Monday, August 9, 2010

Think plants aren't sentient? Read this book and think some more.

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.

- Morpheus to Neo, the Matrix

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...

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.

Do you think it possible to dissect a human being,
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?
No?
Then why do you think
that once you have done this with my body
you know anything about me?

- Stephen Harrod Buhner

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

30 comments:

Murphyfish said...

Holly,
Tis not often that I comment upon your fine words although I'm a keen reader of them, there are many others who have a deeper understanding of mother nature, hunting and the outdoors than I and so are in a better position to do so. But your latest post has intrigued me and given me more thought on my quest for a simpler and more harmonious life with this living planet. Thank you for the heads up on this piece of literature, I shall endeavour to source a copy this side of the pond within the next few days. I feel that you have introduced the book well with healthy scepticism of some of the contents but with a broad and fully open mind, I look forward to reading it.

Regards,

John

Tovar said...

Nice, Holly.

My wife Catherine read some of Buhner's work -- and I believe had a weekend class with him -- when she was first studying herbal medicine about ten years ago. He can come off as a bit "out there," but there is, as you say, a lot of good material there.

Catherine's study of herbal medicine deepened her relationship with the non-human world. In a couple of ways, I think it actually helped open the way for my hunting.

Incidentally -- in relation to the bit about antibiotics -- before I hunted deer, I hunted several species of wild mushroom for an immune tonic Catherine makes.

Swamp Thing said...

Seems eye opening and a step beyond what's become my vernacular sentiment anymore (Pollan). I will definitely give this book a read!

Probably while eating a bunch of helpless plants as a tasty snack.I know, that wasn't nice.

Gretchen Steele said...

Holly - thank you for an great review of this book; I shall be requesting from our interlibrary loan. I've spent my entire life gathering and using the wild plants, mushrooms, etc around me, not just for medicine but also for food. I'm looking forward to sharing this post with several friends.
While I am a little on the hippie dippie side of things , I bet that you and I would still have great morning together out in the duck blind or chasing Il turkey or whitetails together :) Promise, I won't play any Grateful Dead if you ever come hunting with me :)

David J Blackburn said...

I tend to agree, hippy-dippy or not; greens and fruit are best for eatin' not for reducing and modifying.

Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Murphyfish: Thanks!

Tovar: I'm not surprised that her relationship with plants helped open the way to hunting, though I would've been surprised before reading this book. Buhner's take is very clear: Plants are there for us to use; he would say they want us to use them.

And how does her tonic work? I avoid antibiotics like the plague. I know it doesn't make a difference in the broader sense because they're still in such widespread use, but I hope it makes my immune system stronger. Last antibiotics I had were when I went to the hospital with appendicitis. They didn't ask permission; they said, "You're getting Cipro."

Swamp Thing: That wasn't the least bit unkind - Buhner doesn't wax poetic about plants screaming when we pick them. In fact, he doesn't even mention it. Like I said to Tovar, (and like David Blackburn said), they're here for us and all creatures to use.

Gretchen: Whew, I was so worried that a duck hunt with you would be all about Jerry Garcia! ;-) I'm actually way more hippie than I let on, because of lot of hippie ideas are good, so it's kinda funny that I say unkind things about hippiedom. Guess that's my conservative streak talking. What it really boils down to for me is that I can never completely join a group by adopting its language, dress and music. That applies to hunters as well as hippies.

David: After reading this book, I'm more inclined to agree with you than ever before, though I come at it from a less religious perspective. If I could be so bold as to modify the statement (without getting struck by lightning), I'd say that all of these plants and animals were given to all of us on earth. We were born into a system that has the potential for perfection - not perfection for each individual, but perfection in terms of balance.

Phillip said...

You know, I'm gonna tread carefully here, but there was a time when it occurred to me that what we see as organisms...humans, plants, critters, etc... are maybe not single organisms at all, but interrelated commnities of cells (for lack of a better word).

The cells organized into various states, or vehicles, creating what you and I recognize now as individual animals and plants... sort of an organic version of the ones and zeroes that make up The Matrix. As a whole, these communities or organisms exhibit unique behaviors, but the interrelation and communication between cells still exists at the most basic level.

