Plants are social creatures. To adapt to their existential conundrum of immobility, they have evolved over 450 million years the art of chemical communication and artful architecture to incite the participation of pollinators, and repel the threat of herbivores. As the great alchemists of planet earth, they draw their source of life directly from the sun, neatly photosynthesizing its particles into sugar while absorbing nutrients from the soil. In their own rite, they are masters of evolution, having experimented with form and curiosity to be the most populous living creatures on Earth.
The life of plants has always fascinated me. If they are living, what is their experience like? As the scientist of consciousness Thomas Nagel may have asked, what’s it like to be a plant?
Alas, we may never know the subjective experience of a vegetable. But through what phytochemists call “secondary metabolites” — the chemicals responsible for plant communication — our consciousness can be altered as we are ‘intoxicated’ by them. Around the world, some of those plants whose psychoactive constituents can alter the textures of consciousness have been called teacher, or sacred plants.
On the weekend of February 23rd in Ajijic, on the cusp of Mexico’s largest lake, a group of 1500+ people congregated— descending from mountains, crossing seas, and crawling out of offices — to discuss these sacred plants.
Chiefly organized by the veteran anthropologist of psychoactive substances Bia Labate, in collaboration with the collective of academics and activists Drogas, Política y Cultura, and Chacruna, the Congreso de Plantas Sagradas en Las Américas included talks by over 150 speakers including shamans, anthropologists, neuroscientists and lawyers over the course of three days.
Tobacco, coca, the ayahuasca brew, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms were the stars of the show (with honorable mention going out to the less-mentioned plants, like iboga, cannabis and jurema). While some presenters discussed the findings of their empirical research on the isolated psychoactive molecules of these plants and fungi, most focused on the social aspects of these plant in medical, political, and cultural contexts, ranging from the folklore and ethnobotany, to prohibition, analysis of supply chains and the political economy of the sacred substances.
Primary Psychoactive Constituents
Notable Psychoactive Effects
Ayahuasca (banisteropisis caapi + psychotria viridis/diplopterys cabrerana)
N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT); harmala, harmaline,and tetrohydroharmine
Peyote (lophophora williamsii)
Coca (e.coca, e. Novogranatense )
cocaine tropane alkaloid
Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica, nicotiana tabacum)
Stimulant, psychedelic (in higher doses)
Magic mushrooms (psilocybin mushrooms, sensu lato)
After attending several talks, I recognized a pattern developing in the structure, research focus, and tone of speakers as they related to different substances. It seemed as though the quality of each audience congregating to listen to different talks were notably different from each other. Some groups were older; others, more colorfully dressed. Some were chatty, and others more attentively scribbling notes.
I couldn’t help but notice each group seemed to take on contours of a collective identity, not unlike the occult concept of the egregore. The egregore can be thought of as a collective group mind – a sort of social ecosystem, which emerges from a thought or idea. The Facebook headquarters, for example, could be thought of like an egregore: a thoughtform from Zuckerberg’s mind, as a group of people together, forming a living thought-form.
Could an egregore coalesce around the thought of a non-human intelligence? Could plants, perhaps teacher plants, play a role in shaping social ecosystems? Were plants the invisible moderators of this conference? After all, the talks reflected something about the psychoactive quality or “character” of the plants themselves.
Lectures on coca and cocaine were predictably stimulating: full of statistics, critical perspectives, cutting-edge analysis, and political. In the audience many sat upright and alert, taking notes. I myself was swept up by the energy of the group, wide-eyed, clickedy-clanking on my laptop.
Groups congregating to discuss peyote, the spineless cactus which annually blossoms a beautiful pink flower, focused on themes of patrimony, territory, colonialization, and justice. The presence of proud older men was felt, especially in representatives of the hikuri (peyote) using Wixarika and Huichol tribal groups dressed in full, colorful traditional regalia. In contrast to the coca groups, their speech was slow with a hefty weight of dignity and pride. They reminded me of the steady and sturdy drums which beat tirelessly throughout peyote (also called grandfather) ceremonies.
