Following the Call of a Plant
A meditation on interspecies communication --- [Estimated reading time: 40 min.]
I’ve come a long way since I started gardening a mere eight years ago, and initially I didn’t have the slightest clue where this path would take me. I went from supplementing my market-and-store-bought diet with a few homegrown potherbs and bananas to growing, gathering, trapping and hunting almost all the food I eat (the main exception being rice, which we trade for with my wife’s parents), and I went from not being able to tell apart two varieties of banana plants to making educated guesses about the possible family an unknown plant might belong to (and sometimes being right), as well as (occasionally) understanding their functions in the wider community instinctively. How did I get here? It certainly wasn’t easy, and the journey most definitely isn’t over – it probably never really is. I had to unlearn much of what I was indoctrinated with over the course of fourteen years of formal education. Not simply forget, or ignore, but unlearn – to learn, but in the other direction. This implicates tracing things back to their roots, trying to understand why we are taught certain things, and what those misbeliefs do to us. It means not just discarding some ‘facts’ our science teacher once told us, but to attempt to grasp the deeply erroneous context of wider beliefs and assumptions that those misconceptions arose from.
Along the way I unlearned a lot, and I learned even more. This essay is about a few things I learned about – and was taught by – plants.
Plants are arguably some of the most selfless beings on this planet. Because they don't need to spend energy on moving around, they use little and give plenty. They are role models and teachers for every human, and patiently hold on to their wisdom until we’re ready to receive it, until we listen.
They want to help us, they want to feed us, and they want to heal us. They do help, feed, and heal us. Plants will, as a general rule of thumb, allow for up to 20 percent of foliage loss before they start fighting back via phytochemicals that repel herbivores and insects. This means that they readily make parts of themselves available as food and medicine and thus invest in the overall health of the ecosystem, even if that means that they have to sacrifice parts of their own bodies. To be fair, plants can lose up to 90 percent (!) of their bodies and still recover, so for them even being cut by a machete or scythe is not a death sentence – and they are very forgiving. Yet the fact that they allow other beings to consume parts of them, that they actively feed and heal us, not only through gifting us fruits and seeds (that bear the concomitant intention to disperse seeds and hence to reproduce) but with their leaves and shoots, their flesh and blood, is nothing short of mesmerizing.
How could you possibly know such a thing, you might object, why would plants suffer for us? I’d have a hard time explaining it – I just know. They would, because I would. Because I do.
The thought of sacrificing something for the Greater Good is not particularly alien to me. And while I might not have lost anything even close to 20 percent of my body, I’ve suffered my share of injuries trying to help the ecosystem I inhabit recover from monocultures, topsoil erosion, and the long-term effects of agrochemicals. I’ve cut myself on machetes, bamboo and even blades of grass more times than I would ever care to count – not like a paper cut, but sometimes deep enough to see bone and tendon. I was hit in the face and most other parts of my body by branches whipping back or falling down – especially bamboo. I was stung by bees, wasps, hornets and scorpions – once I sustained three scorpion stings within 24 hours (the last being one of the most painful experiences of my entire life). My hands and feet were punctured by spikes of all sizes – I once had a two-centimeter-long spike from a Salak palm stuck in my arm for over a month (it broke off so I couldn’t get it out). And sometimes several types of injuries occurred at once, like when the dry branch of a wild Salak palm I was pruning whipped back, hit the side of my face, and left me bleeding profusely (Salak palms are a gardener’s nightmare!).
I’ve sustained those injuries not while trying to “eke out a living gathering wild foods for survival”, but while I was doing regular maintenance work in our Food Jungle. I help trees grow and maintain the delicate balance that’s needed in any tropical ecosystem undergoing recovery to avoid letting a few species take over everything and thus slowing down the process. It’s an occupational hazard in the kind of “business” I’m in. If you work with the land, you will bleed, sweat, and, occasionally, cry – and it’s worth it. You do it again and again. Those are small sacrifices I’m happy to give for the Greater Good of seeing the land that feeds and sustains me thrive, the trees grow, and wildlife bounce back. It does not in the slightest seem extraordinary for me that someone would suffer a bit or give a part of oneself to keep the ecosystem one partakes in healthy.
“A culture is no better than its woods”, wrote poet W. H. Auden. This simple statement contains more truth than is commonly assumed. One of the main features of the dominant culture is the utter disregard for plants as Living Beings and the crucial roles they play in sustaining our own lives and the health of the entire planet. Yes, we have to “save the rainforest” – so that we humans don’t die out. Rainforests are just means to an end, “the end” in this case being our own survival.