Still with me? Don't ponder this too hard if you're subject to flashbacks.

The interrelation is the reason that the various organisms can share a certain kind of core communication. It's why the predator knows the prey is meat, how the infant knows "mother", and why, perhaps, the medicinal plant "calls out" to the sick individual. What we call attunement may be little more than cellular communication an a seriously global scale.

Of course, diving too deeply into this kind of thinking may demolish any sense of individuality, or even accepted concepts of "self". I'm not sure the ideas are mutually exclusive, but I do think it's a worthwhile exercise to consider the perspective of a selfless, purposeful existence. A deeper examination may be called for, but beware... last time I let myself contemplate these ideas, I disappeared for quite some time.

This is the kind of thinking that happens when you go chasing rabbits. Just remember what the dormouse said...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, I'm totally with you. That's where I found myself about two years ago. This book feeds into that notion pretty well, though he doesn't come out and say it that way. My major take from the book is that plants bring way more to the table than I ever gave them credit for.

Josh said...

Great post, and I'll be reading it very soon!

Phillip, that sounds like the Gaia hypothesis, by the way. Cool stuff, formerly hippie, but not so much anymore (as in, there's more science used to back it up).

Holly, your nuance and deconstruction is absolutely awe-inspiring. This line,
"While I have a really open mind and I can't rule it out, I'm not yet convinced that plant intent is knowable." is terrific. You don't squash the notion, you take it and move on. You rock.

As for the communication, sentience, etc., there are myriad cultural traditions that allude to one or both. For example, in my own Judeo-Christian tradition, there are at least two instances of plants communicating or imparting information:

1) The Snake didn't give Eve knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of the tree did;

2) It was a burning bush that was not consumed by fire that had Moses both recognize that he was on holy ground (and thus, removed his shoes), and through which God imparted the 10 Commandments.

This is great stuff.

smf said...

Since I work with plants as a commercial corn breeder (Yes, even transgenic), I find it kind of funny (but not shocking) that people think that plants are "simpler" than people. Since most plants can't move, they develop very sophisticated secondary metobolisms and make some pretty nasty compounds to protect themseleves. Frosted sorghum makes Cyanide, Castor beans are the source of Ricin. Chrysanthemums make Pyrethrin which organic folks love.. if you synthesize a copy of the same molecule, somehow it becomes an "evil pesticide". Just because it's natural doesn't make it any more or less dangerous folks.

Nobody decided some day that all plants needed was N,P, and K. Those are just the primary elements. Nobody with a good ag education would support that. There are secondary nutrients, pH considerations along with soil microbiology and soil physics.

I understand the romantic attachment you guys have to why you may hunt, forage or garden... but please be careful about the conclusions you draw without valid data. sorry for a little rant... I'm a scientist by trade and am wired a little differently than most of you.

Josh said...

smf, your rant is far nicer than many others I've read (or written, for that matter). In fact, I'd not have caught it as one, had you not pointed it out.

One issue many have with synthesizing chemicals is that the synthetic material is additive to the total system, rather than in balance with it (& I don't mean that in a hippie way).

N,P, & K are mentioned because they are the big ones. In fact, much of the production of N, plus the addition of fumigants, pesticides, and herbicides, attempts to make a sterile, yet nutrient-laden square of land for one particular plant species. The fact that this isn't the best type of farming for yield/acre doesn't matter, because commodity crops are going for net revenues first, not increased yields. That, coupled with the burdens to entry from increased processing that give cover to major ag. companies, leave us with lower yields than we could otherwise get. At the same time, farmers lose millions of pounds of ecologically new N through over-application, we sour additive nutrients from animals by confining them, and we subsidize the processing and transport by paying the social costs of their externalities with no internal mitigation.

Of course many know that soil biology and ph are vital factors to ag, and we've produced a great number of chemicals to affect those with serious unintended and negative consequences, too. Right now, my California Delta suffers from some because of the type of farming that takes place on the West Side of the Central Valley - a type of farming that wouldn't be possible without the manufacture, shipping, and placement of chemical compounds that pollute my waters. And this is one, small example.

