The Green Language that enables communication and interaction with the living intelligence of the planet is experiencing a verdant resurgence. Long relegated to the “occult” – a term heavy with sinister implications – this expressive grammar has been kept alive through the ages by poets, alchemists, mystics, and wise women.
Dubbed Green Hermeticism, this (re)emergent strand of wisdom is a facet of the primordial philosophy underlying the sacred science of Nature known as alchemy. It served as the focus for the first annual Conference on Green Hermeticism held in mid-May at the Abode of the Message – a Sufi community in the Berkshires south of Albany, New York.
Subtitled “Esoteric Gardening: The Magic, Meaning, and Mystery of Flowers,” the conference was the brainchild of author and independent scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson, whose 2003 conference on “The Sacred Theory of the Earth” cultivated the ideas that eventually bloomed as this event. Into the garden he brought Christopher Bamford, renowned editor, author, and lecturer on Western spiritual and esoteric traditions, and practicing alchemist Kevin Townley. The trio assembled an inspired group of colleagues culled from their combined address books.
Fueled by unbridled curiosity, possessed of a magnanimous generosity of spirit, and grounded in deep knowledge of the perennial philosophy, the presenters proffered an astonishing array of facts, assertions, and speculations from a variety of perspectives. There were photographic excursions into floral angelology by Espahbad Michael Yoshpa; a deeply nuanced examination of Egyptian death and resurrection motifs in ancient papyri by independent scholar Yakov Rabinovich; bardic revelations of the Eleusinian mysteries surrounding Demeter and Persephone by novelist and Tarot expert Rachel Pollack; artistic articulation of the healing colors and scents of flowers by Jeanne Cameron; an overview of the Hermetic eco-sculpture of Joseph Beuys by writer and critic David Levi Strauss; a survey of garden symbolism in Renaissance alchemical emblems by Wilson; a glimpse into Goethe’s art of seeing transformational plant morphology by biodynamic farmer and educator Craig Holdrege; and a sassy introduction to the ways of wise women by Susun Weed.
Some used the language of science but never the dry, lifeless prose of the laboratory. Poetic sensibilities flourished. Images illuminated ideas via cutting-edge technology as well as such retro artifacts as overhead projectors and slide shows.
And there were words – a veritable “mountain of words,” as Wilson noted in his examination of Heinrich Khunrath’s etching the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Townley added, “We are creating the Green Hermetic tradition as we speak.”
A weekend gathering infused with the blossoms of the Green Language is a tonic that revivifies. Who hears it knows it as an antidote to the toxic discourse of the marketplace, the academy, and what journalist Alexander Cockburn calls “the blathersphere,” filled to overflowing as they are with incestuous and self-referential narcissism, banal insights, and bland appeals to the basest of human impulses.
One participant wryly observed that the weekend was nothing more than a “reification of the obscure.” Much of the material was arcane. It’s worth remembering, however, that the Green Trace for the most part has been obliterated from the pages of profane history and purposefully obscured through the persecution of wise women and the triumph of number and measure in science, at the expense of any and all other values. Bamford decried the devaluation of spirit in the ascendance of science. “Modern contemporary sciences really provide no metaphysical or indeed practical solution to the problems that they have created,” he said.
He called for a reemergence of the sacred in the practice of science in order to participate in the redemption and healing of the Earth. To accomplish this task, he proposed recovering the ancient primordial language: “To instigate the power of living words and things as revealed through the hieroglyphic gesture of process and function that we call images, symbols, and metaphor.”
Amplifying this theme, Russian-born ethnobotanist Yoshpa called for a “living science” that brings together science, mysticism, and art in a unified field. From such a vantage point, he suggested, “We are the instruments of the evolution of the archangel of vegetation,” something he described as “the divine power that animates the soul of the world and provides a matrix upon which everything else lives.”
Death and resurrection is hardwired into the body of the archangel of vegetation, which Yoshpa said is known in various mystic traditions as Flora, Chloris, or Amertat. “We who stand and feed upon it have no choice but to die and resurrect, die and resurrect because this is how the program is enacted,” he said.
Pollack pointed out that while we don’t know precisely what occurred at Eleusis, we do know the rites involved a symbolic death and rebirth, which, she opined, “provided salvation from death as a finality.” The story of plant goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone served as the basis for the rites that Pollack cited as the lone mythic dying/resurrecting motif featuring female figures. She found in the two gifts from the rites a perfect image of Green Hermeticism: The mystery of consciousness and agriculture.
The Emerald Tablet states, “As above, so below,” which Pollack recast: “As plants are to humans, humans are to gods.” Bamford agreed, noting that the human soul has always been likened to the flower; plants and humans mirror each other and both mirror the cosmos. “The heart of all spiritual traditions and revelations is in fact the mysterious unity of heaven and the earth, and the earth and the cosmos, and the earth and the divine.”
These sentiments resonate with the notion put forth by the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – better known as Paracelsus – that “man is an organ in the body of the Universe.” The organ that comes to mind is the heart, with a systole and diastole that extend to the furthest reaches of space, both outer and inner.