Plants are reduced to a mere resource, a source of materials that we require and therefore exploit at will; or to a vista, a neat backdrop for the human drama. Nobody cares what you do to a plant, which is why it is perfectly normal for them to be imprisoned, abused and slaughtered, forced to live in the most unnatural settings, to have their needs ignored and their genes tinkered with, and to generally receive the very worst of what human supremacism has to offer. Even subcultural groups who call themselves “compassionate” (hello vegans!) don’t even think about considering plants to be sentient beings, despite a growing body of scientific evidence unquestionably showing that they are. Plants – by far – make up the bulk of so-called “biomass” on the planet, and if there would be a second place in the naming contest for “the Blue Planet”, it would certainly be “the Green Planet”. They are ubiquitous, yet most of the time barely there, balancing somewhere on the very edge of existence – biologically alive, yet so easily overlooked that “plant blindness” may just be the most common and widely held cognitive bias of this entire global civilization.
This “plant blindness” is inherent to this culture, and inextricable part of it, and explains a lot about how modern humans perceive the world. One of my favorite allegories to make this point is this little story by botanist Stefano Mancuso:
“A race of aliens living in a radically sped-up dimension of time arrive on Earth and, unable to detect any movement in humans, come to the logical conclusion that we are ‘inert material’ with which they may do as they please. The aliens proceed ruthlessly to exploit us.”
This is exactly how this culture treats plants.
I’ve been fascinated by plants basically all my life. For most of the time, this fascination was never something I could pin down or explain, but more like a sort of intuition that drew me in their direction. As a toddler I took a strong liking to foraging for fruit: all currant bushes in our garden were always harvested bare until knee height – every berry I could reach with my short arms had to be plucked and eaten as soon as they turned ripe – and my parents’ enthusiasm to grow tomatoes quickly subsided when they never harvested as much as a single ripe tomato – I was always quicker.
As I grew older, I liked being outside in the woods more than any other place, without ever even thinking about the reason for this preference. It just smelled good there, and it was shady and cool, even on hot summer afternoons (and sometimes there were blueberries!). A lot of credit probably goes to my parents, who took me and my brothers on regular walks through the forest before we could even walk ourselves. As a kid you’re much more receptive to the call of plants.
I vividly remember visiting the “Urwald Sababurg”, an ancient forest close to where I grew up, and how small I felt walking among the centuries-old oaks and beeches. And I remember climbing them. Always climbing. Climbing trees has been one of my favorite things to do as long as I can remember. There must be some primeval urge buried deep in our consciousness to ascend into the canopy, a remnant of our species’ simian past, where our distant ancestors found security and sustenance for aeons.
Each time we visited our grandparents, I’d get out of the car and immediately raid their gardens for blueberries, gooseberries, currants, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, mirabelles and tomatoes – until this day, my grandmother tells the story about how she heard my parents’ car park in the driveway, and before she even opened the door to greet us I was already high up in the cherry tree, feasting on the large, succulent, crimson fruits. As a kid I used to say that I would be perfectly content and happy if I just had a variety of fresh, ripe fruit every day of my life – that that was everything I need. Little did I know that this would be exactly the direction that my life would take eventually, and if someone would have told me then that one day, not too far in the future, I’d lead a lifestyle characterized by climbing trees, harvesting and eating fruit, I would have rejoiced at the mere idea. In hindsight, it was quite obvious, even then, that I had to spend my life in close proximity to plants, especially trees.
As a teenager, I had to absolve a total of three student internships, and all three occupations I chose were directly related to plants. For the first one I picked a fruit tree nursery, for obvious reasons (which I found to be rather boring and unfulfilling, I spent hour after hour grafting hundreds of apple trees for sale and didn’t eat a single fruit the entire time), the second one, drawing on the mediocre first experience, was at a large organic farm (which was a great and formative experience, with diverse and fun tasks – harvesting has always been one of my favorite things to do), and the third one was in Munich’s Botanical Garden (where the sheer diversity of plants and the knowledge of the botanists who worked there impressed me a lot).
After finishing school, I was overwhelmed by the need to find a subject to study, a job, or any plan for what I’d do the next few decades. I thought about studying landscape architecture, then botany, but everything seemed too dry, theoretic, and disconnected, with plenty of stuff included in the package that I wasn’t very eager to learn (like Biology 101, ugh!). Nothing really seemed to inspire passion in me, and I couldn’t think of a single “job” that I could do for a few years withot getting bored, so I decided to take a break to figure things out and try experiencing and working with plants first hand. After a year of working some random, boring warehouse job, I booked a one-way ticket to Thailand and became a volunteer on a small organic farm in the southern province of Krabi. This kind of life must be all the things I love combined, I thought, minus the annoying social pressure to “get a job”, “make some money” and “advance your career”. And I was right!