Some of us still come down against many types of compound manufacturing from petroleum and other substances not found within the current ecosystem, even when we know the things you think are important.

Also, being from the Delta, I'm well aware of pyrethrum's danger.

smf said...

I'm not sure if I buy your arguement all the way... I suppose it really does vary where you live. But I don't have a huge problem with areas of monoculture and the "sterile field" thing. I am all for maximizing yields and cash flow on the best ground in order NOT to farm other more fragile areas. Additionally, there simply is not enough organic Nitrogen available in the world to fertilize the crops and feed the ever expanding population. Even if there was enough of it, there would not even be the manpower to move and apply it in a timely manner. I do think we can do a lot in how and we apply inputs to avoid pollution. But when 1 person (and maybe a retired helper) farms 3000 acres here in central IL, cultural practices have to work around that. As romantic as it seems, folks are not generally lining up to begin farming the back 40 (there is an exception here with the farmers market truck farm near the upscale urban area).

Josh said...

smf, I'll respectfully disagree with your premises:

1) Yield/acre is lower with monocropping than it is with multi-cropping. Revenue/acre is even doubtfully higher for the farmer mono-cropping, but it is significantly higher for the oligopoly from which that farmer is forced to buy inputs, and to the oligopsony into which the farmer must sell her commodity.

2) Frankly, we don't know if there was enough nitrogen in the pre-green revolution to supply for our current population, but we know for a plain fact that there is way more than enough now. Worldwide, we produce far more than we need at our current population, and even at the population we are going to reach (~ 9 billion). So there is enough N, for sure. It isn't a shortage of N that's causing problems, it's too much (look at the size of the Gulf dead zone as one big example).

3) The world's human population is not "ever-expanding". It's growth rate has slowed dramatically in the past 30 years, and by the end of the century, we expect it will begin falling pretty quickly.

4) Manpower is not needed to move nitrogen. Farming practices move nitrogen now, and the quantity of it can be replaced through multi-cropping systems and farming with animals very quickly.

5) The "back 40" example is a good example, because it has been shown that the yield/acre on units under 100 acres is an order of magnitude greater than larger farming units. The fact that they are currently relegated to niche markets is a result of market distortions from oligopolies and their pressures on government to subsidize their current market control.

If your presumptions (smaller farms yield lower amounts, artificial nitrogen is somehow less energy-intensive for transport, there isn't enough N in the system now) were true, I'd agree with your conclusion. As they are not true, I cannot agree.

Luke Macaulay said...

Josh, I'm intrigued by your first objection:

"Yield/acre is lower with monocropping than it is with multi-cropping. Revenue/acre is even doubtfully higher for the farmer mono-cropping, but it is significantly higher for the oligopoly from which that farmer is forced to buy inputs, and to the oligopsony into which the farmer must sell her commodity."

I'm curious where you're getting this information from. I'm betting this issue is quite complex, and dependent on factors such as climate, the type of crop, proximity to markets/consumers, soil type, and myriad other issues. I'd be interested in learning more about where this comes from.

smf said...

http://www.ishs.org/news/?p=672 is a link to a journal article discussing the sustainability some of the things we are talking about. It's a good read... I don't expect many of you to agree with me, just see where I'm coming from

smf said...

http://www.ishs.org/news/?p=672

here is my supporting data. I hope it helps you understand where I'm coming from. If you have to farm 30% more ground to get the same yield the benefits of a lot of organic agriculture go away. It's OK to disagree

smf said...

http://www.ishs.org/news/?p=672

This is where I am coming from, It's OK to disagree.

Josh said...

Luke, you raise good questions. I've written about the myth of yield at my blog a couple of times, but if you want to read a good run-down, read this link:

http://www.keepmainefree.org/myth3.html

The relevant line (if you don't want to read the link) is this:
"According to a 1992 U.S. Agricultural Census report, relatively smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones. The smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive."

The proximity issue you raise is important, and I haven't done much research on it. I do know that many markets are in close proximity to great farmland, because that's where they had to be in the past. As for today's screwy ag.-transportation system, much of those inefficiencies could be mitigated simply by internalizing the social costs of carbon... but, I digress.

