A Species of Thinking

When I stepped to the counter with The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I broke in on a conversation between the proprietress and a customer hawking her capabilities as a spirit healer. Unaware that I was incubating a serious respiratory infection, I went looking for a juice bar hoping to restore the energy expended earlier in the day while dancing in Culver City. It was kind of a random walk up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to orient myself to the addresses provided by Cortana, but as I waited to cross Fifth Street I was accosted by the customer, who broke in hopefully “I saw that book you bought, too.” Without turning my head, I observed “Yeah, I bought it because I realized that I am paying too much attention to people,” and stepped into the crosswalk as the signal changed.

The first chapter of the book was a balm to my soul. Buhner writes of being introduced to “wild water” by his grandfather, a man that maneuvered through brush as though guiding a lady across a crowded dance floor (my image, not Buhner’s). Like Buhner, I feared the consequences to my sons of the lack of access to wild places, and lugged 50-pound backpacks up and down the Sierras to be where I could share my affinity with them. In reading how trees will irrigate the soil by pulling water to the surface while their stoma are closed at night, I remembered walking by a reservoir surrounded by parched stands of oak, and trying to tell the trees closest to the water to lift some to their brothers further up the hill. In celebrating the mystical insights of tribal peoples, Buhner reveals the richness and suggestiveness of their taxonomic terminology, and exposes again and again how their myths reflect the biochemical dependencies between species. The book also dwells lovingly on the transformations that occur as life propagates into a receptive environment. This poetical celebration of the tenacity and interdependence of the lower orders of life is one thread of Buhner’s exposition.

The second thread warns of the disaster that looms due to humanity’s disruption of the chemical balance of the natural world. This takes many forms: replacement of complex biomes with industrial monocultures such as wheat and corn; dispersal of long-lived cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that disrupt natural endocrine responses and breed superpests; replacement or suppression of wildlife that served to cycle nutrients through soil; and mass harvesting of plant life that releases natural chemicals to soil in amounts that overwhelm the bacteria and fungi that process them for reuse. Each of these factors contributes to the impending extinction of many plant species.

As a reader, both threads serve to illuminate the reality experienced by the plant kingdom, so I cannot complain about this book in the same way that I complained about A Global History of Christians. But, confronting the loss of so much that he holds dear, Buhner beats a straw man: scientific reductionism. In the rush of each discipline to grasp the mechanisms that determine that characteristics of its subject, science has ignored the systemic interactions that ensure the fertility and robustness of natural biomes. This includes our symbiotic relationships: the bacteria, fungi and nematodes that live within and on us in a balance that medicines disrupt, sometimes irrecoverably.

But I find that Buhner goes too far in asserting the wisdom of the natural world. His claims are disproven by the impact of invasive species. If nature always kept balance, how do:

  • cane toads run amok in Australia,
  • kudzu and Spanish moss infest the forests of the American South,
  • European songbirds wipe out the smaller songbirds of the New World, and
  • European grasses choke out the sagebrush of the West?

Such imbalances are only restored through extinction and restoration of diversity through exploitation of new opportunities in the devastated habitats. While human transportation serves to facilitate such traumas, in the modern era it is only the pace of disruption that is unnatural, not the phenomenon itself.

This extends, of course, to the most invasive species of all: homo sapiens sapiens. While Buhner decries scientific reductionism, yet its terminology and tools provide the insights that he uses to cast his poetic glamour over the reader. In describing the formation of humus (p. 165) he identifies “flavonoids, degraded lignin, terpenes, lignans, and tannins,” then continues:

Humus is mostly two substances, humic acid and a combination of polysaccharides or sugar molecules. No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living substance and possesses a number of unique characteristics. It forms crystals, much like snowflakes in a sense, and, like snowflakes, no identical ones have ever been found.

While humus is a biochemical reservoir that facilitates growth, the virtue of plant medicine also reflects strategies used by plants to destroy competitors and parasites.

As Buhner documents, this natural biochemical productivity dwarfs human activity. The difference is that the products of natural biochemistry are introduced slowly enough that bacteria learn to process them. Sometimes that adaptation requires millions of years – lignin, for example, is the substance that trees use to form wood. When it first evolved, trees did not decompose after falling, but accumulated on the forest floor until burning. Oxygen content in the atmosphere soared to 30%, and the giant insects displaced other land animals. When bacteria finally learned to digest lignin, conditions reverted, triggering another jarring disruption to the global ecology.

How is the human incursion different in kind from these events? To Buhner, it seems to boil down to “once we knew better.” This is not to say that we understood. In contrast to the reductionist scientific epistemology of a mechanistic reality, Buhner celebrates the epistemology of “pre-industrial” cultures. Their medical practitioners universally ascribe their wisdom to (page 33):

“nonordinary” experiences, specifically: dreams, visions, direct communications from the plant, or sacred beings.

Was this good enough? Did Life make a mistake in creating humanity? Or do we exist because Life sought for solutions to problems that could be solved no other way?

Consider our agriculture: corn, wheat and rice are not naturally occurring varieties. Their utility as foodstuffs reflects the pressure of human selection, and is manifested in both the quantity and chemical stability of their output. As a result, humanity invests far less mental effort gathering food than it did, liberating a privileged class to the pursuit of understanding.

Buhner decries the regimentation of scientific disciplines which is accompanied by the growth of intellectual barriers that impede systems thinking. But is this not just as in the natural world? Buhner describes the intermingling of distinct species in the soil layer, each contributing to the survival of the others. Is that not the situation in the sciences?

As each natural species can be traced back to bacteria, yet is considered distinct from it, could we not celebrate the emergence of distinct disciplines from the common root of humanity? Perhaps, over the long run, what Life is interested in is a liberation from random evolutionary pressures punctuated by traumatic extinctions. In the short term, humanity was bound to make a mess before mastering our practice, and our pride and myopia is certainly exacerbating our difficulties. In the end, though, I believe that we will enter into a golden era of thoughtful evolution, empowered by the human capacity to evolve new species of thought.