The plants are trying to tell us something.
It's nothing new; they've been at it forever. It's just that, at some point in human history, we stopped paying attention. Back in the dawn of time, however, we lived with plants and animals. We recognized that we were part of a greater system that depended on all of its parts. We watched the plants and listened to what they told us. And we learned from them. Among other things, we learned how to create a civilization. Perhaps we got carried away with the thrill of progress and we stopped listening. And we have mostly forgotten the wisdom of the plants.
We know that plants communicate to other plants. While the idea of a sentient plant might seem right out of Little Shop of Horrors, the scientific evidence in favor of plant communication continues to grow. We used to think of trees as being quite separate from each other, organisms that competed with their brethren for light and nutrients. That turns out to be far from the case. It has been demonstrated that, in forest ecosystems, an underground network of roots and fungal mycelia connects the trees and other plants and allows them to communicate with each other.
The hair-like tips of roots connect to the filaments of mycelia and create a kind of "wood-wide web" that links the trees. It allows older trees to feed sugary sap to the younger saplings, healthy trees to help support injured or ill trees, neighboring trees to share sunlight and resources, and quite a bit more. The trees have a kind of slow-motion society, joining together to create the complexities of an ecosystem. Like the ents of Middle Earth, our own trees communicate slowly, at the pace of tree-growth, taking time to say what is worth saying.
Plants also have faster ways of communicating, both to other plants and to the animals they co-exist with. Some trees make a crackling sound with their roots, at a frequency inaudible to humans. Others release gases and pheromones that signal distress or danger to other plants. When some pine trees are attacked by caterpillars, for instance, they release pheromones that attract caterpillar-killing wasps.
Does this mean that plants are intelligent and self-aware? It's difficult to say, since we have yet to solve the "hard problem of consciousness" even in humans (whom we strongly suspect to be sentient). Trees don't have nervous systems or brains like ours, but the level of complexity exhibited by the root/fungal networks rivals anything in the human brain. Indeed, the largest land organism on record is a single mycelial system of the species Armillaria ostoyae, sometimes called the "humongous fungus," that extends over 2,000 acres.
Animal life communicates through behavior, and language is a specific type of behavior. Even in the absence of proper language, we can still communicate quite a bit through the things we do. Hunting expresses hunger; running from predators expresses fear and a survival instinct. Plants, biologists tell us, have substituted biosynthesis for behavior. That is, they respond to each other and to their environment by creating chemicals (hormones, pheromones, sap, etc.) and new cells. It's a slower process than spoken language, certainly, and humans, with our bias toward behavior, often find it hard to understand.
While science is only now beginning to crack the codes of plant communication, our ancestors were more attuned. In Paleolithic times and earlier, humans lived in a closer relationship to our environment. The climate of where we happened to be on the planet, the seasons, the cycles of night and day, determined what resources were available. Mostly those resources were plants—and animals that depended on plants. We had to understand what the plants were telling us in order to survive.
And our understanding of the world took a great leap forward about 50,000 years ago. That's the time when, seemingly all of a sudden, humans developed language, abstract thinking, greater use of technology, and the rudiments of civilization. Whether this happened all at once, as some biologists believe, or over several thousand years, as others have proposed, in terms of ancient history it was the blink of an eye. How did that happen all of a sudden? One theory is that the plants told us how.
Some of us first encountered the broader, more spectacular version of this theory in the writings of ethnobotanist and psychedelic explorer Terence McKenna. Known as the "stoned ape theory," McKenna suggested that psychoactive compounds in the plants that our ancestors foraged and ate (the products of plant biosynthesis) encouraged a quantum leap in human cognitive ability. Specifically, McKenna was interested in the presence of psilocybin in the diet of our Paleolithic forebears, but the theory also applies to a wider range of mind-expanding plants that we may have inadvertently mixed into our diet. The ancient humans, McKenna said, responded to changing climate by following herds of wild cattle to survive and began to eat some of the mushrooms that grew on cow dung. The resulting psychedelic experiences were the "evolutionary catalyst" that allowed us to think in new and different ways, creating language, art, science, and society.
Recent, rigorously-controlled studies have confirmed the ability of psilocybin (and other entheogens) to produce cognitive leaps, mystical experience, and epiphanies. These chemicals are the result of plant biosynthesis, part of the process of how plants communicate with each other and with the other organisms in their environment. In our culture we have no shortage of "thought leaders" who attribute their new concepts and paradigms to entheogenic experimentation. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both praised their psychedelic experiences as influential in their creative strategies. Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Kary Mullis attributed his paradigm-shifting breakthroughs to insights gained during psychedelic experiences. There's also evidence that Francis Crick first imagined the structure of DNA while tripping on LSD (derived from the ergot fungus). And the list goes on, making it seem less of a cognitive leap to think that our ancestors may have benefitted from the same kind of plant/human communication.