Our markets have been completely warped by commodities that are either in need of heavy processing (e.g., corn), or are made uniform in order to ship and store well (e.g., tomatoes with hips). However, local foods that grow well in their respective regions, coupled with the myriad technological achievements we've made that can and do fit, environmentally speaking. Also, consumers can see prices stay closer to what they are now, while farmers reap greater profits, from operating in local markets.

I don't pretend that the fellow who has been farming Roundup Ready corn can just up and grow a bunch of different veggies. I also don't pretend that we can see the same prices directly for food with a switch. Prices would go up, we are paying social costs for the subsidies and market forces that now keep prices artificially low. It'd be better to pay them and reap the opportunity benefits to health, habitat and watershed quality, climate change, etc.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Much of this debate has moved way out of my expertise or even my current reading.

But...

Baron Justus von Liebig wrote a book in 1840 that highlighted NPK as the crucial elements for plant growth, and that did set us down a path of agriculture as chemistry, rather than a more holistic pursuit.

I would hope our agricultural schools know better by now, but I think it's still pretty clear that we live well beyond the means that soils naturally provide. And I doubt it's possible to feed our obscenely large population through more natural processes, but perhaps the incredibly antibiotic-resistant bacteria will help us solve that problem, albeit not in a nice way.

Then again, I haven't yet read "Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations," which is next on my reading list. I believe it will say that complex food systems have a way of collapsing, leading to the downfall of their civilizations. The book has mixed reviews, but it's right up my alley, and next on my reading list.

One question to SMF: What in particular were you referring to when you said "I understand the romantic attachment you guys have to why you may hunt, forage or garden... but please be careful about the conclusions you draw without valid data"?

All I know is that wild food tastes fantastic, way better than domestic food, and I pity the millions of people who don't know that. And I've seen a fair number of references to wild food having more nutrients and chemical complexity than domestic food (nope, can't cite studies - just know I've read it in several places, and could probably dig something up if push came to shove).

I'd be surprised if anyone would argue that the way we're managing this planet is good for us, for the animals or for the plants. Those are pretty much the key conclusions I've drawn.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh yeah, since I'm in a movie-quoting mood, I'd also like to trot out of my favorite lines from Jurassic Park, uttered by Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum):

Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.

That pretty well summarizes my feelings about how we're managing the planet. Is it the fault of anyone in the driver's seat today? Not particularly. And hell, I'm as much a part of it as anyone else. I've largely (but not entirely) disengaged from industrial food production, but I still own a computer, drive a car and keep the AC way too low (though that's because of all of Hank's wine fermenting and aging all over the house).

I just think we're entirely too enchanted with our own cleverness, whether in agriculture, technology or war. So enchanted that we keep at it even as we are told in great detail how destructive it is. Sadly, our cleverness has nothing to do with wisdom.

Tovar said...

Holly said, "we're entirely too enchanted with our own cleverness." Amen. And I doubt that other cultures, other species, or the planet as a whole, are particularly impressed.

Tovar said...

The immune tonic I mentioned is aimed at slow, long-term strengthening of the immune system. I forget the exact mechanism by which it functions, but can get that info for you if you're interested, Holly.

It doesn't give the immune system the quick, short-term boost that some plants (like echinacea) are supposed to. Nor is it a substitute for antibiotics when you really need them -- I, too, haven't taken any in years, but I would if I had major surgery.

Tovar said...

Phillip: LOVED your comment on "interrelated communities of cells."

NorCal Cazadora said...

I'll let you know if I need that tonic. My immune system is pretty strong right now. If you know any good stuff for inflamed ligaments and arthritis, though, I'm all ears. Those are big problems in my family, and lucky me, I've inherited them. But I'm guessing I might be able to address those just as well by NOT consuming certain things.

Josh said...

Luke, I've blogged about this issue, but the most concise summary of the yield issue can be found at another site, here:

http://www.keepmainefree.org/myth3.html

Here's the take-away line, if you aren't interested in the link:
"According to a 1992 U.S. Agricultural Census report, relatively smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones. The smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive."

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Holly, Holly, don't drink the Kool-Aid!

