Stephen Harrod Buhner closes The Lost Language of Plants just as I would have hoped. After recounting a healing session with a young lady, the book closes with four autobiographic sketches, each by a herbologist recounting immersion in biophilia. Left behind are the recriminations and the tone of moral superiority that marred the preceding chapters. Each of the writers focuses on the opportunity before us now – an opportunity to call into being relationships built around affirmations of love shared with the world around us.
As the book progressed, lunging between the yin and yang of natural and industrial chemistry, I found myself remembering my experiences of being stalked by predators. One was at a Webelos overnighter, of all things, at Camp Whitsett in the Southern Sierras. A Native American elder inducted a number of the senior scouts in a fire ceremony. As the ceremony progressed, I had a strong sense of the bear in the man, and felt the fire of predation building in the camp as the boys settled in to sleep. Rather than hiding from it, I let it enter into my heart, sent my will into the forest to demonstrate that no bears were present, and then breathed peace into the space I had cleared. The fear resided, and the camp settled into slumber. Several years later, I was driving home from work on Friday night, knowing that my youngest son had been sent to the Sierras on a camping trip, and felt the bear again in his presence. I sent the warning “Wake up, Gregory! Get Mr. Povah!” When he returned that Sunday, I learned that on Saturday morning, he had woken early, and heard a noise as Mr. Povah’s son Braden was dragged away from the camp by a black bear. The onrush of shouting campers scared the bear off, and Braden survived with only a bruised ankle.
Given his immersion in the natural world, I doubt that Buhner has not had similar experiences. But perhaps not – he has been chosen by the world of chlorophyll, the deep, patient source of renewal. That touches the animal realm through the herbivores, an intimate co-creative process that Buhner documents in loving detail. But the animal kingdom has another dimension as well: in Love Works, I enumerate the rites of blood – sex, maternity, the hunt and sacrifice. Each of these has its unique pathologies, and the fragility of animal existence means that those pressures are often driven into fear and rage.
In Dune, the great science-fiction author Frank Herbert advances the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
It was this discipline that I exercised in Camp Whitsett. It is the discipline of the rational mind, a discipline that safeguards our ability to perceive clearly and so to exercise our intelligence when facing circumstances that our natural talents could never hope to overcome. It is to perceive the forces in play with the aim of negotiating a win-win outcome when the predator’s zero-sum mentality holds sway.
As I finished the life sketches that close The Lost Language of Plants, I was filled with the desire to find these people and join forces with them. A great barrier arose, followed by a vision and memory. Buhner shares the plant kingdom’s experience of light, that great source of love that originates from the sun and desires to merge with us through them. But when discussing with my sister the ecological disasters that will confront our children, I told her,
This is how we heal the world: by teaching the plants not simply to receive passively the light, but to reach up to the sun and guide its power to rebuild the devastated forests and savannahs.
This may seem like a little thing, but to accomplish it we have to convince them to surrender the conventions of the chemistry that Buhner celebrates so tenderly. It is to recognize that it is not the plant that is important, but the spiritual transformation that gives courage to the fearful through its physical manifestations.
Buhner touches on this metaphorically in describing his healing work. He testifies that he meets people that are missing parts, and is guided by visions of plants that can fill those voids. It is in establishing those relationships that healing arrives, through an expansion of spirit that occurs when our hollowness is filled.
I spent the rest of the day struggling with the grief that filled me then.
It has two parts. The first is that the plant is only an intermediary – it is a reservoir in which love gathers, but it is not the source itself. It was the source that disciplined me, forcing me stand apart until people realize that all intermediaries are imperfect. Secondly: in that place apart we are beset by those that would ravage the gardens that Buhner and his peers create. We plant the seeds of knowledge, and watch as they are corrupted by the predators. We heal the wounded, and set them again into the world, hoping that each time the light of love reaches more deeply into them.
It is hard to be told that our path has led us into evil. I wish that Buhner could see that scientific reductionism is a means of removing the primitive triggers of predation from the world. Yes, it has gone too far, but it has also created the field in which he and his friends plant their garden.
Lest we wish to repeat the experience of Eden, we must leave recrimination behind. I take solace that in his closing Buhner celebrates the light of love that will ultimately unite us all.