Stephen Harrod Buhner | The intelligence of plants

Buhner: Probably so; but very few people are paying attention. No one is listening. Alice Walker, however, describes a similar experience in Living by the Word. She says she was feeling depressed and went for a walk into the woods, where she lay down underneath some trees. She lay there quietly for a few moments, when she realized the trees were telling her to get out. Her reaction was, “What? No! I’m one of the good ones!” But the trees said, “No; two arms; two legs. You’re one of them.” She realized then that there are repercussions for human behavior; that all of us are responsible for what is happening. You can sense these repercussions in any ecosystem that’s been logged heavily. When you walk onto this scene of total destruction you can feel the impact immediately. That kind of wholesale industrial destruction of an ecosystem does produce a kind of rage in the organisms who live there.

I think of the strong emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear—as being like the instrumentation dials on the dashboard of your car. They tell you the state of the engine. Anger is really energy to solve a problem: you get angry and then you do something. Plants and ecosystems are no different; there are emotional dynamics in response to what’s happening on the planet. Plants and ecosystems under tremendous assault use that emotional energy to mobilize a defense strategy. They’re no different from humans in that regard; we’re not that different from any other organism here.

The MOON: You say in Plant Intelligence, that the only real difference between humans and other organisms is our ecological function.

Buhner: Right. When you begin to grasp that the Earth is a single organism that acts very much like all other organisms except that its timelines are so very long, you begin to understand that no lifeform has emerged from the ecological matrix of the planet except to perform specific ecological functions. When a new organism comes into being it is balanced near to the edge of chaos, but not too near so as to topple it, rather like a bicycle in motion, or a spinning top. If you touch a spinning top, you’ll cause a perturbation. If the perturbation is not too great, the top will recover and keep spinning. But if the perturbation crosses a certain point, the top will fall out of its spin. Same thing with a bicycle, and same thing with biological systems.

The Earth is constantly analyzing the degree of perturbation present in the system and developing response strategies. One of the major strategies is to develop new organisms or to send existing organisms in the guise of invasive species into damaged areas in order to re-establish homeodynamics. Plants literally create conditions for other forms of life to emerge. Many indigenous people acknowledge this by saying that humans are the offspring of the plants; that plants are our ancestors. Without plants altering the atmosphere, we never could have evolved here.

The MOON: So, if it’s not too late, what is the proper ecological function of a human being?

Buhner: That’s not a question with an easy answer. First you have to understand how the Earth’s ecosystem functions and how it’s been innovating for millions of years. The Earth brought humans forth to help it to fulfill specific ecosystem functions.

Part of my purpose in writing Plant Intelligence was because I was weary of hearing, “Human beings are a cancer; human beings are destroying the Earth.” To my mind, that’s the flip side of thinking human beings are the apex of creation.

If you understand the Earth, you know she has withstood challenges far greater than humans many times in the past. There’s no way Earth would create a species that would just exist to destroy all life on the planet. The only way to get out of the doom loop thinking trap we are in is to really trust the Earth. Once that occurs, our thinking tends to break out of habituated patterns and at that point something new enters inside us.

The MOON: So what is a more proper attitude humans should adopt towards living with others in this giant superorganism?

Buhner: Humility. We’re really ignorant and we need to come to terms with that fact. It’s not just a matter of being inadequately informed; it’s a matter of it not being possible to be adequately informed. The system is too vast and complex. Aldo Leopold famously said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” We haven’t done that.

If we begin to understand that the Earth is intelligent, alive, and aware, and that everything else on the planet is intelligent, alive, and aware, then we have to stop thinking that it’s all here just to serve us. The truth is, we’re here to serve it. We’ve been incredibly stupid and arrogant in thinking we could “manage” large-scale perturbations in ecosystems. When we finally understand the difficulty of predicting the outcome of any large scale perturbation, we’ll approach them much more cautiously—as the Iroquois Confederacy advised, with an eye to the seventh generation. It’s exceedingly difficult to anticipate how an action taken today will affect people seven generations out; not many actions will pass that test. We may still make mistakes—all of us do on the way to wisdom—but they generally won’t have the same degree of severity as they do when we assume we know what we are doing.

