Welcoming the Light of Love

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.

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.