The theme of ayahuasca drew in many female speakers, whose presentations were grounded in highly subjective research methods. There was an emphasis on the qualitative, ineffable, and therapeutic values of the brew. Some speakers lead with their personal experiences, emphasizing the dynamic, constantly shifting nature of the social life of ayahuasca. I was reminded of what the anthropologist Ruth Behar calls of her methodology: “the vulnerable observer” or “anthropology that breaks your heart.” Perhaps it’s a stretch, but to me those ayahuasca lectures bared a remarkable similarity to the fluid, and essentially ‘feminine’ character ascribed to ayahuasca itself.
The theory that the psychoactive properties of plants shape thought — and in turn, societies — is not new. I agree with Dr. Kenneth Tupper, who suggests the architecture of modern, industrialized civilization was shaped by the trade of psychoactive stimulants or xanthinated beverages coffee, tea, and tobacco. It was the English man’s appetite for coffee, tea, and tobacco that precipitated the infamous ‘triangle trade’ where the English enslaved people from Western Africa, who were shipped to South America to cultivate tobacco to send back in its value as capital to the empire. Today, tea is the second most consumed beverage on earth after water. If you aren’t convinced psychoactive plants shape our daily lives, imagine Manhattan without coffee for a week.
But admitting that plants have agency requires a big cognitive leap for those who operate in a human-centric worldview. Indeed, Europeans and Americans justified the large-scale pillaging of the earth and its creatures through a process of relinquishing agency from non-humans (and dehumanizing). We could think of this process as othering.
Psychoactive plants – especially the school of entheogens which are interpreted as catalyzers of divine experience – have a unique capacity to undo that othering, assisting in a process many call a profound remembering. Plants like peyote, the ayahuasca brew, San Pedro, and others tend to dissolve the boundaries of the self and other, the spirit and the material. Under their influence, many express feeling the presence of another character or intelligence – a holy other.
In 2017 at the Psychedelic Science conference, the UC Berkeley researcher Laura Dev followed a kindred thread when she asked her audience if plants are to be approached as objects of study, or alternatively as collaborators. As teacher plants and those traditions that take them are introduced into the industrialized Western social milieu, a process of re-learning people’s relationship to other living creatures occurs. To be taught by a teacher plant, one must listen, feel, and understand. Those who engage with these plants make themselves porous to the plants will.
Implicit in acknowledging plants can be ‘teachers’ with lessons to offer, we acknowledge their agency. After all, plants do have desire, as we interpret from their modus operandi of chemical communication. Evolved to stun, shoo and seduce the world of insects and herbivores, the evolution of secondary metabolites have served the plant kingdom well in manipulating other living creatures to do their bidding. Could we be doing their bidding?
Terence McKenna tossed a far-pitch proposing that plants may be equipped with what he called ‘exopheromones’ – a school of chemicals which serve the function of interspecies communication. Visionary fungi and plants, McKenna proposed, may have developed a set of pheromones (from the Greek to beckon forth) to communicate, in their very own way, with humans themselves. After all, with an evolutionary head-start of about 449 million years, gracefully synthesizing the sun (next to humans, comparatively grotesque metabolizers who destroy ecosystems whole) and mastering the transpersonal art of chemical communication, I can certainly lend plants the benefit of the doubt.
It doesn’t seem crazy to think humans, like the journalist Michael Pollan has suggested, play an ecological role as pollinators. After all, apples, corn, marijuana, and other victors of large-scale agriculture have adapted over time to become more juicy, longer lasting and more aesthetically pleasing to large mammals such as ourselves.
But could plants have a different, more complex set of desires beyond the proverbial task of being fruitful and multiplying? Could it be that somehow, via the mysterious matrix of molecular manipulation, plants could express ulterior, unknown desires?
I’m not bent on the idea that attendees of this conference were somehow energetically possessed by plants. But as those coming from secular world views come to acknowledge the reality that plants are sentient beings with subjective experiences, we open a pandora’s box of possibility. Maybe plants have more of a say in our affairs than we give them credit for.