An example is our response to invasive plant species. I often say that Republicans are terrified of invasive humans, but Democrats are terrified of invasive plants. Both believe that the invasion will destroy their way of life. The thing is, the ecosystem of the planet is constantly in flux. Innovation, or evolution, always still going on. We don’t see it because we don’t know how to look.

Plant species move across the planet in sophisticated ways that statistical analysis can’t really explain. The thing we should ask ourselves when we see an invasive plant moving into an ecosystem is, “Why is it here? What ecological function is it performing?” That shows sensitivity and humility to the unknown. Instead, we tend to say, “That’s an invasive species; we need to eradicate it.” But we are gradually discovering that invasive species are typically performing an essential ecological function. They’re part of the Earth’s response to the perturbations in the system.

For example, Japanese knotweed tends to become endemic in all the regions where Lyme disease is going to emerge in about six months. The root of that plant happens to be the best treatment for Lyme disease available; as specific as you can get. In addition, in the industrially ravaged places where this plant often grows, it scavenges heavy metals and restores soil dynamics; so rather than declaring it a problem, we need to be asking what it is doing for the ecosystem in the places it shows up. In most cases, invasive plants have moved into a region to somehow reclaim or restore the ecologic functioning, which many times includes human health, which plants attend to, as well.

There are other examples, for instance, in Montana where I wrote about the emergence of isatis (in the book, Herbal Antivirals). Not only is isatis specific for treating emerging viral diseases in humans, it also tends to reduce cattle foraging in the ecorange in which it grows, thus allowing the ecorange to recover. So, we have to be aware that we’re ignorant, and we have to not mind that we’re ignorant. That will produce the humility that is essential if we’re to cooperate with the Earth for our long-term survival. The Earth is not in trouble, and really, ultimately, human beings are not in trouble, either. Our civilization, however, is in real bad trouble.

The MOON: You’ve said in your books that you’ve acquired your knowledge of plants, as indigenous cultures have done, by talking with them; which doesn’t just mean speaking, but more importantly, listening. Can you tell us how that works?

Buhner: Just as Barbara McClintock said, of her Nobel Prize-winning work: “I never went anywhere in my searches that the corn didn’t first tell me to go. You have to understand, these are living beings. They taught me everything that I know.” Most of her fellow scientists said things like, “I respect Barbara’s work; I just don’t like her mysticism.” To which she would reply, “Yes, but it’s not mysticism.”

People have a natural affinity for the natural world; it’s just been strangled out of us. The easiest way to get back in touch with it is to remember what it was like to be a child. We were aware then that we lived in an animate world; that we could sit by a tree, who was our friend; or by a brook, who was our friend. It was only when we started going to school that they rather forcefully started to train us out of that perspective.

Because of our indoctrination, it’s difficult for a lot of people to restore what James Hillman called, “the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses.” Robert Bly likened our situation to becoming trapped inside our own houses and only occasionally looking out of the window at a view with which we can have no meaningful contact—because if there’s nothing living or intelligent out there, why bother to extend yourself?

Yet we use our sixth sense, our ability to be touched by the world and to touch it back, every day. This is not in any way esoteric. It’s what happens when you watch a puppy stumbling across the floor, and when it sees you absolutely lights up with joy. There’s a flash of recognition, a kind of energy, that flows from the puppy to you and back again. The puppy bounds across the floor and licks your face and thumps its tail and you laugh and pet it like crazy, and the two of you share a wonderful experience that we have no word for our in our language. But how many millions of people have pets and know what I’m talking about, nonetheless? It’s part of our interior world, and we’ve been taught not to talk about our interior world. That’s “soft” stuff; it’s not “hard science.”

As a result, we’ve ignored our interior world, so we have no deep knowledge of it. But we can know it. We can rekindle the knowing we had as children, simply by asking ourselves in any given situation, “How does this feel?”

You see people do it all the time when they enter a restaurant, or a conference room. They pause for a moment at the door and scan the room to see how it feels and where they might like to sit. They’ll choose a chair that “feels right,” sit down, and if you want to see someone get mad, try sitting in “their” chair when the meeting resumes after the lunch break.

When you begin to routinely and consciously ask yourself, “How does this feel,” a massive aesthetic dimension to life re-emerges and informs you. What it will mostly inform you about at first is how bad most environments feel. Most schools don’t feel good and most kids know it, so they shut down their feeling selves. Most workplaces don’t feel good; most workers know it, so they shut off their feeling selves. Most hospitals and clinics don’t feel good; most patients know it, so they shut off their feeling selves. When we shut down “the response of the heart to what’s presented to the senses,” we end up tolerating conditions and situations that no one in their right mind would ever put up with.