Looking back on my adolescence, it all makes sense now, even though at times I felt listless, lost and without purpose. But through all that time of not knowing what to do, not knowing where my place is or where I should go, it was a plant that helped me stay sane in this society gone mad: Cannabis. It was her that kept me calm, that dampened the resentment that stirred in me in the face of the innumerable injustices and ecological mayhem that life in a “developed” country necessitates, and it was her that gave me the motivation to keep going in a world inevitably heading for collapse. Even in my darkest days she kept me grounded. It was her that allowed me to see through the mist and hope for better days, and to dream of a life you can enjoy even without her help.
It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her. Without her, I might have gotten used to the stupor of wage labor, and accepted my faith as just another cog in the world-devouring machine. And although the youthful enthusiasm has abated, I still have the utmost respect and reverence for this wondrous herb.
Cannabis helped me to see through the lies and delusions of the dominant culture, to question and challenge them, and open my heart for an alternative, for something better.
Back then I hadn’t connected the dots yet, but I felt a strong urge to escape the artificial environment I found myself trapped in, to get out there, back into Nature’s bosom, in search for a simpler, more fulfilling life.
One way or another, plants have always called me. But it wasn’t until I moved to Thailand to intern on that small permaculture farm that I really answered that call. Up until that point, I had been strangely fascinated by plants, maybe I even knew more than my peers about botany and different species of fruit and forest trees, but I was far from being a botany buff or even a plant nerd. That changed fast when I first experienced tropical vegetation. I was amazed by the sheer abundance of life, the diversity of shapes and hues, and the raw power of the life force flowing through those beings, from the smallest mosses to the largest jungle trees. I visited fruit orchards with hundreds of different plants, dozens of species of fruit trees and old-growth giants that towered above the canopy, and met people who could fulfill their every need with the plants they tended in their gardens. I met Birdee, a Frenchman with a large, natural forest garden nestled between the steep limestone mountains of Krabi province, who mentored me during my first few years here and taught me a lot about the local flora, fauna, customs, and language.
One of the most profound experiences was, during my first year in Thailand, meeting an old man who lived with his adult son in a small village in Nakhon Si Thammarat, an old friend of Birdee, whose 15-acre property at first glance looked almost indistinguishable from the adjacent rainforest. We stayed at his place for three days, sleeping in a house without walls, electricity, and running water. In the morning we bathed in the river that bordered his garden, and at night there was no need for mosquito nets because, as the old man explained, when Nature is in balance, there is never too much of one animal.
But even a single animal can sometimes be more than enough: when we met him he was still limping, two black holes with the diameter of a pencil gaping right underneath his knee attested to an unfortunate encounter with a Malay pit viper – the most dangerous snake around – a few months back. There is folklore about people dying on the way to the hospital after they got bitten. He didn’t even visit the hospital.
After he got bitten, he hurried back to his hut and told his son which herbs to bring him and how to prepare them to treat the bite. He stayed in his hut, unable to get up from his bed, for well over two months, his son supplying him with herbal medicines and food. But, to my great astonishment, he recovered fast and was up and about, and, according to Birdee, lively as ever during our stay. He didn’t only know herbs to treat various snake bites, but he knew every single plant: every grass, flower, shrub, rhizome and tree in his environment, and he could tell you what to use the roots, stems, shoots, leaves, inflorescence, fruit and seed for. He told me to eat an unassuming yellow flower growing underneath one of his durian trees, and laughed heartily at the expression on my face when my mouth suddenly turned numb – it turns out that this plant (Acmella oleracea) is a remedy for toothache, and in the past people even used it as an anesthetic for extracting teeth.
Words can’t describe how impressed I was. I had, unwittingly, stumbled upon my life goal, my purpose.
That was exactly how I wanted to live as well. That was what the plants had in mind for me. Not merely holding a job that has something to do with plants, doing a single task over and over again for hours at a time, day after day, year after year, always at least partially motivated by the need to “make money”, but wholeheartedly dedicating my life to plants. Tending to their needs, understanding them, learning their secrets, befriending them – if I could ever be only half as cool as the old, shirtless, bearded dude talking about a massive Durian tree while affectionately grasping a branch or patting the trunk as if he was introducing a lifelong friend, I thought, if I would ever have all the food and medicine I need within walking distance from my hut, I would know I made it.
