Stephen Harrod Buhner is an award-winning author of 22 books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. He comes from a long line of healers that include Leroy Burney, Surgeon General of the United States under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and Elizabeth Lusterheide, a midwife and herbalist who worked in rural Indiana in the early nineteenth century. He says that the greatest influence on his work, however, has been his great-grandfather, C.G. Harrod, who primarily used botanical medicines, also in rural Indiana, when he began his work as a physician in 1911.
Buhner, who says his DNA prevents him from working for others, has been a fulltime therapist in private practice; a fulltime clinical herbalist in private practice; has been on the faculty at Rocky Mountain Center for Botanic Studies in Boulder, Colorado; has taught throughout the United States on herbal medicine, the sacredness of plants, the intelligence of Nature, and developing the states of mind necessary for successful habitation of the Earth.
He attained a cult-like following as a result of his research into Lyme disease and natural remedies for it, which he detailed in three books: Healing Lyme: Natural Healing of Lyme Borreliosis and the Coinfections Chlamydia and Spotted Fever Rickettsiosis, 2nd Edition; Healing Lyme Disease Coinfections: Complementary and Holistic Treatments for Bartonella and Mycoplasma; and Natural Treatments for Lyme Coinfections: Anaplasma, Babesia, and Ehrlichia. His work has appeared or been profiled in media outlets throughout North America and Europe including Native Peoples, Shaman’s Drum, Herbalgram, The Sun, Mother Earth News, The New York Times, CNN, and Good Morning America.
His most recent books are Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth (Bear and Company/Inner Traditions, 2014), which is the sequel to Secret Teachings of Plants; and Healing Lyme (second edition), Raven Press, 2016. He lives in New Mexico and works closely with Julie McInture and Trishuwa, co-founders with him of The Foundation for Gaian Studies, a non-profit organization exploring and participating with “the non-linear intelligence of nature.” All three believe that the survivability of the human species depends on once more reconnecting to the Earth and caring for the nonhuman world from which we emerged. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You’ve said that plants are intelligent; that they can perform complex mathematical computations; can plan for the future; can even interpret meaning. How do you come to this conclusion?
Buhner: I came to this conclusion doing research for my first book, Sacred Plant Medicine, which focused on the direct stories of indigenous people all over the world. Their first person accounts all said that that they learned the medicinal qualities of the plants they used from the plants themselves, or that it came in a vision, or that Creator told them the uses. It was clear then that, in a way that reductive science did not understand, or even acknowledge, there was another way of gathering information about the world, and that in fact, plants were highly intelligent and able to communicate with people. Years later, in The Secret Teachings of Plants, I focused on this dynamic within the industrialized world, east and west, by focusing on people such as Goethe, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, and the great Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. More recently, in Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, I look at the work of plant researchers, including Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on corn genetics. She, too, said that the corn taught her everything she knew; that she didn’t go any place the corn did not first tell her to go. I had a natural tendency to work with the natural world in this way but these stories gave me a great deal of permission to follow my own inquiry into plants—just following my interest when a plant caught my attention. In the beginning, I generally confirmed the knowledge the plant gave me by looking at how the world’s peoples used those plants, but that’s not how I initially acquired it.
Unfortunately, we’ve been raised with a strange set of ideas from the 19th century that places humans at the top of the intelligence hierarchy. Physicists are at the very top, of course, with the rest of us straggling along below them, followed by a few smart mammals, such as dolphins and chimpanzees. The rest of creation doesn’t really count, in terms of intelligence, except for maybe parrots.
This idea originally came out of monotheistic perspectives that held humans to be a superior or special form of life. Rationalists simply applied that to the belief that it was our brain size and its large frontal lobe that made us unique. Then, when we found out that sperm whales have much larger brains than we do, we modified the hypothesis to say that the brain’s size relative to the organism’s size was the key factor. But it turns out that you don’t necessarily need a brain to think; the brain is just an organ. What you really need is the neural network the brain holds. From this perspective, we are not all that unique or superior. Plants have incredibly complex neural networks, which use the same neural chemicals ours does. In many instances they are far larger than our own. For a long time reductionists denied the presence of a brain in plants (and many of them still do). I think it incredibly ironic that Darwin was the first to understand that a plant’s neural network was its root system, but this part of his research has been largely overlooked.
To understand intelligence in other life forms it is crucial to realize that, to survive, all life-forms must have a sense of not me, which means they must have a sense of self; which means they are self-aware. Also, to survive, they all must be able to analyze the nature of the other entities that approach them, determine their intent—in other words, determine meaning—and further, be able to craft a response to that intent, or meaning. This means that all life forms—even viruses and bacteria, even our white blood cells, even slime mold—are, by definition, intelligent. They can not only process data, they can conduct a search for meaning, an analysis that runs much deeper than linear cause and effect. Thus, three capacities—self-awareness, intelligence, and the search for meaning that have—erroneously—been ascribed as belonging only to human beings, are in fact general conditions for every life-form—and particularly for plants.
Plants are the greatest chemists on the planet. Because they can’t run, they have to deal with whatever their environment gives them. Many times their responses are chemical in nature. For example, if they’re being attacked by spider mites, they might start manufacturing a pheromone that attracts spider mite predators. They’ll also send a chemical signal to their neighbors, so that they, too, create the pheromone to protect themselves. This is absolutely not a trial and error process; the chemicals they make have to be specific and they have to be present in exactly the right proportions, usually parts per trillion or billion. Any deviation simply doesn’t work. Normally, they analyze the saliva of what is eating them and then specifically craft a chemical for that organism. This is tool-making by any definition of the term.
The MOON: Let’s say I’m walking my driveway with a weed-whacker. What are a plant’s options?
