its own underlying epistemology. Scientists study the vowels and consonants and how they are put together to form plant words but they do not study their meaning, nor the intelligence or intent that gives rise to that meaning. Too often they insist there is no meaning for, as anyone can see, plants have no brain. Still, each complex assemblage of expressed plant chemistries is a sentence of communication, carrying specific messages – imbued with meaning. And the world receives those meanings and responds. Plant communications are like stones in water. The ripples they create move throughout ecosystems; they wash up against us. That we – and the other beings on Earth – take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle, or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning. As the soul of a human being can never be understood from its chemistry or grammar, so cannot plant purpose, intelligence, or soul. Plants are much more than the sum of their parts. And they have been talking to us a long time.
Human beings, long embedded within their environment, have always been sensitive to the meanings that surrounded them. Those contained within plant communications, as with all communications, generate feelings in us in response. We know the touch of the world upon us, that we have been caressed by meaning, even though we might not be able to consciously say just what that meaning is. A door opens inside, our unconscious gathers it in, and at night we dream and it is woven into the fabric of our lives. We have always been surrounded by such meaning-imbued language; later we created our own. Our language also travels through the air, though it is vibrating waves of sound. (Did you think we made all this up out of our bulging forebrains alone?) We have always lived, surrounded by original language.
The plants release the Earth’s subtle chemistries through their intertwined interdependent synaptic feedback loops faster and more complexly than researchers, or anyone, can write them down. Their meanings pile one on top of another until the linear mind is overwhelmed. They shift the fabric of our world, touch us with meanings, in ways too complex for our conscious mind to grasp. Nevertheless, we can grasp them. They come in gestalts to the attentive mind and caring heart, concise reflections of plant and Earth inter-relationships, in knowledge whole and complete: “The trees are the teachers of the law.” It is not necessary to have a degree in English to understand the meaning of words. Training in chemistry is irrelevant to understanding the meaning conveyed by plants. A four year old does not worry about it, she sits under a tree talking with flowers. For thousands of generations, human beings in all cultures on Earth have known that plants (and all of nature) express meaning and that there is intent behind it. They have been listening to and accumulating those meanings; they have been building a biognosis-generated oral library of knowledge of the world and humanity’s place within it.
Among the Iroquois, it has been said that if a person becomes ill and needs a plant for healing the plant will stand up and begin calling, helping the person who is ill to find it. To a Heliconius butterfly, a honeybee, or a moth this would not be strange; they would understand.
Researchers have commented that the plants, able to respond instantaneously to ecosystem changes and inputs with shifts in their chemistry, can begin immediately to produce new compounds and combinations of compounds at need. And when researcher Cleve Backster connected a lie detector to a plant, he was astonished that it could tell from his thoughts what his intentions were when he was going to burn it or tear its leaf. To a Drosophilia fly or a hawkmoth this would not seem unusual or momentous. To the Winnebago and the Iroquois this would not be strange; they would understand. For it has been said among the Winnebago that when gathering plants as medicine, if you tell them what you need them to do and ask them to put forth their strength on your behalf they will do so. And among the Iroquois, it is said that when you find the plant you are looking for you should pray to it for help. It will tell the other plants what you need and when you pick them their medicine will be strong and powerful.
Many scientists have remarked with surprise that Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver and even the Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock all have said that it was the plants that told them what to do, that revealed their mysteries to them. The only requirement, they commented, was that they had to care for them, to treat them with respect, to have a feeling for the organism. This would not be strange to the Winnebago, among whom it has been said that people must treat the plants like human beings, make proper offerings, and treat them with respect if they wish their help. Nor would this be strange to a four year old sitting and talking with flowers.
Scientists have discovered that plant species may posses widely different chemistries depending on the time of day, week, or month they are picked. And though the physicians laughed at them, the Appalachian folk healers would have understood and been unsurprised. For among them it was common knowledge that this plant must only be picked in the morning before the dew is off the leaves or that one only by light of the full moon.
The plants have long been our teachers and healers. The Cherokee and Creek understood this long ago. It was said among them that the plants took pity on the suffering of their offspring, the human beings, and that each plant offered up a remedy to heal one of the diseases of humankind. There is deep wisdom in this. Understanding ourselves to be offspring, the children, of the plants, naturally engenders a familial bond. It shifts the focus of our relationship from one of plants as resources to them being senior, caring members of the same family. More than that, the power lies with the plants, not with us. We are their children, they are not our property. As with all children, when we hurt, the nature of their relationship to us leads them to want to help us. When the ancient Greeks named certain plants Ambrosias – givers of life – this is something they understood.
The ancient Greek and Roman, folk and indigenous plant names and plant usages that developed over millennia came out of this perspective. The use of plants as medicines connects us as people to those ancient traditions, to the environment of which we are a part and from which we came, to the meanings that the plants generate; for a million years human beings have been healed by them.
By having disconnected ourselves emotionally from the Earth and plants we have lost our understanding of these links and mutual relationships. We have facilitated the loss of plant species, the loss of health in ecosystems and our bodies, and the sense of who we ourselves, are.
The Importance of Restoring Biophilia
The loss of connection to plants, to the land, to Earth leaves the holes with which we are naturally born unfilled. No matter how much ritalin or prozac is poured into those holes, synthetic pharmaceuticals can never fill them; merely human approaches can never heal them. Pathologies come from the empty holes that are unfilled, from lack of contact and communication with the wild. The holes within us possess particular shapes – that of stone or tree or bear. It is not only plants that are our teachers and healers; not only plants that are among our community of life; not only plants that have a language we have long known.
Without deep connection to the land our healers remain anthropocentric – human centered – in their approaches, their theories of human health generated in isolation from the environment with which we evolved. They contain the same category error that all reductionistic sciences contain. The solution is reconnection to the natural world and the living intelligence of land. The solution is rekindling our capacity to use the heart as a sophisticated organ of perception. This goes far beyond the exploration of sentimental emotions such as love, or sadness, or fear. It moves into the ability to sophisticatedly think in emotional complexes that come to us from the touch of the world upon our heart. It enables us to identify the thousands of unnamed emotions that daily cross the faces of those we meet. It enables us to understand the point of view of the external world and to hear the language of plants.
When we allowed
science to convince us
that there is no soul
or intelligence in matter,
the Earth’s physical forms
became only cemetery markers
showing where spirits once moved
through the world.
of the material world
then began in earnest.
Its dissected parts
litter the landscape
and we walk, depressed,
among lifeless statuary,
only accidental lifeforms
on the surface of
a ball of rock
hurtling around the sun.
The metal gate is unlocked.
Other kinds of flowers
nod in sunlight
outside that wrought-iron fence.
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