The following years stretched my capacity to memorize to its limits. Apart from learning the Thai language – the next time I met some plant guru I resolved to be able to communicate without needing a translator – I had to memorize names, relations and various uses for an ever-increasing number of plants and their constituents. I learned from whatever botany textbooks I could get my hands on, from the endless depths of the internet, and, as my linguistic proficiency increased, from the immensely comprehensive folk knowledge that elderly people in the countryside still possess. And although my distinct focus was on raw knowledge at first, I was always sure that I missed something else. The old man I met in his jungle had radiated such wisdom and intimacy with the plants as he paced through his garden that, at times, I felt ridiculous trying to follow in his footsteps. I was the undergrad greenhorn and he the wizened, old professor, and on some days I couldn’t even imagine myself taking on his role one day. Often, I was alternating between satisfaction with my progress and utter despair about the sheer multitude of things I still didn’t know or couldn’t remember.
But a lot has changed since then.
I now know the names (in at least one language) and at least some of the uses and benefits (not only for humans, but for other animals and plants as well) for each of the over five hundred species and cultivars of plants in our garden. I gather wild fruits that even the locals down in the village have never tried or heard of, the result of researching the dietary habits of the areas’ indigenous inhabitants, and it is likely that we’ve discovered a species of Alangium hitherto unknown to science (although we must wait until a botanist visits us next dry season and takes a specimen back to his university for confirmation). I am still nowhere close to possessing the holistic knowledge and, more importantly, the wisdom of Birdee’s friend, but I am now convinced I’m slowly getting there. In a few decades time, at least.
The more I know about plants, the more secure I feel. In our “Food Jungle”, we already have medicinal plants for the major ailments and dangers of the life we’re leading – insect and snake bites, malaria and dengue fever, headaches, fatigue, stomach complains, skin rashes, parasites, as well as minor injuries such as cuts and bruises. We begin to understand which plants like what conditions, and which plants we need to further propagate to have a year-round supply of staples, vegetables and fruit, and we know enough wild plants to have a variety of “famine foods” to fall back on, shall any major problems arise within society in the coming few years when we are not yet fully self-sufficient. In our garden there are plants for every possible need that might arise, from large Dipterocarps whose resin can be used to easily light fires or make torches, over trees whose wood is termite-resistant or can be used to make anything from arrows to musical instruments, palms whose leaves can be made into thatch, to plants that yield strong fibers for cordage and cloth, and great materials for weaving and handicrafts. We repeat their names on every walkabout through our garden, comment on the progress they’ve made, and compliment their looks. After years of confusion, of “not seeing the forest for the trees”, I finally see both, simultaneously, the trees as individuals and the wider community of plants they make up.
Being able to identify plants has a profound spiritual impact as well. The forest no longer seems like a chaotic mosaic of different shades of green, but you are now able to discern individuals that you know by name, elevating them to the status of a person, someone you have (or could have) some kind of relationship with.
You start noticing the many differences between two trees of the same species. Trees become individuals with unique characteristics, standing in communities with friends and families, and having close and distant relatives - and on every walk through the jungle you look out for old acquaintances and friends. You see them interacting with each other, each view a snapshot, time standing still for our human eyes, with scenes playing out over years and decades: a vine reaches for the next branch to climb up to the sunlight - will she overshadow the tree or does she merely want to share a spot for sunbathing? After a storm downed an old tree and thus opened a hole in the canopy, a hitherto stagnant assemblage of plants senses an opportunity – will they grow tall enough to secure their own spot among the elders before the hole is closed by the surrounding trees? A strangling fig starts growing in a branch fork - will the branch rot off in time and release the parasite before the fig’s roots embrace the whole trunk? Two vigorous adolescent trees are racing to grow taller than the other - who will be the winner?
You learn to appreciate every detail of a given plant, whether the shape or venation of the leaves, or the arrangement of flower petals, since they might give you a hint about whom this plant is related to. Then, once you intimately know them, you’ll recognize plants not by analyzing the shape and structure of their leaves, but immediately and instinctively, as an entity, an individual as well as a member of a family and community.
Finally, you realize that your perception of plants has changed so dramatically that it is impossible to remember how it was to look at a forest and see merely an indiscernible ocean of green. It becomes a part of your perception of the world, your baseline reality, that trees really are living beings, with ambitions, dreams, wishes, hopes, and needs, just like ourselves - although on different time scales.
But getting to this point takes time and effort. In the beginning, the discriminating, linear mind tries to remember all names, to classify and categorize plants according to Linnaean taxonomy. This is useful, for sure, not least because you understand direct relations between species (like the fact that bananas are basically grasses, that all tree legumes can be easily identified by a few common characteristics they share, and that breadfruit and mulberry don’t only look somehow similar but are members of the same family), but it should not be the final stage of getting to know plants, for merely remembering another one’s name doesn’t prove you actually know anything about them. The only way to go beyond the reductionist impulse to put a file back into the drawer once you wrote a name on it is to spend time among plants and try to experience them with all senses. This includes the sixth sense: feeling – not a sensation of touch on the skin, but feeling with the heart – a sense that the dominant culture has taught us to ignore, suppress and dismiss through years of formalized, brain-fetishizing education. We are told that thinking is more important than paying attention to the subtle differences in how places, situations, sensations, and other living beings make you feel. Rationality is always valued over emotionality in the dominant culture. Feeling is subjective, not objective, we’re taught, and therefore inferior.
