The Secret Life of Plants — Introduction
This is the title of a book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird published nearly 50 years ago. I’m going to start a new series of articles exploring their theme.
Various investigators have made the following claims:
- plants communicate with each other
- plants communicate with humans
- plants have psychic powers
- plants have healing powers
- plants respond and react to music
- plants are ‘inhabited’ by nature spirits
I won’t be going into great detail, my purpose being mainly to make readers aware of this highly interesting material, so that they can do more reading if they so wish. This is not an exhaustive list, but some relevant books are:
- Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants¹
- John Whitman, The Psychic Power of Plants²
- Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses of Your Garden — and Beyond³
- Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent⁴ and Intelligence in Nature⁵
- Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees⁶
- Dorothy Retallack, The Sound of Music and Plants⁷
- Maurice Mességué, Of Men and Plants⁸
- Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant, A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants⁹
- Peter Tompkins, The Secret Life of Nature¹⁰
The order is not significant, but I’ve finished with the most recent, and another by one of the authors of the original. This has the highly provocative subtitle Living in Harmony with the Hidden World of Nature Spirits, from Fairies to Quarks. People in modern times who say that they believe in fairies are likely to be given a funny look by their friends, and find people avoiding them when they walk the streets. In his preface, however, Tompkins says: “Researching for The Secret Life of Plants in the 1970s, I accumulated some extraordinary material on nature spirits, but the book was already too long and — said my publisher — too ‘far out’. Better not strain credulity”.
The original book was, of course, full of ‘pseudoscience’ according to its critics, even without reference to nature spirits. So they must have been delighted when he brought out this one, since it would have confirmed their suspicion that he might actually be mad. However, we may note that one generation’s pseudoscience, if we follow the argument of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, may become the next generation’s truth.
Why is all this important?
If what Tompkins says is true, it suggests that we need, philosophically speaking, to return to the ancient belief in animism, an idea that modern science has poured scorn on. It would offer evidence that the ancients were much more knowledgeable and sophisticated than we give them credit for.
We are engaged in a battle between the search for truth and so-called Enlightenment ‘science’. It’s interesting that The Secret Life of Plants was a best seller, and was very popular with the general public; it must have resonated strongly with their experience. We are, of course, supposed to prefer and respect the rigours of scientific investigation, rather than trust the public’s intuitions. I’m not so sure.
Far from consigning ancient so-called ‘primitive’ beliefs to the dustbin of history, science is gradually rediscovering the wisdom of the ancients. We are hopefully on the way to a reunification of science and religion (some may prefer the term spirituality). It seems, on the basis of what has just been said, that this would be a renaissance of paganism. I wouldn’t go that far, but some pagan ideas would need to be reintegrated into the new synthesis.
As many people have noted, quantum physics is leading the way towards this reunification. I refer you again to Tompkins’ subtitle Living in Harmony with the Hidden World of Nature Spirits, from Fairies to Quarks. Dorothy Retallack said something on the same theme: “Many of us know that all matter is simply a form of energy, of certain types of waves and pulsing vibration”. “Louis de Broglie felt that there is a pattern of waves in every atom. Therefore, according to this theory underlying all seen and unseen electromagnetic waves, heard and unheard sound waves, felt and unfelt gravity waves there is yet another vast and mysterious ocean of atomic particle waves. It is in and through the constantly shifting patterns of this atomic surf that the fundamental chemistry and physics of our living — and indeed all life is expressed”¹¹. She quotes in her epigram Donald Hatch Andrews, a former Professor of Chemistry, from his Symphony of Life: “We are finding that the universe is composed not of matter but of music”, which has echoes of the ancient belief in the Harmony of the Spheres. On that theme it is also worth noting the title of a book by the biologist Denis Noble, The Music of Life¹².
Scientists who are following this path sometimes express a strongly spiritual worldview. For example, Monica Gagliano opens her book with an address to Humanity: “The Void sings everything into Being. You are the Singing Void. Then Sing!” This sounds like an idea that could be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or ancient Greek philosophy.
To conclude, when The Secret Life of Plants first came out, it “was gleefully disparaged by the academic establishment. The editor of Science, Philip Abelson, suggested it should be put on the equivalent of the Vatican’s Index, as unsuitable reading”¹³. This sounds remarkably similar to a later remark made by John Maddox, editor of Nature, upon the publication of Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life¹⁴. He entitled his review “A book for burning?”, and went on to say: “ Sheldrake’s argument is in no sense a scientific argument but is an exercise in pseudo-science… Many readers will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion — and this, indeed, may have been a part of the objective of writing such a book”¹⁵.
All of this suggests to me that Tompkins and Sheldrake were probably on the right track.
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).
1. USA 1973, my copy Penguin 1975
2. Star Books, W. H. Allen & Co, 1975
3. Oneworld, 2012
4. Phoenix, 1999
5. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006
6. Greystone Books, 2016
7. DeVorss & Co, 1973
8. Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1972.
9. North Atlantic Books, 2018
10. Thorsons, 1997
11. as footnote 7, p 9–10
12. OUP 2006, my copy 2008
13. Brian Inglis, The Hidden Power, Jonathan Cape, 1986, p19
14. Blond and Briggs, 1981
15. Nature, September 24th 1981