The following is excerpted from Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness, coming April 2 from Globe Pequot Press.
The very first time I participated in a plant-spirit experiment was in one of my friend Emily Porter's classes. We passed around an unlabeled tincture bottle, and I squeezed some pale yellow liquid out of the medicine dropper and onto my tongue. The flavor of alcohol was very strong, but the medicine also tasted slightly sweet. I closed my eyes and waited to feel something.
I didn't notice any physical sensations, but I had a vivid daydream that a jolly little elf-like fellow in a jester's hat came skipping across the room, placed his hands on my shoulders, and shook me, bringing an image of a fuzzy black-and-white television screen to mind, and then he skipped off. Later, Emily told the group that the tincture was dandelion.
When I saw dandelions in my neighborhood after that, I noticed that I perceived a subtle but playful vibe from them, in the same way I would perceive a mood or a personality in a dog or a human friend, or in the way that you walk into a room and feel instantly at ease or, conversely, totally unwelcome. I wondered if I could sense a mood or personality from other kinds of plants, and I discovered that in fact I could. Some would seem to me to be masculine and others would feel more feminine, while others still would come off gender-neutral. Douglas fir trees feel wise and serious to me, paternal even, whereas Western red cedar trees seem graceful and maternal. I find that chickweed feels light-hearted and childlike, and that maple trees have a very gentle, supportive, youthful androgyny to them.
I cannot be sure whether I am truly perceiving something external to me or if I am just projecting, but I do think it's interesting that when I've shared my observations with friends who have tried this too, they have concurred and said they had the same impressions of the energies and personalities of plants and trees.
As an herbalist teacher named Erico Schleicher said to me one day, "A solipsist can't say if anyone exists at all except himself. So do we know if plants are conscious? We don't. It's a feeling that we get from them."
In the context of many other cultures, what I am describing is so commonplace as to be mundane. But from the perspective of the materialist mindset we learn in school, it sounds crazy.
In western culture, we accept as real only that which we know how to explain, or measure objectively and with repetition. The difficulty in translating these results into a scientific mold is that plant-spirit communication is a set of largely subjective experiences. Science is dismissive of subjective experiences, but subjective experiences are just as real as objective ones. It's like falling in love: You know it when you're in it, even if you don't know how you got there.
The idea that plants could communicate with us is hard to swallow if we think that the only way to communicate is with a voice box and a brain. Must a person — human or otherwise — have a brain in order to be conscious? For that matter, what is consciousness? And how do we measure it? These questions are puzzling to philosophers and scientists alike.
"We have no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain and we do not know whether consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers… At this point the reader will expect to find a careful and precise definition of consciousness. You will be disappointed. Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined in this way. Currently we all use the term consciousness in many different and often ambiguous ways. Precise definitions of different aspects of consciousness will emerge … but to make precise definitions at this stage is premature," eight neuroscientists wrote in the book Human Brain Function, in 2004.
To find out if the next eight years had changed anything, in 2012 I checked in with Professor Valerie Hardcastle, editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies and dean of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, where she specializes in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind. "There is no consensus on what consciousness is," the professor said. "Some experts believe that consciousness is tied to the brain; others believe that it is not necessarily."
She added: "On the other hand, I think most people know what you mean when you say consciousness.' It is kind of like jazz that way — you know what people are talking about even if you can't define it exactly."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "conscious" as an adjective that means "having knowledge or awareness; able to perceive or experience something," such as "one's surroundings" or "one's sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc.," which sounds about right to me.
A considerable amount of scientific study has gone into documenting plant perception, showing that plants can solve problems and adapt to environmental conditions by, for example, growing toward light; that plants can sense magnetic fields; that they respond to touch; that they defend themselves against predators; that they seem to store memories and learn from their experiences; and even that they can communicate with each other.
One of the ways plants communicate with each other is underground, sending chemical messages back and forth through the symbiotic network of fungal mycorrhizae and roots; another way is aboveground, by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air when under attack, which neighboring plants can then detect and use as a cue to steel their defenses. To defend themselves, plants can turn different parts of their genetic code on or off in order to produce toxins, change the structure of their leaves, making them tougher or less palatable to whoever may try to eat them, or even release chemicals that attract predators to the pests that are plaguing them.
Most impressive of all, some plants can actually communicate with sound, just like people do. According to an article in the journal Trends in Plant Science in summer 2012, the roots of young corn plants make clicking noises, which their neighbors can hear and respond to.
"Plant behaviors have been characterized as simpler than those of animals. Recent findings challenge this notion by revealing high levels of sophistication previously thought to be within the sole domain of animal behavior," scientist Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, wrote in the journal Ecology Letters.
Professor Anthony Trewavas of the Institute for Molecular Plant Science at the University of Edinburgh considers plant to be intelligent beings. "Some think that only humans can be intelligent, since that [being human] is the criterion they impose on every other organism," he said. "Intelligence is merely problem solving."
Plants don't have brains that look like ours, but they do produce some of the same hormones and neurochemicals that humans do, and some experts believe that plants may have something akin to a decentralized brain and nervous system. If we look way back in the evolutionary lineage, plants and humans share common ancestors.
What if plants are conscious? The implications would be sweeping. Matthew Hall, author of Plants As Persons: A Philosophical Botany, thinks we should view plants as "other-than-human persons" who deserve to be respected, thanked, and considered. He says that vegetarians would do well to adopt the Jain ethos of minimizing harm, and that we should kill plants only out of necessity like conscientious hunters.
If plants are conscious, and nature is largely made of plants, then nature is conscious. If nature is conscious, then Earth is not merely a web of mechanically reflexive predators and prey but something much more magical than that: a vibrant, interdependent collective of living, thinking beings that extends everywhere across the planet.
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Teaser image by Andrew Magill, courtesy of Creative Commons license.