Let Flowers Speak
My mother often repeats a proverb she was taught as a child during World War II: “Laßt blumen sprechen” – let flowers speak.
The phrase came to me as I listened to the Abode’s spiritual leader, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, recite a Hafez poem first in melodious Farsi and then in English to inaugurate the weekend. Flowers can indeed say more to us than mere words. The poet spoke of the “tongue of the lily” and described how the anemone “opened its mouth.” Pir Zia remarked on how he was struck by Hafez’s image that nature represents a divine revelation with the flower as its prophet. “Our purpose at the conference is to listen and take in the divine message as it is articulated by the prophetic voice of the flower,” Pir Zia said.
To absorb that message requires a shift in our relationship to the natural world. We hold that the vigor of flowers reflects the actions of the cultivator; that the circumstances of the occasion dictate which bouquet we select at the florist. But what if flowers had agency and used their power to guide the gardener in meeting their needs? What if they could call on us to deliver them where they can be of service? This notion of agency isn’t far-fetched. Consider the reports of many Western ethnobotanists who have asked their rainforest-dwelling hosts how they knew which of the multitude of plants in their midst provided the specific admixtures to use for medicine. The reply: “The plants told us.”
The alchemical art of creating healing elixirs, which Paracelsus called spagyria (from the Greek roots spao, to draw out or to divide, and ageiro, to gather, to bind, or to join) could be considered the West’s royal road to close encounters with the plant kingdom. A quality of relationship different from the one practiced by scientific materialism is required. No longer an object – a thing separate from us – the flower is transformed into a subject, an equal. Instead of humans bestowing meaning and purpose on the color, fragrance, and shape of flowers and their parts, for medicinal, culinary, recreational, or sacred uses, the alchemical worldview instead beholds the signature of the divine creative energy manifest in the world. Artist Cameron elegantly called the plant kingdom a bridge between the microcosm and the macrocosm: “The flower is a prism to mirror our state of Being.”
Mirroring our own shadow work, the plant sends its roots down into the moist nutrient-rich darkness. The roots in turn feed the plant’s surge upward into the light of consciousness, where it can flower. As it matures, the plant exfoliates and sends back to the soil the dross of its physical body, to decay and nurture the soil and create the conditions for future growth – a spiral of birth, growth, death, decay, and rebirth.
Our Living Struggle
Such cyclic images of the alchemical art have always been a part of the Hermetic tradition. The power of words coupled with images is of particular importance to Wilson. “There is a modern equivalent in the world of advertising, spin doctoring, propaganda, television, education, and other nasty public media,” he said. The image plus the word achieves magic – action at a distance – and due to the ubiquity of media, Wilson claimed that The Image has become a totalizing force in culture – in his words, “a malign Hermeticism.”
“We live in a world that thinks it’s based on the rational, but it’s no more based on the rational than so-called primitive or medieval society in the sense that this magic image still controls our consciousness,” he said.
One countermeasure Wilson identified was the iconoclast: the image-smasher. But there is another way. “I truly think that the only way to be free from The Image is through The Image,” he said. “We must work through The Image to be free of it.” He said we could only overcome the totalitarian brainwashing system that we live in as initiated Hermeticists engaged in hieroglyphic studies.
“This is not a dead world, something quaint and of the past,” Wilson said. “This is our living struggle – seeking liberation from The Image through The Image.”
Townley added, “It’s not so much about perfection but about being the one who directs the operation and not being directed.” One thus enters into the abode of the soul, which becomes the true operator within the personality. “That’s when you see someone who seems to be full of light and expresses light,” he said.
He repeatedly stressed the three goals of the Work: “The illumination of the mind, which brings us into being; the expression of love in the world; and the establishment of the familyhood of humanity as one thing. That’s the stone of the wise.”
In a culture that considers development to be the continual accretion of matter and waste in a process of abuse, exploitation, and degradation, it was particularly inspiring to have a countervailing notion affirmed: that development can also be a refinement of an inner essence into a nourishing creative force in collaborative service to humanity’s highest ideals.
This notion is further developed in a new book released at the conference. Green Hermeticism (Lindisfarne Books, 2007) is a collection of transcripts from Wilson’s 2003 conference as well as Bamford’s and Townley’s talks at an additional gathering hosted by Pir Zia in 2006. In his introduction Bamford writes, “The time is certainly ripe for a more spiritual interpretation of the ‘inconvenient truth’ threatening our planet.”
Who can say with precision what drew participants from around the country to this auspicious event? From the Hermetic perspective, one might suggest it was the soul of the planet – the anima mundi of the alchemists – that attracted seekers to gather for an intensive weekend devoted to examinations, evocations, and explications of the Green Hermetic trace.
Attendees left the conference aware that the repeated alchemical processes carried on in the alembic of the heart can contribute to the flowering of the Green Hermetic tradition. This revitalized art can serve as a guide for our conscious efforts to honor the gift of life in all of its manifestations as the priceless blossom it truly is.
Images are by Jeanne Cameron and are used by permission. Cameron is an artist/photographer, flower designer and art historian based in Athens, NY, specializing in "the history and symbolism of flower decoration from ancient times to the 20th century."