Books, Documentaries, Reviews: January 14, 2013
The Lost Language of Plants
Stephen Harrod Buhner
I read this book over two years ago.
It still haunts me.
This book haunts me because it describes how far down a very-wrong-road mankind has traveled–a road that ends in a cliff with no where else to go. The cliff is sickness, starvation, and certain conflict for resources.
Can we turn around and backtrack?
Increasingly, I think it’s unlikely as a species that we can–because the losses of traditional knowledge are too great, so great that we cannot recuperate them. And doubly unlikely because most of us are not in touch at all with what has been lost or what, as a species, we have created. The tragedy springs from our fatal flaws–pride, arrogance, and greed. We set about with chilling abilities–that grew stronger over time–to change the environment within which we found ourselves and, in the process, set in place what is killing and will kill…us.
You bet. It’s why I called my essays “tipping points.” I wondered where the tipping point would be for needed corrections to our behavior.
But now, when one out of two people are getting cancer and when we still continue along the road without making changes–caught as we are in an immense system that increasingly ties our hands and muffles our voices–I have lost hope in seeing change in my lifetime at least.
Change will come eventually, but only after this planet has swept most of us off its surface. Hopefully, those who survive will begin to understand that mankind is part of Earth’s system, not in charge of Earth’s system, and that we must learn to live within Earth’s systems and alongside other life forms–each of which is important–for survival, let alone for flourishing. And, yes, I recognize that we have multiplied and are, maybe, living longer, but what we have done to create this situation is not sustainable and will crash.
There is an awful lot in this book to take in and understand. Yet, Buhner, a master herbalist whose life work has been understanding the chemistry and life force of plants, walks us through what has been lost and what we need to understand in accessible prose.
The “lost” language of plants is a language that used to tell us about our system, where we fit in, the importance of the other life forms (animals, plants, soil, bacteria), and how they worked within the system. Here, nature is not always “red in tooth and claw,” but synergistically connected. Here one huge loss is the loss of the understanding of the whole of things–lost to modernity’s constant move to separate out the parts for study or control. Or, destruction.
Buhner makes the connection of mankind to the system and mankind’s destruction of the system in many places. His use of this quote by Wendell Berry from Berry’s The Unsettling of America may give you some food for thought.
[Our bodies] are not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and in the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the earth, the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A Medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease.
And here’s a quote Buhner uses from the renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson (59):
Other species are our kin. This statement is literally true in evolutionary time. All higher eukaryotic organisms, from flowering plants to insects and humanity itself, are thought to have descended from a single ancestral population that lived about 1.8 billion years ago. Single-celled eukaryotes and bacteria are linked by still more remote ancestors. All this distant kinship is stamped by a common genetic code and elementary features of cell structure. Humanity did not soft-land into the teeming biosphere like an alien from another planet. We arose from other organisms already here.
Now before some of you react to this view, as some of you immediately will, before you grab the polarity religion/science, take a moment and think about what is being described. Here is a whole design. A magnificent design–within which we are a part. And I can tell you that what Buhner is moving towards is trying to show you how intricate is this design– down to the cellular level. He uses the work of Barbara McClintock, taken from her 1983 Nobel lecture, to reinforce his understanding of the intelligence that is involved. And Buhner does hold a huge place for spirit underlying this system, as I will show below.
Antibiotics, it has been found, can act as bacterial pheromones, biologically based chemical motivation signals, that literally pull bacteria to them. Once in the presence of an antibiotic, the bacterial learning rate immediately increases by several orders of magnitude….Bacteria also intentionally inhibit the internal mechanisms for reducing mutation in their genetic structure in order to promote quicker resistance development. Nor do bacteria compete with each other for resources, as standard evolutionary theory predicted, but rather, they promiscuously cooperate in the sharing of survival information.
The recognition, long delayed by incorrect assumptions about the nature of genetic structure, is now widespread that genetic structures in all organisms are not static but fluid, sometimes within a wide range. (This is part of a growing recognition that nature may not be red in tooth and claw but much more mutualistic and interdependently connected than formerly supposed.) Barbara McClintock, who early recognized the existence of transposons, noted in her 1983 Nobel lecture that the genome “is a highly sensitive organ of the cell, that in times of stress can initiate its own restructuring and renovation. She noted as well that the instructions for how genotype reassembled came not only from the organism but from the environment itself. The greater the stress the more fluid and specific the action of the genome in responding to it. This has had a great many unlooked for consequences. (122-123).
