A Return to Animism? And Listening to Plants
The purpose of this article is partly to give some retrospective publicity to those participating in an event that I attended last Friday (March 13th, 2020). Before I move on to that, here is the relevant preamble.
Spiritually oriented people believe that the fundamental nature of the universe is consciousness rather than matter, that everything in existence is a manifestation of a supreme (divine) consciousness. Since consciousness implies life, the logical conclusion is that, no matter how inorganic and lifeless some objects may seem, for example rocks, they must nevertheless have some form of consciousness, no matter how basic. Someone who argues this persuasively on Medium is White Feather (see his article, I Like Rocks: Have you ever imagined being one?). Also, the Transpersonal Psychologist Stanislav Grof has spent his life doing altered-states therapy, using LSD at the start of his career, then intensive breathing techniques when LSD was banned. He reports that people can identify with trees, and even stones, when in these altered states of consciousness.
If everything in the universe is alive, this suggests a worldview called animism, which was a common, perhaps universal, belief of ancient peoples. It has unsurprisingly been rejected out of hand by modern science. Perhaps the ancients knew something we don’t, and it is time to return to animism.
The first sign in modern times that things were changing was James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, that planet Earth is a self-regulating ‘living’ superorganism. In the 1970s this shocked the scientific community, and attracted much criticism and derision from conventional scientists.
More recently there has been a book called Towards an Animistic Science of the Earth by Stephan Harding, which is available as a free Ebook (click here). I am grateful to Jack Preston King on Medium for making me aware of this in an article entitled ‘God Killed the Great Mother. Science is Dancing on Her Grave. Let’s Bring Her Back to Life and Save the World’, and subtitled ‘What the World Needs Now — Scientific Animism’. He opens with a quote from Harding: “If we are to have any chance of surviving the looming catastrophe that science and technology have inadvertently helped to create we will need more wisdom, not more analytical capacity… We now urgently need to develop a new approach in science that integrates analysis with wisdom, fact with value, and nature with culture… by replacing our demonstrably unwise (and until recently, unconscious) assumption that the world is an inert machine with the arguably wiser and more accurate metaphor that the world is a vast animate (and hence ‘sentient’) being”.
I have always been fascinated by Jeremy Narby’s book The Cosmic Serpent¹, especially the opening chapters. The basic claim is that the psychedelic substance ayahuasca allows communication with plants: “You can see images and learn things”, says Ruperto Gomez, someone he met during his research. Narby later says that people in the Amazonian forest “insisted that their extensive botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations” (p10).
It is worth exploring that last point at some length. Narby says that “the botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists. The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point. Amazonian shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millennia. The brew is a necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together for hours. The first contains a hallucinogenic substance, dimethyltryptamine, which also seems to be secreted by the human brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant, however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain. The sophistication of the recipe has prompted Richard Evans Schultes, the most renowned ethnobotanist of the twentieth century to comment: ‘One wonders how peoples in primitive societies, with no knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Pure experimentation? Perhaps not. The examples are too numerous and may become even more numerous with future research’.
“So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among some 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect. And they do this to modify their consciousness.
“It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they know these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic plants” (p10-11).
What does that mean exactly? How does this knowledge come? Narby goes on to mention Luis Eduardo Luna, author of a study of the shamanism of mestizo ayahuasqueros, Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the mestizo population of the Peruvian Amazon , who “say that ayahuasca is a doctor, It possesses a strong spirit and it is considered an intelligent being with which it is possible to establish rapport, and from which it is possible to acquire knowledge and power…” (Narby, p18).
Narby has long discussions with a local expert Carlos Perez Shuma who says: “When an ayahuasquero drinks his plant brew, the spirits present themselves to him and explain everything” (p19). This is intriguing. What does he mean by ‘spirits’? Are we talking about quasi-human disembodied spirits giving advice? Or is it rather the spirits of the plants themselves? The suggestion is that it is the latter for, according to Narby, Shuma goes on to mention “invisible beings called maninkari, who are found in animals, plants, mountains, streams, lakes, and certain crystals, and who are sources of knowledge”. He quotes Shuma: ‘The maninkari taught us how to spin and weave cotton, and how to make clothes” (p25).
Western scientists must be getting very agitated at this point. What exactly are we talking about here? Fairies? Nymphs? Naiads? Dryads? Undines?
Moving on now to the event I mentioned at the beginning, it took place at Treadwell’s bookshop, London. They stock books about esotericism, the occult, magic, paganism, and so on. They also host events, and I’m on their mailing list. (Click here for their website, and here for events.) A few weeks ago I received notification of an event called ‘Food Forest of Souls’, which was going to be a conversation between a certain Gordon White and Dr. Jack Hunter. I had never heard of them, but was intrigued by the advance publicity.
Gordon White was described as “a practising chaos magician, and the host of Rune Soup, a popular podcast on magic, culture and the paranormal. He is the author of Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits, The Chaos Protocols: Magical Techniques for Navigating the New Economic Reality, and Pieces of Eight: Chaos Magic Essays and Enchantments”.