I’ve always felt a great affinity for plants and have been receptive to various communications from them. Most people recognize the “presence” of a giant redwood or sequoia. Quite often, it’s a very wise, peaceful energy. However, I started to go deeper into my feeling for plants when I became violently ill with abdominal cramping. The doctors couldn’t figure out what the problem was, but an herbalist told me that the root of a plant that grew near our house in Colorado was good for that condition. It was the kind of pain that would throw me to the ground screaming, so I was motivated to try it. Not only did it alleviate my cramping, it filled me with a sense of well-being akin to that puppy love euphoria we spoke of earlier. It was such an incredible feeling that I wanted to experience it with all plants.

At the time we lived in Colorado at 9,000 feet, on land that had never been logged, or farmed, or grazed, so the plant diversity around us was massive. I would walk on the land, just letting myself be guided by any plant that drew my attention. Then I’d sit with it and get to know it. After a few years, I began sitting with usnea, a lichen that grows on trees. I was sitting there, gazing at the plant, when I fell into a dream-like state where everything disappeared. I saw a man walking towards me. As he approached, I saw that he was incredibly old, with lichen for hair.

He said to me, “I see that you’ve been sitting here in a good way, so I wanted to tell you that the reason usnea is so good at healing lungs in humans is because it also heals the lungs of the planet, the trees.”

At the time, nothing I’d read or heard told me plants were medicinal for anyone but humans. It had never occurred to me that they performed significant medicinal functions for other species. I ended up writing a whole book about that, The Lost Language of Plants. I researched the medicinal properties of usnea and found out that, indeed, it was used to treat tuberculosis. Soon afterwards, I discovered that the basement of the University of Colorado library had all of these ethnographic accounts from the early 1900s in which researchers had asked native peoples from all over the country how they had learned about the medicinal properties of the plants they worked with. Every one of them described an experience like mine.

It turns out that this kind of experience is very common among scientists, too. Both Francis Crick and James Watson admitted that the image of the double helix of our DNA came to them in a kind of dream state, but they felt foolish saying it.

That experience with usnea was one of the first vivid ones I had, but as time went on I began to have them more regularly. These kinds of experiences have been pushed to the margins of our culture, first by the monotheists then by the reductive scientists and rationalists who came after. Yet our ability to inhabit this Earth as a companion, rather than a dominator, is the kind of thread I’ve followed throughout all my work—whether it’s investigating herbal alternatives to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or the treatment of chronic illnesses like Lyme disease. I also put massive amounts of journal research into my books—reviewing several thousand articles for each one of them—but that’s only to show more reductive readers the reliability of the knowledge I’ve gained from the plants themselves, by asking them to tell me about themselves.

This type of communication develops over time, like any kind of communication skill; like reading. We have to learn to read, and we have to develop comprehension of what we read. In this case, though, we’re reading the text of the world, which is a living text, and which will communicate to anyone who approaches it with the proper attitude of mind.

The one benefit indigenous cultures share that we lack is the inherent understanding that the world is alive and that we’re an embedded part of a living community. But Westerners—by which I mean Americans, the British, and Europeans—have been colonized so long, we have a longer journey back to the original sense of wonder and oneness with the natural world than others. We’re like the black raven who decided he wanted to be a white dove, so practiced for years before deciding he’d never become a white dove; he would just have to stay a raven. But by then he’d forgotten how to be a raven. So, reclaiming our original orientation, which knows its embedded place in a living world filled with other beings, will take some work. But the rewards are a much richer life than the one most of us are living.

The MOON: Once we’re aware that EVERYTHING we’ve been killing is alive, how should we live? It’s bad enough to kill animals…Now we realize that plants are being slaughtered as well…

Buhner: Yeah, I know. [Laughs] When you recognize that in some instances plants are the most intelligent species on the planet—that, for example, there are aspen groves with root systems that cover 100 acres and are hundreds of thousands of years old, whose neural networks dwarf virtually any other life form on the planet—then the moral argument for vegetarianism sort of falls apart.