This is simply not true. It is of utmost importance what we feel.
If you are confused by this, consider the following. You’ve probably stood in front of a very large, old tree before. Try to remember what you felt in that moment. Not what you thought, but the feeling the sight (and maybe the smell and touch) of the tree evoked. If you don’t remember, recall this exercise next time you encounter a Tree Elder in an old-growth forest. Now contrast this to the feeling you have if you walk among young trees, a decade or two old. In the latter scenario, most would agree that they don’t feel any particular thing. This is partly because older trees evoke a much stronger response in us (you might say they have a stronger, more mature Spirit), and partly because we simply haven’t trained this way of perceiving the world (with a little training, even young trees can awaken a broad spectrum of feelings) – ever since we were children all focus has been first and foremost on the visual perception of the world (and then the auditory, the olfactory, and the tactile), to the detriment of the heart as an organ of perception.
Despite being told to “listen to your heart” and to “follow your heart”, learning things “by heart”, feeling “lighthearted”, hearing “heart-wrenching” stories or being “heartbroken”, the dominant culture stubbornly insists that everything that matters happens in the brain. This is a peculiarity of modern Western culture: in Thailand, for example, and in other Asian countries as well, the heart plays a much more fundamental role. If you understand something, in Thai you say “it enters my heart” (เข้าใจ, [khao jai] ‘to enter’ + ‘heart’), and if you’re happy, your “heart is good” (ดีใจ [dee jai], ‘good’ + ‘heart’). Expressions like “I think in my heart” are common in Thai, and there is a difference between the way you think with your head (rational and linear) and your heart (emotional, holistic, and lateral).
All ancient cultures valued the heart and the wisdom it contains (that’s where all the expressions listed above come from), and it was only after the shift to the Nature-as-Machine metaphor (starting with the idea that the entire Universe and all its constituents function like a giant clockwork, conceived during the “Enlightenment” period and exacerbated by the Scientific and subsequent Industrial Revolution) that people began disregarding the heart as a simple, mechanical pump whose only job it is to thrust blood through our veins. People these days love to pride themselves on being smarter than the ancients, but it turns out that even simple peasants in earlier cultures actually understood certain things to a much greater extent than even the most fabled modern thinkers. If the fundamental metaphor you use to explain the world is faulty, then all subsequent thoughts will contain a fraction of this crucial error that limits their applicability (an important thing to remember while unlearning anything). The heart is much more than a pump.
Feeling is a sense that is difficult to describe with words and that takes time to invigorate and train. It’s like a sort of intuition, and this is how it is usually described when people still encounter it, for instance if they have “a bad feeling” about something, someone, or some place, or if something “just feels right”. And while most people admit that there’s some semi-mystical concept called a “gut feeling”, few would agree that the heart can perform similar feats, or that the two are connected. Yet once you make use of this way of perceiving your environment, you’ll soon notice that those feelings can be much more subtle than simply “good” or “bad”.
Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively on the subject of the sixth “feeling sense” and the heart through which we perceive it, and his aptly use of scientific language makes even people who are usually skeptical of such “superstition” keen to learn more. He explains that this sense works through creating, utilizing and reading electromagnetic fields (which all Living Beings and non-living entities from atoms to entire planets emit), and describes the heart as the seat of this sense, just like the eyes are the seat of the visual and the ears the seat of the auditory sense. The main difference is that all other senses are mainly processed in the brain, whereas the feeling sense is processed directly in the heart. The heart is, as I’ve said before, much more than just a mechanical pump, and “Science” is just catching up to it (there is an emerging field called neurocardiology that tries to figure out what else the heart can do). Electromagnetic waves always convey information of some sort, like radio waves carrying encoded sounds over long distances. You can’t hear the sound without a radio receiver, and your heart works like a receiver to decipher the information contained in the electromagnetic fields you encounter. The electromagnetic field that the heart emits is stronger than that of the brain, so strong that it can be measured several meters away from the body, and – a fact most people don’t know – the heart has its own nervous system, with a network of about 40,000 neurons, that is strong enough to overwrite the brain if needed.
But this is not an essay about the heart, or about electromagnetic fields (if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading Buhner’s book!). It is about plants, and plants emit electromagnetic fields as well, albeit weaker ones. But since our heart can sense other beings’ electromagnetic fields (it is in fact much more sensitive than even the most sophisticated measuring devices) and, if adequately trained, decipher the meaning they convey (a feat that no measuring device can achieve), this allows us to communicate with plants in a very direct and nonverbal way.