While McKenna's work was largely philosophical and speculative, we're beginning to see more and more verifiable science demonstrating the connection between ethnobotany (the human use of plants) and the origins of civilization. While I was researching my book High Magick: A Guide to Cannabis in Ritual and Mysticism, I was repeatedly amazed and, indeed, blown away by the evidence that a particular plant helped to guide the human race toward intelligence. Cannabis is unique in that it is likely the most useful plant that humans have ever encountered. The plant literally provides almost everything necessary to create a civilization. It is a source of fiber for rope and textiles, seeds that are a highly nutritious food, biomass that can be used for oil or fuel, and chemicals that can be used as medicine or entheogens. Ethnobotanists Mark Merlin and Robert Clarke, drawing on considerably more historical evidence than McKenna, suggest something similar to the stoned ape theory. They theorize that early humans who sought food and fiber from cannabis came into contact with the psychoactive parts of the plant. Contact with the plant represented an evolutionary selective force favoring those with more cannabinoid receptors. For instance, cannabis was one of the very first plants woven into fabric (if not actually the first) and Merlin and Clarke propose that not only was the plant a source of fiber but also supported the intelligence and creativity necessary to conceive of crafts such as weaving.
Famed pharmacologist Albert Hofmann believed that attempts to recreate the cannabis experience were the origins of yoga, meditation, and the religious urge in humans. Carl Sagan suggested that cannabis was the very first cultivated plant, perhaps not only providing the material means for agriculture, but also the cognitive leap necessary to begin.
Some cultures that remained closer to nature have continued some of the traditions of our ancestors, listening to and learning from plants. In the Amazon jungles, shamans create a brew called ayahuasca, a psychedelic blend of at least two plants that is used for healing and initiation. The blending is important; it's actually a fairly subtle and complicated chemical interaction that allows the psychoactive components of the plants to become orally active. Unless the two specific plants are combined in the proper ratio, the brew remains a nasty-tasting and inert soup. Just how did the shamans figure it out? When asked by ethnobotanists, they invariably respond that the plants told them how.
So we have these plants that we call entheogens ("causing inspiration" or "manifesting deity") that have a direct effect on the human nervous system. It seems fortuitous that our bodies are able to interpret the biosynthesis language of the plants, though in retrospect we all evolved together here, as part of a single system. We have many ways that we interact with plants—they feed us, heal us, and let us breathe—and the entheogens seem to carry deeper lessons about the fundamentals of life in our universe. For many of us, the lessons concern the interrelatedness of the world, how we are all part of a greater system, a higher mind. While such experiences are presently being studied as treatments for PTSD and depression, among other things, the entheogens probably don't transform us automatically into wise beings, but they do give us some hints about how to proceed, of what wisdom might look like, sound like, and feel like. We are translators, taking the biosynthesis language of the plants and converting it to behavior. In ancient times when we listened to the plants, we evolved. Humans are now facing existential challenges and how we proceed could mean the difference between annihilation and survival. Perhaps it's time to turn our attention to the other kinds of intelligences with which we share the planet.
Here are a few possible practices to become attuned to the plant world.
Find a place where you are surrounded by plants. A forest, jungle, garden, field, farm, orchard, botanical garden, arboretum, vacant lot, or wherever you find them, as far away from other humans as you can. Sit quietly for a few minutes. Close your eyes and listen. You may have to listen carefully to hear the tiny sounds that the plants make—or the wind through the trees may howl and sing. Listen all around you, from every direction, near and far. Open your eyes and look. See the details of the leaves, the bark, the stalks, and the flowers—and see the overall patterns that they make as they move together. Sit and feel the air, how warm or cool it is near the plants, whether it is humid or dry. Carefully touch a plant and notice how it feels against your skin. Close your eyes again and notice how it feels to sit there, the feeling that you get from being with the plants. Allow your thoughts to come to rest, still your mind and let all the perceptions you have of the plants fill your consciousness. Enjoy the experience for as long as it continues and notice any new ideas or insights that may occur to you.
Contacting a Plant Spirit
This works with any plant that has psychoactive properties, from coffee to cannabis to mushrooms, and everything inbetween.
Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Cannabis Leaf