Here again, I think we can learn from indigenous cultures, who knew that they needed to kill in order to live, and they were aware of the soul burden of taking another life. How did they handle that soul burden? They prayed. They talked to the spirit of the animal before they killed it. They prayed over it after they killed it. They took responsibility for what they did and asked for forgiveness. Through it all, there was a deepening of their relationship with other beings, as well as a deep understanding of the nature and inevitability of death. It’s not possible to escape the reality that other beings die so that we might live. But it is possible to take responsibility for the killing we inflict and undertake it with great awareness and humility. That changes the dynamic of everything we do.

Sooner or later we give back, after all. We biodegrade. But to live with awareness, humility, gratitude, and respect for all of the beings who die so that we might live changes our attitude to everything. Right now, we’re lacking that awareness because we’ve been taught that everything else is insentient; has no soul; and so has no right to be treated with respect.

The MOON: Yes. And being aware and sensitive to this reality might encourage us to kill more reticently; to consume more frugally; because others are literally dying in order to feed us.

Buhner: One of the things I’ve noticed about moving into early old age—I’m 65—is my growing awareness of the side-effects of the most innocuous behaviors. Life keeps showing me that it hasn’t been possible to live without causing harm. It hasn’t been possible to anticipate all of the repercussions of my actions. I find myself increasingly sensitive to past events that have to be grappled with when I awaken in the middle of the night and an inner voice says, “There’s something we need to talk about.” The upside, however, is a growing wisdom, which is part of the gift of being an elder. I’m learning to accept that I’m a predator, and I have to both forgive myself and find a way to repay that debt so I can live with myself.

The MOON: You write quite often about “the metaphysical background of the world.” What is it?

Buhner: There’s a story I tell in my book, Plant Intelligence about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross visiting a Nazi concentration camp in Poland after the war. She walks through this desolate, horrific place where so many people died, and in one of barracks where people had scratched their names or messages to loved ones on the walls, she is startled to find a flurry of butterflies! Children had scratched butterflies in that dreadful place. She was struck motionless by the beauty of that gesture.

Then the young Jewish woman who had been working the gate approaches her and tells her that her entire family had been killed in this concentration camp.

Dr. Kubler-Ross says, “But you are so calm. How can you be so calm, working here where your entire family was killed?” And the woman says, “The Nazis taught me that we each have a Hitler inside of us. If we don’t deal with our own Hitler, the violence will never stop.”

A shift from the surface to the depth of the world takes place in that exchange. That’s part of the metaphysical background of the world. It’s always there, beyond the surface. If you begin to spend time with anything—a plant, a river, a mountain, an animal—its surface becomes more porous and you become aware of the deeper meanings that are flowing through it and all around you, and always have been, but we shut them out because we’re so busy. Every time we stop and rekindle our feeling sense, we have the opportunity to reconnect to the metaphysical background of the world. Many times, though, it has to catch us by surprise—as it did in that moment for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, with both the children’s butterflies, and the young Jewish woman’s wisdom.

That’s why I like to spend time with plants. When I slow down enough, I can hear what they’re trying to teach me. And always, though I learn more about them and what they do, I also learn things I need to know about being a human being. There is a reason, I think, why so many indigenous peoples in the world had legends that taught that the many invisibles with whom we are companioned taught people how to become human beings. But only if we are humble will we be able to understand that. And I think that one of the great tasks facing our species now is how to once again become human beings who sit in the circle of life, surrounded by kin, who can approach those kin in humbleness.






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2 Responses to Stephen Harrod Buhner | The intelligence of plants

  1. elle November 6, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

    Thanks for the great photo of Stephen Buhner,
    I’m an herbalist and a huge fan of his work, his, insights
    and written words…..
    Wonderful article……so glad to see it in Moon Magazine
    My very first experience 30 years ago with another exceptional
    herbalist, David Winston was going out to “listen” to the plants….
    listen, learn, and say thank you…..indeed they “speak”…..
    Another teacher, Mis Mal Crow said he once asked the plants
    what their language (communication) was called and they named
    it “Kofumu”….he asked if this was an “indian word”….no, he was
    told….it is a plant word……so meaningful,
    these are never to be forgotten lessons !

  2. Jackie Goodman November 26, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    Whew! Lovely article! Thank you! So full of interesting insights and information. There’s such a depth of experience and wisdom available every moment that we overlook (I overlook).

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