We can understand plants better if we open our hearts to them, and this way of interspecies understanding is not even all that difficult on a superficial level. Everyone can learn it. My brother once volunteered on another organic farm in Thailand, and told me the story of how the owners went away for a few days to attend a “spirituality conference” in the city. The whole thing had a New-Agey undertone, with quirky topics and bizarre speakers, but the story taught me a lesson I only understood years later. For one workshop – on plant communication – attendants were to bring a plant from their gardens, which was placed in the middle of a conference table, and people around the table took turns describing the feeling they experienced when focusing on the plant. The owners of that farm took a strawberry plant that they dug out from one of their beds and placed in a pot, and later recounted how most people described feelings of tightness, of constriction, of being unable to breathe and wanting more space. As a result, the owners of the farm immediately phoned my brother, who (together with some other volunteers) took care of the place while they were gone, and told him to loosen up the soil around the remaining strawberry plants to remedy the problem.
We both retold this story countless times – not necessarily to mock the owners of that farm, but just as a humorous anecdote – and it always evoked the same responses of slight amusement or even ridicule among listeners. How could people actually believe that the plant had a message, and that people could understand it? One single strawberry plant was somehow the ambassador of all strawberry plants, and gave people a detailed description of the conditions back home in the strawberry plot?
Yes, if you think about it like this, the story does seem a bit eccentric, and I confess that I initially didn’t believe that there was anything to it. But one day I was squatting in our nursery, inspecting young trees in plastic pots and bags, when I suddenly felt a tightness in my chest. I was sitting right in front of a young wild orange tree, already way too large for the small plastic pot she grew in, the taproot curling at the bottom of the pot. That’s when it hit me: of course people felt this way at that conference, of course the plant evoked those feelings. The plant is trapped in a plastic pot – what else do you expect? The weird thing here is not that people are convinced that a plant tells them something, but to think that this one plant is somehow a delegate of other plants and bears a message from them that traverses space and time. Plants do tell us how they feel – if we know how to listen – but it’s up to us to interpret the message. Most of the time, plants are pretty straightforward, so if a plant tells you that it feels hemmed in, maybe you should figure out why she feels this way before drawing premature conclusions about other plants far away.
But just as we can sense what a plant needs, they can sense what we need. This is especially true of medicinal plants. I now firmly believe that there is a plant that, if harvested, prepared, and applied or consumed right, can help us heal each malady that plagues us humans (or any other animal). If we have pure intentions, if we are respectful and the plants feel that we are a friend of the land, they will aid us. They will even willingly give their lives if that means helping someone who dedicates their life to healing and tending ecosystems and hence ensures the continued existence of the species of plant in question. While harvesting medicinal herbs, Buhner advises us to try to strongly focus on the reason why you seek out the particular herb in question, and for what ailment you intend to use her. Focus on feeling reverence and respect for the plants (not just think about it, but feel it), and the plants will understand. In Buhner’s words:
“All indigenous people gathered their knowledge of plant medicines in this way, directly from the heart of the world, from the soul of the plants. All said they could talk to plants, that plants could talk to them, that the plants told them about their uses as medicines. This manner of perception, of diagnosis and healing, is the most ancient humans have known.”
Of course, this way of direct communication is also possible with other animals – most people even find it a lot easier. Heart perception of another being’s electromagnetic field is at the root of the mysterious “feeling of being stared at”, which works for humans as well as non-humans. A few days ago, my wife had the strong sensation of being observed by someone when she was down at our pond to pump water with the bicycle-powered piston pump we use (for the explicit reason that it doesn’t scare away wildlife like a gasoline-powered pump would), and – out of the corner of her eye – immediately noticed a massive owl sitting well-hidden in the dense bamboo thicket next to the water. She ran to get me, and although I already knew that there was a large owl sitting somewhere in the bamboo, it took me a while to make her out among the shadows. Sometimes the heart works better than the brain.
Another way of interspecies communication, albeit a much more difficult one that requires a lot more training and experience, is via dreams, and visions (such as those evoked by the ingestion of certain psychoactive plants). All indigenous cultures attribute(d) a special status to dreams, and consider(ed) them to be the doors to other realms, or a means of communicating with spirits, ancestors, plants, or animals. Among the Sng’oi, indigenous inhabitants of Malaysia’s dense rainforests, every morning the members of each band come together to discuss their dreams and figure out what they mean. Tapirapé shamans in the Amazon are able to locate game animals in their dreams, and Achuar men wait for certain signs in their dreams before setting out to hunt particular animals. Shamans and healers from all continents claim to communicate with plants and animals in their dreams and/or visions, and if you ask them where they got their knowledge about medicinal plants from, German anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist Christian Rätsch recounts, they’ll likely tell you that the plants themselves told them in visions and dreams.
