Listening to plants with Goethe and company

I had seen 'The Secret Teaching of Plants' (by Stephen Harrod Buhner) on the kitchen table of a friend last summer, a beautiful long length wooden table that overlooks a wild capacious garden from which much of what I was eating came.

I had glanced at it enquiringly, attracted by the sub-title: 'The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature' and enjoyed a number of the quotations from  Fukuoka, Goethe, Thoreau and others that liberally, and very effectively, accompany the text. I ordered it, put in my new bookshelf, and from time to time eyed it feeling I should read it yet thinking that it was not what I usually read and maybe it is a bit flaky!

Finally I took the plunge and it is flaky by the judgement of the linear, rational mind that sits in the head: arbiter of what it considers as 'knowledge'. From an older and newer perspective, as hopefully we emerge from Yeats' 'three provincial centuries', we simply recognise what has always been known: that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot fathom though it could help if it learnt to play the servant role not the master of our intelligence.

The first part of the book sets out to show, if not convince, our usual manner of thinking that there is something more, that the heart is an organ of perception, indeed one third of its cells are neuronal, and deeply integrated with a more holistic, multi-dimensional way of knowing than 'brain alone' allows for. It appears that many of the key hormones that regulate the well-being of the brain, and shield it from stress, are released from the heart. The heart sets the tone in which the brain works (though we learn to surpress and interfere with this from an early age).

Meanwhile, we sit in a continual flow of communication with the world (interior and exterior) whose patterning is non linear and fractal. It comes to us through the senses but the senses are wider than the traditional five - at every moment waves of communication pass over, through and from us electromagnetically, and Buhner explores some of the ways this matters, and how that mattering works.

The second part of the book explores, with the rigour of poetry, how the direct perception of nature works, and what it demands of us. It demands a continuous practice of learning to see (not simply look) and listen (not simply hear). It requires that we address all the aspect of ourselves that are not seen or listened to, and whose emergence when we sit down to genuinely attend to the world, claim their right to be heard too. It requires, as Goethe recognised, a moral purification - not through the imposition of some top down, imposed creed, but recognising where we are (in and of the world) and the discipline to live that uprightly. It is not easy which is why it is increasingly not common (except with children who often do it 'without' knowing, which is one way in which they delight us).

It is a beautifully written book, arresting in its cumulative vision, and I left with sense of all that I miss seeing for not dwelling more deeply in the heart and in the world. We surf the surfaces but there is always an open invitation to the depths.

The descriptions of Goethe et al's actual practice is deeply interesting and with the inclusion of Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver and Masanobu Fukuoka graced with very real results in the tangible world of growing stuff including many new plant varieties and growing it sustainably. Not flaky at all but not commensurate with the canons of reductionist science either that says let us not believe that which is before our eyes (unless it has been peer reviewed first)!

It was too, for me, a showing of how one of the more puzzling features of the life of indigenous people came to pass. If you ask them, how they knew what to do with this or that plant, they say 'the plant told me' to which the reductionist scientist guffaws and says 'trial and error' without answering the obvious question, why out of all the plants available try ones so unpromising including the deadly poisonous?

Here, in Buhner's book, is the outline of a methodology that an indigenous person might use naturally to allow the plant to speak, offer its knowledge for respectful use. Flaky, but which is more flaky? An empirical approach to listening to plants or the fantasy of generations of people sacrificing themselves on the off chance a plant might prove useful?

Three provincial centuries indeed: the mind locked up in the province of the brain rather than consciousness embodied by the world.

"We all walk in mysteries. We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain - that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits; and a presentiment, an actual accorded to it." Goethe


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