Kindred Spirits 06.08.09
Jesse Wolf Hardin Kindred Spirits
Jesse Wolf Hardin Kindred Spirits: Sacred Earth Wisdom SALE $5.00! List Price $20.00


An Excerpt from an exceptionally beautiful and moving work


Chapter 2: Plant Mind, Planetary mind



Experiencing the Whole

…many of the talents and abilities we have been reserving for “higher” animals may in fact be part of the experience of all living things. In our attempts to understand the origin and nature of awareness, we ought to be looking far more closely, and more literally to our roots. —Lyall Watson

…this experience is no less spite of the general assumption that we have replaced the simple awe of our ancestors with philosophical and epistemic tools of the utmost sophistication and analytical power. Our choice as a planetary culture is a simple one: go Green or die. —Terence McKenna

And if this should come to be a universe in which humanity is neither thought nor felt to be a lonely subject confronted by alien and threatening objects, we shall have a cosmology not only unified, but also joyous. —Alan Watts

The secret to the understanding and protection of any element or aspect of Nature lies in our subjective identification with it, and the degree to which we recognize or “grant” it sentience: the ability to feel.

As a society we find it easier to attribute consciousness to humans alone, while even “Nature lovers” usually grant sentience only to those “higher life forms” that most obviously inspire, influence and animate our beings. We’re generally more aware of the consciousness expressed through butterflies and frogs than wild grapes or redwoods. Plants are nonetheless primary, essential repositories for a life-sustaining vision, for a “greener” way of being that’s needed now more than ever. The plant world helps us to recognize the myriad patterns of interconnectedness, instructs us in the ancient code of reciprocity, and thus negates any unpleasant connotations currently being laid on “codependency.” It’s a way of being that teaches rhythmic cellular wisdom embodied in the profundity of silence, in patience and persistence. It can be read like Braille in the raised bark of alligator juniper, absorbed slowly by subsisting on wild greens, enticed through unaided dream, or summoned at once by Mescalito’s magic spell. The power of archaic symbols is evident in their continuous use in distant and disparate cultures, on different continents, at around the same time. These include the sacred spiral, “skeletonized” animal art, the Earth Mother, the pyramid, the four directions, and the dwelling place of aspiring shamans: The Universal Tree of Life. Stories of a great unifying tree are told by a large number of primal societies, who generally situate it at the “center of the world.” It’s an amalgam, a composite of every vegetal form in existence. It can be accessed through the branches in any available forest, since the roots of one intertwine with the roots of every other, the roots of tall grasses exchanging hormonal and electrical signals with sunflowers and barrel cactus and florid vine. Linking the tissues and processes of each are mycorrhizal fungi assisting the transmission of chemically encoded information from individual to individual and species to species. Together they make up a circumglobal mat of interconnected plant forms, creating a continuous field of vegetal consciousness.

It is the plant’s desire to communicate with the animal world as well. Flowers instruct insects to spread their pollen with a display of inviting colors and enticing smells. Fruit trees enlist the help of an expressive language of sugar and flavor, but it goes much further than that. Herbalists and wildcrafters have long taught how to locate, identify or narrow down the likely medicinal uses of a plant by reading its “signature.” For example, a curandera may recognize the antibiotic or diuretic properties of an unfamiliar herb through careful observation of its color, leaf configuration, surface texture, and the specific environment in which it grows. When indigenous healers are pressed as to how they know these things, a common reply is, “the plant told me.” And indeed it did!

Granting sentience to plants may seem like an implausible transition for us minions of civilization. Technologized society labels all of nonhuman Nature as “resources,” only assigning value to those elements found useful by its self-serving researchers and “managers.” To morally justify the wholesale alteration, depletion and suffering of the natural world, such a society must convince itself that the world cannot feel. And likewise, any recognition of the sensitive life force in plants and other life forms must surely lead to a more generous and compassionate way of touching, affecting and impacting them. When one becomes conscious of the plants’ pain, every “harvest” is undertaken with the focus on gratitude and prayer, every bite becomes communion. And every forest or meadow endangered by greedy development becomes a personal call to respond.

As always, it takes a while for linear science to catch up with those truths taken for granted by thousands of years of primal humankind. From the references in quantum physics to the “dance of the atoms” to Lovelock’s embrace of a Gaia “Hypothesis,” research as formulative thinking is beginning to recognize elemental shamanic realities. In the late 1960s. and early 1970s we began to hear about unconventional scientific experiments on plants that seemed to indicate they are something more than mute, unfeeling still-lifes.

One of the most invasive law enforcement technologies is the polygraph, a machine that records the minute changes in galvanic epidermal response. By graphing the variable electrical conductivity of a subject’s skin, the technician can often detect a deliberate lie to a specific posed question. Experimenters including Cleve Backster and Paul Sauvin independently attached increasingly more sensitive polygraph electrodes directly to the leaves of various houseplants in laboratory tests. Typically they sought sentient response by the administration of pain. Surprisingly (?) the graph needles jumped whenever a burning match was placed directly beneath any leaf of the tested plant. What’s more, there were indications of a fear response before a match ever came near them, while they showed no reaction if the experimenter merely pretended to light one. It was as if they could sense his intentions through a reading of his projected energy. They even reacted to the killing of other, non related life forms in their presence, and at times seemed to demonstrate a memory by continuing to show alarm any time the “killer” researcher reentered the room. Plants Sauvin raised from seed became increasingly more sensitive to his moods and needs as their interspecies intimacy developed. The most dramatic response he ever recorded coincided exactly with the times he had an orgasm with his girlfriend, although whether out of learned jealousy or vicarious joy no one could say.