This stands in direct contrast to what we’re taught. The dominant culture of reductionist materialism dismisses indigenous knowledge as the result of “trial and error”, and sees dreams as “your memories and your imagination, mixed all together into this soup of what’s real and what’s made up” (in the words of fictional character John Dutton from the TV series Yellowstone) – a succinct summary of this culture’s disregard for meaning in the dream world. But if all this is merely superstition, how come cultures from all over the world practice such forms of knowledge-seeking? How come traditional medicinal knowledge is confirmed again and again by laboratory testing? If this alternative episteme, those unconventional techniques, wouldn’t provide the indigenous practitioners with satisfying results, they would surely have abandoned them long ago, or not?
The more time you spend around plants, the more often they start entering your dreams. You’ll see phantastic variations of plants you know, morphologically distorted flowers, leaves or fruit, or entirely new combinations of different plants merging into one. Deciphering the meaning of those images is where things get difficult, since our culture doesn’t have any guidelines to interpret dreams. Sometimes the meaning is rather obvious, at least in hindsight. You might dream of two plants growing together, both healthy and vigorous, and months later, by sheer coincidence, overhear someone saying that they make great companion plants, probably because of some poorly understood synergy – an experience I’ve had with Papaya and Tree Spinach. Another time, a few months after I had started to work tapping rubber trees with a friend, I had a vivid dream of running through an endless, dark expanse of rubber plantations haunted by the agonizing screams of the bleeding trees – the message was unambiguous, and I stopped tapping immediately.
But sometimes you ponder something you’ve seen in a dream for days and days without being able to figure out what it means.
Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa once said of the non-indigenous:
“The white people, they do not dream as far as we do. They sleep a lot but only dream of themselves.”
And it’s true! Most of the time, we dream of ourselves, limited by a culture built on human supremacism and obsessed with the Self. This statement has stuck with me ever since I read it, and it makes me yearn to one day dream like indigenous people do, to regularly dream of other animals and plants taking the center stage, and to derive meaning from those encounters. So far, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
All this might sound like eccentric woo-woo, but only if you’ve never experienced something like it. If you spend your life being around plants, even for just a few years, you’ll notice fast that there is something strange going on, something our linear, scientific mind has trouble making sense of. You’ll find yourself standing in the middle of your garden, alone, with a comical expression of disbelief on your face, asking yourself if that really just happened. And the more you open up to such experiences, the more you realize just how often things like that happen, things that only make sense if it’s the plants themselves who tell or show you something. Of course, the scientific mind would try to explain it away with randomness (and concomitant spiritual emptiness), but what bleak and lonely view of our world is that? There are moments your rational mind has trouble explaining, series of coincidences whose totaled odds are so astronomical that something else has to be at play. I’ve suspected that there were things that escaped my comprehension long before I read Buhner’s books, but it came as a revelation to me when I did, and gave me an explanation even someone raised in a materialist culture can easily fathom.
A few months back, a friend told me about how he strolled through his garden, lost in thought, and stopped under a large tree, unconsciously plucking a leaf from a small shrub that grows underneath it. He rolled it between his fingers and, to his surprise, discovered that it emitted a strong, anise-like smell and, after he carefully nibbled a small piece, an even stronger flavor. It turned out that the shrub he discovered was Kayumanis (Clausena anisum-olens), a wild medicinal plant native to the Philippines, where he lives.
Buhner would go as far as to say that the plant likely contains some nutrient, vitamin, or other compound his body needed on that particular day, so the Kayumanis shrub called him over and he instinctually complied.
Some moments seem so surreal that, after a while, you start questioning whether they really happened or you just dreamed them. I once stood in a semi-wild food forest I used to tend, under an Indian Trumpet tree (Oroxylum indicum), and looked up just in time to see a large seedpod, as long as my forearm, crack open, and dozens of transparent, winged seeds flying off in all directions like a swarm of paper planes. Nobody took care of the orchard for over ten years: many trees were overgrown by vines, running bamboo reproduced rampantly, and clusters of Salak palms were suffocating in dry branches, unable to have their flowers pollinated by stingless bees. It took me over half a year of daily work – pruning, untangling and clearing vegetation – until the trees started producing new growth and fruit again, and maybe this was the land’s way of saying thank you, of rewarding me for my help. I certainly felt privileged to experience a moment of such extraordinary rarity and beauty.
The other day, my wife noticed three ripe Biribá fruits (Rollinia deliciosa), half-hidden in the canopy of a Mangosteen tree and only visible from a certain angle further away from the tree. Nothing else is to be seen there at this season, nor were there any birds or rodents that might have drawn her view. Yet she looked up and immediately spotted the bright yellow fruits. Mere coincidence?