I don't think the plants-vs.-chemicals argument gets us anywhere. Clearly, there are some chemicals that have been a boon, and foremost among them are antibiotics. Penicillin is arguably the most important medical advance of the 20th century. Antibiotics aren't bad per se; their irresponsible, short-sighted use is.

As for plants having intent, I would argue that this is something that's absolutely knowable, and could be tested for under controlled conditions. Put plants in rooms with people suffering from various illnesses, and see what happens. I imagine that one reason these experiments haven't been done is that the hypothesis of plant intent is so very far-fetched, and antithetical to what we know about evolution. Every species is out for Number One. It's certainly possible (and Pollan makes the case in The Botany of Desire) that providing something useful to humans is an excellent survival strategy for a plant species, but the plant's in it for the plant, not for the human.

As SMF points out, plants are tremendously complicated, and their chemical output runs the gamut from life-saver to deadly poison. I can't get from there to sentience.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, Tamar, it's not Kool-Aid - it's just tonic!

Seriously, though, I'm not one of those twits who thinks every plant will save us. I'm well aware of the fact that many are poisonous to us. And I think it makes a lot of sense that any philanthropy on the part of plants would be guided by self interest. (Although if we have selfless humans, I'm willing to extend the possibility of selflessness to others on this planet as well.)

But I stand by what I said about refined/synthesized chemicals versus plant medicines. It's undeniable that many modern chemicals and medicines have been good for many individuals, but I think it's impossible to argue that they're good for the planet, or even for our species, because they knock everything way out of balance. Remember, it is entirely normal in any species for many of its individuals to die of accidents, disease, starvation and predation. That's what keeps the balance. Our decision to exempt ourself from this fundamental law is filled with good intent, but you know what road that paves.

I would absolutely love to see some research into plant intent, but if Buhner is correct, you can't do it by putting a bunch of potted plants in a room with someone who's sick, because the power of plants - he says - is their ability to move chemicals along root and mycelial networks. (That's why the girdled tree in isolation dies quickly while the one in a complete plant community lives for years.) You'd have to take the sick people to the plants.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

At the risk of overstaying my welcome, I want to tackle the idea of balance, since both you and Josh mentioned it.

The planet's tolerance for what we do to it is certainly not infinite, but neither is it zero, and I think people who are way better schooled in these issues than I am would still have a hard time pinpointing exactly what the limit is.

Everything we've done since the dawn of agriculture (and, arguably, some of the things we did before that) have "disrupted" the natural state of the earth. We've taken down trees and plowed under vegetation. We've domesticated animals and bred them to do our bidding. And now, we've introduced substances unknown in nature, like penicillin.

In order to maintain what I take it you mean by the earth's balance, we have to go back to hunter-gatherer societies. It's hard to say what we'd accomplish by simply stopping fertilizers and antibiotics, but driving around in cars and using consumer electronics, and commandeering all the land we'd need to feed the world organically, but I don't think that would be a planet "in balance."

Besides, whatever we do, it won't disrupt the planet like what nature can dish out. An Ice Age would destroy everything. How's that for balance?

But I think we should discuss this over that tonic, as long as gin and lime are involved.

Josh said...

Tamar, you make interesting points. I'm no hippie, either.

I would like to add, though, that we are natural. There is no line distinguishing us from the Planet.

We are the natural state of the Earth.

We are unique not in that we are unnatural, but in that we are conscious... maybe.

As for your take on sentience/compassion/intent, I'd like to point out that there is a gigantic biomass you are missing in your evolutionary description. Parasites, which in some food webs are 50% of the total biomass, require other life forms. They aren't out for number one. And when this is recognized, predator-prey relationships are also recognized for what they are, too - symbioses. These relationships are often taken into account in evolution. On a smaller scale, there are social animals that seek to aid those of their own particular species, too, even those that are sick or old - not the one-sided, perfectly utilitarian evolutionary view that most attribute to nature.

Evolution, as a concept, is like all of our attempts to explain nature... more guidelines, really.

As for your practical applications, I'm with you. I'm a huge fan of penicillin.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Apologies to smf and Josh - I just figured out what happens to comments stuck in Blogger's spam filter and cleared four here for publication. I wasn't trying to censor anyone! Sorry for the delay.