This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
That's one of my favorite lines from my favorite movie ever. I love it because the protagonist, Neo, is about to find out how things are really working on his planet, and he will never be the same after his journey down the rabbit hole.
In an odd way, I feel like I've been on the same journey ever since I started hunting. I have devoured book after book in search of understanding. Why do I hunt? Why do I love hunting? Why do I intensely crave an old way of life that hunting evokes? What is it that we're missing in lives of such obvious abundance?
One book leads to another. Earlier this summer, I read Lierre Keith's Vegetarian Myth, which is an indictment not just of the vegetarian/vegan diet, but of agriculture itself, a system that has led to overpopulation and a host of degenerative diseases that were entirely uncommon among hunter-gatherers.
Keith extensively quoted Stephen Harrod Buhner's Lost Language of Plants on the subject of plant sentience, in part to prove her point that you can't eat without killing something. Just because plants don't have faces doesn't mean they're not worthy of respect.
Even though it was clear to me that Buhner's book had absolutely nothing to do with hunting, I was so intrigued had to get it. And now that I've finished reading the book, it's safe to say I see the world very differently.
Before I go any further, though, I need to warn you right now that this book requires a very open mind. It frequently comes off so hippie-dippie that I can practically smell the patchouli wafting from its pages. If you know me, you know I'm not prone to buying into anything hippie. I mock the endearing naivetes of the 1960s, I hate going to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and I never liked the Grateful Dead.
But this book is amazing.
The overarching theme is that humans' relationship with plants used to be a close one: We relied on plants for medicines and spiritual insights and we did pretty well with that. But modern science has displaced plant medicines, flooding our bodies and the environment with a sea of refined and potent chemicals that actively hurt our health. Meanwhile, the plants that can help us are pushed further and further to the edge - to the edge of our memory, and sometimes over the edge of extinction.
Buhner's take is that plants, though they are not blessed with locomotion or an obvious sense of speed, are quite sophisticated in their production of chemicals. They produce chemicals to help themselves and other plants. They produce chemicals to attract and help insects. They produce chemicals that can alleviate our ills (the ordinary kind that preceded the degenerative ills of civilization).
Moreover, he contends, they produce chemicals very specifically in response to these needs. If a need is determined, plants can move chemicals from one to another to another across a network of intersecting plant roots and mycelial threads (think mushroom roots). For example, researchers have studied what happens when you girdle trees - cutting away a ring of bark around the trunk. If they're isolated and disconnected from other trees and plants, they die within a year. If they're in a network of trees and plants, they live for years longer.
Still with me? The rabbit hole goes deeper.
Buhner points out that the old cultures that had close relationships with plants share common stories about plants. For example, when you ask the healers in these tribes where they got their knowledge of which plants offer what medicinal benefits, they say consistently that it was the plants who told them.
Sometimes this communication happens in dreams. Which sounds really crazy until Buhner points out that identification of the double helix structure of DNA came to its discoverer in a dreamlike state.
Other times, someone with a need will be drawn to a plant that has something the person needs. Which sounds really, really crazy until you think about insects can be drawn to very specific plants by infinitesimal amounts of aromatic chemicals put out by the plants.
So maybe it's not crazy?
Buhner paints a picture of plants as largely benevolent parents (parents because they preceded us by hundreds of millions of years) that work actively, and deliberately, to take care of us and everything around them.
Now, as mystical as some of this sounds, a lot of this book is deeply rooted in science (and yes, it's footnoted). In fact, there are a couple terrifying chapters that portray how grotesquely we're screwing up the balance of the planet, not just with the obvious things like industrial pollution, but with the enormous amount of chemicals and crap we put into our waste system - the pharmaceuticals we urinate, the hair products we rinse off, the antibiotics.
Especially the antibiotics.
The stories he tells about bacteria are terrifying. Apparently, when exposed to modern antibiotics, bacteria have a mind-boggling capacity to produce substances - self-replicating plasmids - that not only make themselves resistant to antibiotics, but that they can rapidly share with other bacteria that have never come in contact with said antibiotics.
Here's a fun story Buhner tells: Six groups of 50 chickens were placed in cages on a farm, four cages in a barn, two just outside. Half the chickens were given antibiotics in their food. Within 36 hours, those chickens' feces contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Not long after that, the chickens that didn't get antibiotics also had feces with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Within three months, all the chickens had fecal bacteria that were also resistant to three other antibiotics they'd never been given.
After five months, a nearby farm family that had no contact with the chickens had feces with bacteria resistant to the original drug given to the chickens. A month after that, the family's fecal bacteria were resistant to five other antibiotics.
A similar study that took place over a longer term found that after about two years, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria had moved into the entire surrounding community of humans.
Plant medicines don't cause bacteria to develop resistance to so much at such a terrifying rate. That's something we've caused with our attempts to improve on nature. Yay humans!
So, uh, yeah, we're really messing up. And Buhner's chapters detailing what we're doing wrong are really, really depressing.
Fortunately, the book takes a very positive turn and even recommends some specific -albeit weird - steps people can take to reconnect with plants.
If you wanted to pick a bone with Buhner, I think the strongest argument you could make is to attack his contention that plants respond to our needs deliberately, with sentience.
I can totally buy that plants contain and produce a wide variety of chemicals that have been vital to our existence, and that our decision to replace them with refined chemicals is the height of arrogance. Plant fertilizer is a good example: Someone decided plants needed nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and nothing else, so that's how we fertilize plants, taking away the myriad other substances in soil that actually served important purposes as well (The Omnivore's Dilemma addresses this topic beautifully).
I can even buy that plants have ways of directing us to them through means we don't understand yet - sending out minute quantities of chemicals that meet needy receptors in our brains.
But are the plants saying, in their own plant way, "Holly, you look like you've got PMS. Come on over here and make a tea from my leaves and you'll feel better"? (I wish!) Or when I tell a plant that my shoulder is hurting, is it going to say, "Hey, I'll get right on it and pull the appropriate chemicals from all my friends"? Because that's kinda what Buhner says, although he doesn't put it in the goofy quotes like I did here for emphasis.
While I have a really open mind and I can't rule it out, I'm not yet convinced that plant intent is knowable.
But I've pretty much decided it doesn't matter. If plants have the ability to address our needs, and if our quest to "improve" on nature harms that ability and our health, who cares if the communication between plants and us is deliberate or merely part of the way life on earth simply works? The end result is the same either way.
That's why this book has made such a profound impression on me. Hunting has already changed the way I view animals, teaching me that they are worth so much more respect than our society gives them. This book has opened my eyes to the fact that plants are worthy of even greater respect. I'm pretty sure I'll look at them differently forever.
Plant communications are like stones in water. The ripples they create move throughout ecosystems; they wash up against us. That we take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle, or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning. As the soul of a human being can never be understood from its chemistry or grammar, so cannot plant purpose, intelligence or soul. Plants are much more than the sum of their parts. And they have been talking to us for a long time.
render it down into its constituent parts,
feed them into a machine which measures such things
and determine from that
its ability to paint or create great music?
Then why do you think
that once you have done this with my body
you know anything about me?
© Holly A. Heyser 2010