Like animals, plants transmit electrical signals from one part of themselves to another. Although traveling up to fifty times slower, the signals move fast enough to close the jaws of a Venus fly trap on any insect triggering it. They transmit signals from one plant to another as well, in surges passing from root-tip to root-tip, perhaps through the air itself in electrobiological relays, and through the intermeshed fungi, bacteria, and invertebrate transmitters making up the literally living soil.

Trees react to leaf damage at the onset of insect infestation by tripling the amount of tannins and other unpalatable alkaloids in the vulnerable leaves. Whether informed electrically or through the release of airborne exepheremones, trees as yet unaffected prepare for the onslaught with their own preemptive alkaloid production. New evidence of botanical sentience validates what early humankind knew all along: Plants are inspirited. They are more like animals than we realized, and hence more like us.

Plants are teachers, but unlike the more “yang” animal spirits, they do not chase us down at birth, or actively push to make their influence known. Whereas your animal totems come to you called or not, any totemic plant/human connection requires that you go to them. They represent the metastable “yin” aspects of composite Gaia— a transcontinental mantle of green wisdom awaiting the deliberate quest, the quieting mind, the surrender to stillness and commitment to place necessary for us to truly understand and “grok” their flowering gnosis.

It’s far easier for children, who up until a certain point remain limitless primal beings, fully conscious of the spirit in things green and growing. Before the arrogance of adulthood dulled my senses, I luxuriated in whatever suburban foliage I could find. I would take great pains to avoid any contact with the monotony of bone-jarring concrete, ever trying to leap the flat driveways that separated each square of living lawn. In military school, I took refuge in the concealing arms of a giant avocado tree when it came time for organized sports or bizarre, pointless marching back and forth across the walled-in lot. Respect came naturally for the way that “weeds” punctuated and reinhabited the sterile, colored-gravel yards of the too-busy. I was inspired by how quickly bushes trimmed and formed into perfect squares or inglorious cartoon caricatures recaptured their ragged, nonlinear shapes. Later the budding delinquent in me fell in love with the way leaves would lay claim to a freshly raked sidewalk, and cheered transplanted terrorist palm trees as they bombed the shiny new cars of the rich and famous with their weighty fronds. They seemed not only alive but willful, in the no-nonsense way one might expect from an immobile outlaw.

I love plants. There’s simply no way to hide my developed bias. I love plants because they bloom in the compost-heap of death. Because they get energy from light, feed on my exhalation and breathe oxygen into my lungs.

I love “weeds” because they’ve been labeled, and so have I. Because they’re irrepressible, swallow all the herbicides any prissy golf course can throw at them and still come up smiling.

I love trees that live five hundred years, and plants that graciously return to the soil they came from in but a single splendid season, in a summer of no regret!

I’m wild about wildflowers because nobody planted them or paid for them, and they’d be content to shine their colors with or without human audience. Wildflowers know that flattery is often accompanied by swift moving shears, and I love them for teaching me that.

I love plants because of the ways babies and old people touch them, and the look they bring to a lover’s eye. I love how each smells a little different from the rest.

I love trees for their cooling presence, for their gnarled roots exposed in washed-out river banks, and the way they sometimes hold rocks suspended in the air like an unpretentious offering to the Goddess of dirt.

I love bushes for hiding me in their calm hollow centers when I want to be alone. It makes me happy to pinch the bulbs of beached kelp, and lick the interior of honeysuckle blossoms. I love the way briars spread their blackberry propaganda through the entrails of sugar-buzzed birds. The seedy grin of the sunflower. The vulva-like folds of the Datura’s blossom, essential ingredient in the witches’ flying potion.

I love live plants as much as I distrust artificial ones, because the real ones can feel. It tickles me the way in which cholla cactus and stinging nettle teach me where to step, and this pleases other life forms as well. I love the prickly pear for showing me how to protect a sweet core with easily understood points.

I love dandelions because they’re feral and tasty and proliferate in the glass-strewn lots next to abandoned tenement houses. I thrill to see them poke their cheery blossoms up through cracks in prim uptown sidewalks.

I love the way oranges make my tongue tingle, and how I feel after a bowl of fresh sprouts.

I love ivy as it gums the façade off presumptuous architecture, and insistent tropical flora as it dances the samba up through the peeling asphalt of the Pan-American highway. I love luminescent lichen because they eat and shit rocks, and nobody’s that bad.... Most of all, I love plants for being plants.

Nature has been the only thematic model for humans through most of their existence. Our relationship to plants has helped form the basis for collective physical and spiritual reality. Vegetal nourishment/gnosis teaches symbiotic interaction, cooperation and non-hierarchical organization. A tree is so much more than decoration for our yard, shade for our children, or lumber for our unlimited construction projects. When you really love someone, you love them as they are. Their “use,” their “purpose,” is in being themselves. Wondrous, strange, sunshine-eating entities without whom we and most of the other life forms of this planet would die.

With every species of plant that goes extinct, Gaia sacrifices a sensory organ/organism, an element of consciousness. With each passing she loses another link in the associated patterns of information that serve as her memory. With each, we too suffer impoverishment of spirit and diminishment of “self.”

Once the plant researchers began to acknowledge plants as sentient, aware, even communicative, it followed that they would soon be planting their sensors directly into the soil. Given enough sensitivity, perhaps they could record the emotional responses of Gaia herself. Either way, the next step will be for us to forget the polygraph completely, and together learn to feel more.

In our actions that follow— will be found the real measure of our truths.

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