Buhner: Well, obviously, it can’t run away, and it’s not likely to be able to do anything to deter you in the moment. But plants typically think on a longer timeframe than that. Many plants co-evolved with grazing animals and are actually healthier when a certain amount of browsing takes place, so within that healthy range they don’t produce an adversarial response. However, there is a type of clover in Australia that, if overgrazed by sheep, produces a chemical that causes the sheep to miscarry, thus reducing the density of future grazing. Again, they think long term.
Humans, too, are starting to experience severe reproductive difficulties worldwide—and I don’t believe that’s an accident. Endocrinologist Louis J. Guillette, Jr., pioneered the study of environmental factors that he found to be linked to reproductive difficulties that are widespread in males across many species. A lot of the problems for humans are certainly attributable to all the pharmaceuticals that are now in the water supplies at parts per trillion levels, which water treatment facilities aren’t able to remove, neutralize, or often even test for. Worldwide there is an increase in testicular cancers, prostate cancers, uterine and ovarian cancers. Some of these problems are also plant induced. As Robert Heinlein once said, “Population problems have a horrible way of solving themselves.” Plants are intimately involved in moderating ecosystem function; they are especially active if a single species begins increasing its population beyond sustainable levels. No one has really looked at how plant chemical production is altering human reproductive health, but every time researchers look at impacts on other animal species, they find plant involvement. This is not something I tend to focus on, as there is a strong tendency among humans to see the natural world as adversarial, to view plants for instance as inimical to human life (such as invasive plants). But plants have been on the planet for 700,000,000 years at least and have very advanced survival strategies, which are far more adept than our own.
The MOON: Wow. You’ve even said that plants recognize their own kin.
Buhner: Yes, I go into this in a lot of detail in my books, but basically, plants are rooted in soil and are extremely sensitive to events in their ecorange. The roots of plants—their neural network, produce the same neuro-transmitting chemicals that we use in our brains; their root systems also have synapses and neurons similar to ours. Plants store memories in their roots; have very sophisticated languages and communicate with others through chemicals produced in their roots; have a very rich community life; can recognize their own kin and pass information to them, and so on. They’re even sensitive to events that they know will occur in the future, simply from their sensitivity to tiny alterations in ecosystem functioning. Researchers have realized that some plants prepare for weather changes two years in advance—well before human meteorologists have any inkling as to the forecast.
Older plants will teach the offspring that have taken root downslope from them. As decades or centuries go by, plants become very good at surviving, adapting, and responding to large ranges of environmental events and storing this knowledge inside their memories, just as we do. They store chemical responses to adverse events as well as the knowledge of how to produce these chemicals. When released through a plant’s stomata—which are the mouth-like openings on the underside of leaves—the younger plants then take them in through their own stomata. This is one of the ways that the younger plants learn how to make the chemicals themselves.
The chemicals are also made available to other plants that are not their kin. There’s a very high level of sociability that is intended to ensure the survivability of the community.
It’s basically a type of blindness, or species chauvinism, that has prevented us from seeing all of this—which, indigenous peoples “saw,” or intuited, thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, Western thinkers are catching up, now that the whole field of plant neurobiology is becoming increasingly robust. It’s teaching us what indigenous people have known all along, that humans are simply one member in the web of life and the other species that we share the planet with are our kin, our equals, each in their own unique way.
A lot of the credit for recognizing the interdependence of Earth species belongs to Jim Lovelock, who developed the Gaia theory, as well as Lynn Margolis, who developed the theory of symbiogenesis. Along with Barbara McClintock, they have been really instrumental in shifting the reductivist neo-Darwinian model of evolution (and even Darwin himself was a lot more sophisticated than many of his followers) to the concept that the Earth is a single, intelligent super-organism that is orchestrating its own evolution.
The MOON: Would you give us another example of plant community-mindedness?
Buhner: There are thousands. I’ve already mentioned that when bean plants are being fed on by spider mites, they’ll analyze the saliva of the spider mite to identify the exact species of spider mite, and then manufacture a chemical in parts per billion or trillion to attract the specific predator of that specific spider mite and release it through their stomata. At the same time, they’ll release other pheromones to warn neighboring plants of the spider mite’s presence, so they too will protect themselves.
Here’s another example: when scientists enter a forest and girdle one or more trees—which would theoretically kill the trees because girdling disrupts the nutrient flow from the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs, to the roots—neighboring trees, and other plants, will feed the girdled trees through the mycelial network—that’s the fungal network that acts like an enormous internet throughout the soil. Scientists have found that other plants literally send nutrients to the deficient trees. You see this type of behavior all over the world.
Increasingly, we are learning that the two fundamental life forms on Earth are plants and bacteria. Plants basically work to maintain the ecosystems of the planet within the range that allowed human beings to develop as a species. They’re community-oriented beings, who don’t tend to get aggressive unless they’re treated badly past a certain point.
The MOON: You had a personal experience with plants who felt as if that point had been crossed.
Buhner: Yes. It was on a trip I took with one of my colleagues to the Florida panhandle. One day we decided to go out and make relationship with the plants and offer prayers to them. The place we chose was quite lush, with huge trees and thick undergrowth, but as we sat there, we felt a strong anger coming from the land and the trees. They had little use for us and told us so in strong language. We sat with them for a long time and did not shrink from their rage, until eventually they calmed down a little. They told us that we could do our ceremonies if we wished and that they appreciated the thought but that it would do no good. It was too late for that place, it could not be helped, the land would take its revenge for the damage done to it and nothing would stop it. I wondered then how everyone who lived in the area could just go on with their daily lives when this communication was crying out so loudly. I wondered if anyone else felt this rage and anger.
The MOON: But couldn’t the same response from plants be expected from many places across the planet?