The growth of our disease rates, Buhner argues, parallels “the decrease of diverse plants as foods and medicines” (206). The substitution of man-made chemicals, born out of reducing the whole to various parts, treat symptoms, not the underlying causes of disease. This is not a new argument Buhner makes. But Buhner notes, as do many others now, that our ability to create technical “fixes” is coming to an end, for we have nothing in the pipeline to treat superbugs, superweeds, and super mad living entities that we have incited to…survive…us.
One of the most poignant–and useful–sections of the book is when Buhner describes the development of a plant community. He begins by noting how the “naming” of plants (taxonomy) involved grouping plants that looked similar or had similar evolutionary origins does not work. Plants need to be “seen” by how they function within their community: “To understand plants and Earth’s ecosystems they have to be viewed as living systems, not isolated within the language of Western taxonomy” (176).
Naming plants instead by their function, by their relationship to their habitat, connects people to that habitat, to the communications and purposes that run through ecosystems. Such naming carries within itself the implicit knowledge of what will happen if a plant is driven to extinction or declines in population. Many older folk taxonomies–often more complex than Western systems–have long recognized that plants play unique and important functions in ecosystems. Their names for them (as with such plants as Elders and Ambrosias) often reflect plant/ecosystem connections and interdependencies and describes more accurately their true nature and functions.
Plants mean nothing in isolation; they are a life-form rooted in and identified by their community, by their relationships to and interactions with all other life on Earth. Individual plants form local neighborhoods and neighborhoods associate together in communities and those group together as ecosystems that interconnect together to form biomes which together form the larger system called Gaia. Ecosystem function determines the plants that grow within them and the nature of plant associations (176-177).
Buhner goes on to describe a Sonoran Desert plant community and how it formed and how it has an Ironwood tree (an Elder) at its center. The description of the anchoring Ironwood, the understory plants, the ground plants, the interrelated insects, the chemical smells produced to communicate and heal is…mind-blowing. And, allows one to begin to see what has been “lost” when we mindlessly cut down and clear land and plant monocrops. The integrity of the system is ripped apart and various components simply do not know how to relate. Sickness evolves.
Buhner describes the framework in another way–by listing the basic components of a basic framework found when nonindustrial epistemologies are compared. Here is Buhner’s list–it offers much food for thought. Note that the starts with “Spirit.”
At the Center of all things is spirit. In other words, there is a central underlying unifying force in the Universe that is sacred.
All matter is made from this substance. In other words, the sacred manifests itself in physical form.
Because all matter is made from the sacred, all things possess a soul, a sacred intelligence or logos.
Because human beings are generated out of this same substance it is possible for human beings to communicate with the soul of intelligence in plants and all other matter and for those intelligences to communicate with human beings.
Human beings emerged later on Earth and are the offspring of the plants. Because we are their offspring, their children, plants will help us whenever we are in need if we ask them.
Human beings were ignorant when they arrived here and the powers of Earth and the various intelligences in all things began to teach them how to be human. This is still true. It is not possible for new generations to become human without this communication or teaching from the natural world.
Parts of Earth can manifest more or less sacredness, just like human beings. A human being can never know when some part of Earth might begin expressing deep levels of sacredness or begin talking to him Therefore it is important to cultivate attentiveness of mind.
Human beings are only one of the many life-forms of Earth, neither more nor less important than the others. Failure to remember this can be catastrophic for individuals, nations, and peoples The other life in the Universe can and will become vengeful if treated with disrespect by human beings (37-38).
Well, there isn’t much in our education or training or, often, in many of our religions, that constructs a list like this one.
The first time I read it, I dismissed parts of it out of hand. Then I read it again after reading the book, especially the parts of how a natural plant ecosystem is created, looks (messy by our standards), and functions, and the list called to me in different ways. Reading it now is, yet again, a different experience, and I am reminded of how much has been lost when so many of us have become so profoundly disconnected from nature, from the land, from plant ecosystems, from animals, from our food, from…each other.