Sarah is creating a healing pouch to give to a friend who has been ill with a respiratory infection as of late. In the tiny, blue, cotton drawstring bag she crumbles some dried cedar bark she took off a nearby tree and shiitake mushrooms from the store, along with a few chips of amethyst bought at the local New Age shop. She then gives this to her friend, along with a tincture made from the roots of several violet plants from her yard, and a salad with assorted greens, carrots, radishes, and tomatoes from her garden.
Seems pretty innocuous, right? Let's look at a similar situation:
John's partner has recently been diagnosed with anemia after going to the doctor with long-term fatigue. John makes a charm from deerskin he hunted and brain-tanned himself, and asks one of his totems, Whitetail Deer, to bless it with strength and resiliency. He then offers meat from the same deer and asks the spirit of the deer to pass some of its vitality through the iron and other nutrients concentrated in it. When his partner makes a quick recovery, John gives a special offering both to the deer spirit and Whitetail Deer in gratitude for the gifts they have given.
Both of these people are making use of the remains of once-living beings in their magic. However, some people would accuse John of cruelty because he killed a deer, while praising Sarah for making use of the gifts of the earth.
I personally feel that John is the more respectful of the two. In the process of using the skin and meat of the deer that he hunted, he asked for help from both the deer itself and its totem. He did his work with the full knowledge that he was working with the sacred remains of a being that he took responsibility for killing, and carried out his magic with appropriate reverence. And the animal he killed was one that lived a full wild life, eating its natural foods and dying quickly with a clean shot to the heart. Every part was used, meat and hide and more, by someone who appreciated the sacrifice this living being made.
Sarah, on the other hand, simply treated the plants and fungi (and amethyst, too) that she used as mere ingredients. No prayers to their spirits, no acknowledgement of their sacrifices, just the everyday objectification of these living beings that magical practitioners engage in every day. Furthermore, she killed several violets, carrots, and radishes by uprooting them, and tore off the living tissues of lettuces and other greens, while removing the protective bark from a cedar tree, potentially exposing it to disease and parasites. She also couldn't tell you where the amethyst crystals were mined, whether the miners were well-treated, and whether the land was devastated by the mining operations.
"But plants aren't as important as animals! They don't have feelings!" That's what you might argue. However, a growing body of research is showing that plants do have ways of communicating with each other and do respond to damage and other threats. I'm not talking about the pseudoscience of "primary perception," but a more recent set of scientific research that has repeatedly demonstrated that plants communicate through electrical and chemical signals, as well as through the intricate system of their roots and the attendant mycelial fungi entwined with them. They show the ability to not only respond to outside stimuli but even the potential to learn. And while they may not have brains and nervous systems like we do, they do have the same physical senses we do and even more; they also respond to aerated anesthesia, which is strong evidence in favor of them being able to feel pain. (For more information on plant communication and the implications of current research, please see http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38727/title/Plant-Talk/ and http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants.)
This is rather horrifying when you consider the way that plants and fungi are routinely treated. We tear their leaves, branches, and other appendages off. We rip away their reproductive organs and ship them worldwide as "bouquets" in the case of flowering plants, or as rare cuisine when we're talking about the mushrooms of fungi like morels and truffles. We routinely slice off the tops of grasses in lawns and bushes in topiary, and we deliberately stunt trees for bonsai. We clear-cut entire forests and kill every living being within them, only to replant the land with a monoculture of trees destined to be sliced down in a few decades for more lumber and paper. We poison the fungi in agricultural soil that then must be "fortified" with chemical fertilizers. When we do these things to animals, such as in factory farms or pest poisoning campaigns, there is great uproar—but not so for the plants and fungi.
Even less is said about the overall environmental impact of current mainstream agricultural practices that produce many of the plants and fungi recommended in these writings. That cotton pouch that Sarah put her spell ingredients in was grown in a mono-cropped field that used to be wildlife habitat. The plants, not grown organically, were routinely sprayed with chemical pesticides; in fact, cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops worldwide. And residue from these and chemical fertilizers run off with rain into waterways, polluting the habitat of numerous aquatic ecosystems and causing harmful de-oxygenated dead zones in the ocean where nothing can live. When the cotton is harvested, countless small animals, from insects to mice to birds, are killed by the machinery. Sarah may have thought she was being kind to animals by using cotton instead of leather, but she instead bought into a system that kills millions of animals a year.
This doesn't, of course, justify us treating animals the way most people treat plants—as unfeeling, "vegetative" beings that we can slash, crush, and kill with impunity. Instead, it may mean that plants and their fungus counterparts (fungi are even more closely related to animals than plants) deserve more respect and care than we currently offer them. And that includes in our spiritual and magical work.
Currently, most of the books and other writings on working with plants are limited to using them as ingredients in herbalism and spellcraft. There are a few that address working with the spirits of the plants, but in the end you're still encouraged to tear them apart for food, medicine, crafts, and more—or at least not discouraged from doing so. Occasionally you may be advised to say a thank you prayer to the plant or fungus, but there's little discussion of the seriousness of amputating a plant's limb while it still lives and feels, or the panicked response of other plants in the vicinity as the chemical signals that say "DANGER!" spread.
So what's a nature-conscious Pagan to do? Here are some suggestions; choose the ones that best fit your lifestyle, and feel free to create your own workable solutions.