Jack Hunter was described as: “Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester, a tutor on the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and an Access to Higher Education lecturer in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Newtown College. He is the editor of Damned Facts: Fortean Essays on Religion, Folklore and the Paranormal and Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience”.
The publicity further said: “The return of animism as a worldview has strong advocates in Jack Hunter and Gordon White, and it is now on a shortlist of acceptable metaphysical models. Join these two as they undertake a ‘Rune Soup’ style conversation on the Treadwells sofa, to explore what ecology can learn from magic, what magic can learn from ecology and what they both can teach mainstream science. They will be taking in topics from UFOs to ayahuasca to plant-human relationships”.
This all sounded really weird, and obviously relevant to the issues Narby’s book was raising, so I immediately signed up, hoping to gain more insight. Unfortunately, the day before the talk I received an email saying that Jack Hunter was no longer able to attend, and would be replaced by Jay Springett, “a theorist and strategist for hybrid environments. He’s a Solarpunk whose concerns lie in the area where humans intersect with technology and the environment. A founding member of the decentralised creative exchange Guild.is, he is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an associate of the Institute of Atemporal Studies. Jay is currently writing his first public book, Land as Platform”.
I was offered the possibility of a refund and, from the biographies, I probably would have preferred Jack Hunter, but decided to go ahead anyway.
I won’t go into details about the whole conversation, save to say that the two speakers were passionate ecologists — you can easily imagine their conversation from the publicity mentioned above. This was new territory for me, and I was introduced to words I’d never heard before: permaculture, steampunk, solarpunk.
The topic which I was hoping to learn about most was this question of human communication with plants, and the spirit world in general. I knew from the books of Peter Wohlleben that trees and plants seem to communicate with each other. It was new to me to hear, even if we don’t understand how, that insects and plants also communicate with each other; at least, this is something Gordon White firmly believes. He pointed out that humans are apparently unique, in that we are the only species which uses language to communicate. All other creatures seem to use non-verbal, we assume, methods. He said that he communicates with plants in order to assist him in his ecological endeavours.
The words ‘magic’ and ‘spirit world’ cropped up frequently. I began to wonder exactly what was meant by this. I was having fantasies of latter-day John Dee figures, invoking spirits through magical spells. I asked a question along those lines at the end of the session, and Gordon replied that this was a rather old-fashioned way of looking at it, and that it was more a question of communing with spirits. I engaged him in further conversation during the drinks which followed. I asked him again about the nature of his communication with plants. He told me that it was indeed non-verbal, more in the nature of imagery, and intuitions, although very real.
I had a second question. This is the background to it. I’m very interested in the question of superorganisms, for example, how a termite colony seems to act as one, even though it may consist of thousands of individual termites. I was once fortunate to ask the ‘heretical’ biologist Rupert Sheldrake his opinion about this in a conversation following a talk he gave. His response was that he believed it was “a group mind”.
As I had never previously had the opportunity to speak directly to anyone who claimed to communicate with plants, I was keen to ask Gordon whether he thought he was communicating with individual plants, which would suggest that they had some awareness of their identity, or whether there was some hidden supervising intelligence, a group mind which was coordinating things behind the scenes. I was thinking along these lines: an individual liver cell probably doesn’t know that it is part of a liver, yet performs its function perfectly within that organ; a liver probably doesn’t know that it is part of a human being, yet performs its function perfectly nevertheless. The brain seems to be the organising command centre of a human, but does the brain know what it is doing? Where exactly does the organising intelligence lie?
By analogy, if we accept James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, that the Earth is a self-regulating ‘living’ superorganism, and that all things that exist on it, for example plants, have some function within the superorganism, then it is reasonable to ask whether each individual plant has some awareness of its function, or whether it performs its function unconsciously, controlled by something like a global brain. I asked Gordon this question in an abbreviated form, and he replied the former, that he believed that he was actually communicating with individual plants. That is extremely interesting. Is each individual termite or ant aware of its role in the overall functioning of the nest, therefore? I have no answers to any of these questions, yet still find the subject matter fascinating.
To conclude, at this event I heard for the first time about Dr. Monica Gagliano and her book Thus Spoke the Plant: a Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. This is the Amazon description: “Dr. Monica Gagliano is a pioneer in the cutting-edge science of plant intelligence, cognition, and communication. This book is the enchanting account of Monica’s journey. It’s comprised of events of absolute bravery to pursue what, in her heart, she believed was her true path”. I’ll definitely be adding this to my reading list.
By a strange coincidence, just as I was about to upload this, I noticed that Jeremy Narby, discussed above and the original inspiration for this article, has said of her book: “Those who wish to see how a shamanic approach can help advance the scientific understanding of plants need to read this wonderful book. Monica Gagliano opens up new frontiers and her methods deserve broad attention”².
Let’s all do everything we can to bring back animism to the world’s attention.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- Phoenix, 1999
- found on her website