How often did I visit young trees further away from the commonly used paths, driven by some inexplicable urge to check on them, only to find them entangled in vines? Could it be that they were calling for help, and that I instinctively followed their call?
Just yesterday I walked by a small Sapodilla tree who grows a little off the footpath, and without consciously thinking anything I went to check if the one remaining fruit was ripe - which, surprisingly, it was! This particular local cultivar of Sapodilla is notorious for the difficulty of guessing how much longer it takes for the fruit to ripen. They reach their final size long before they actually turn ripe, and barely change their color during the entire time it takes for them to ripen. Harvested early they contain a sticky gum and taste only half as good as if they are allowed to ripen fully, but harvested only a day too late they are infested with small white maggots and have a sour, fermented taste. In between those two extremes lays a window of about a day or two when the fruit is completely ripe - the only way to make sure is to touch the fruit each day to see if it is soft yet.
So, what was it that led me to check the fruit on exactly this day, although I was going somewhere else entirely, to do something completely different? It might have been chance, pure luck, but the strange thing is that this was the second time in a row that this phenomenon occurred, both times in the exact same fashion, with the exact same plant and the first two fruits of her life. Without conscious thought I'm drawn to her, examine the fruit by taking it into my hand and carefully pressing my fingers against it, and instantly feel that it is ripe.
Or could it be that I checked the fruit more often, but simply forgot it? In this case, no. The tree is still small, and because I know how difficult it is to harvest the fruit when they've ripened naturally, I didn't even bother with the tiny quantity of the first year of fruit-bearing, and was content to let the two sapodillas become bird, squirrel and ant food.
Yet through some mysterious occurrence I was the one to taste them, not the birds, squirrels, or ants. Could it be that the plant remembers me, remember the care with which I planted her, told her that she's now safe from the horrors of the nursery from which we bought her, safe from the sterile soils, the confinement of the black plastic bag she sprouted in, the showers of insecticides and nitrate salts, and the regular disturbances by people pulling on branches, grabbing the still slender trunks, and moving plants around from one place to the next, never allowing her to get used to one place?
Could it be that she understood when I told her that she's home now?
Maybe this is her way to say thank you, to reciprocate the rescue, her way to start a long and fruitful relationship.
To be completely honest, a part of me still doubts this narrative sometimes, a quirk reminiscent of the years and years of immersion in the cold, dead, meaningless world of reductionist science acquired through what we call "education". A world where no such intentional interspecies interaction can possibly take place, where there is no meaning to such experiences, and no explanation other than random chance, devoid of any deeper purpose. How different this is from the animated world, alive, aware, and full of wonders and mysteries, the world of our own distant ancestors and of contemporary indigenous people worldwide, where trees and animals talk, every encounter has a reason, and every interaction a meaning.
Whatever doubt still remains in me quickly gets drowned out by the breathtaking beauty of those moments, that magical feeling of belonging and of intimate connection that arises when we put down the grey spectacles of the scientific worldview and see the World in all her astonishing colors and hues. I am tempted to ask myself why one would consciously choose to ignore this richness, to explain away all the wonders that saturate life, to live as "lumbering robots", as Pop-Sci writer Richard Dawkins has called us, in the empty, mechanistic, monotone desert that remains if you deny yourself the full spectrum of the experience of being alive in the awe-inspiring web of connections that the biosphere provides and consists of.
It is up to us whether we want to see ourselves as lonely, "skin-encapsulated egos" (in the critical words of Alan Watts) floating on a ball of rock through empty space - or as vital parts and cells of a gigantic organism, constantly blooming and decaying, forever changing and bringing forth new expressions of creativity and divinity, from the microscopic to the macroscopic level and on all fractal dimensions in between.
I have certainly made my choice, which I reinforce with each time I acknowledge the myriad connections with all other living beings that surround us, connections that make us who we are, and I urge you to dare seeing through the dogma of scientific "Truth", and into a world full of wonders.
Needless to say, if you ever have even the slightest hint of a feeling that a plant calls you, forget what you’ve been taught and follow it, wherever it might take you. You won’t be disappointed. Plants, the true rulers of this world, are implementing a grand plan whose beauty and sophistication I have just started to grasp. If we just cease resisting, if we just let them show us the way, we will realize how petty our concerns and worries are, how miniscule our lives in the greater scheme of things, and how urgently we need to stop wasting our time chasing money and aid the plants in their endeavor to heal the planet. It is time to pledge our allegiance to the everlasting Kingdom, Plantae, and follow the call that has been ignored for so long.
It is not too late.