“Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of soul. It is only we, in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata.”— Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants
We perceive the world through five senses– sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. That is our universe. But maybe it’s more than that. Snakes see heat, dogs smell fear, elephants hear clouds, manatees feel tides, and catfish taste things far away. Since perceptions create our world, perhaps there’s another universe we don’t see because we can’t. Enter the world of plants.
The Enigma of Glacier Mice
While studying glaciers in Alaska, scientists encountered something unexpected: balls of moss that move around in a coordinated, herdlike fashion. Intrigued, they followed tagged individuals, named “glacier mice” in the 1950s by an Icelandic researcher. Stunned by their findings, they discovered the whole colony of moss balls moved at the same speed and same directions. They initially believed they would all roll downhill, with the wind, or with sunlight, but they didn’t. Instead, these mini spaceships composed of complex colonies of moss species and thousands of invertebrate critters moved around in a choreographed formation — like a flock of birds or a herd of wildebeests (Greenfieldboyce, 2020). Scientists are still scratching their heads, trying to explain their behavior in physical terms. Maybe they are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the answer is metaphysical.
The Secret Life of Plants
In 1971, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird came out with an explosive book, The Secret Life of Plants. Pulling together science from the ages, they countered the belief that plants were motionless and feelingless because we never take the time to watch them. Importantly, they point out that without plant life, we would neither breathe nor eat, and we would miss the spiritually and emotionally satisfying presence of plants in our homes and our gardens. Plants are anything but static and devoid of life. If we watch carefully, plants are constantly bending, turning, and quivering. Their roots can bore through concrete, and their tendrils can attach to an object in 20 seconds. But that’s just the physical dimension of their existence.
The bulk of Tompkins and Bird’s book focused on experiments by Cleve Backster in the 1960s. At the time, Backster was an expert and leading authority on lie detectors. On impulse, Backster hooked up a plant. What he found challenges the world’s scientists to this day. Thinking of ways to elicit an emotional response in the plant, just like a human, he imagined burning a leaf which elicited in an instant response to the plant. Baffled, he repeated the experiment in the next room and recorded the same response. Eventually he tested more than 25 varieties of plants, and even fruits — some when he was in other cities when the tests were conducted — and was astonished to arrive at a new view of life with explosive connotations for science: plants perceive human thought and respond to our intentions. He decided his results demonstrated a form of ESP, which he called “Primary Perception,” a new sense unique to plants.
After years of research, he surmised that plants had a special form of communication, which included an affinity with their plant kin and with the animals that eat them. Astounded, he found the communication was unaffected by distance. Backter’s believed their mental and emotional messages operate outside time as we perceive it, and outside of the electromagnetic spectrum we see. He concluded there was a oneness among all living things and that sentience, the capacity to feel, perceive and experience subjectively— the definition of conscious beings— was present in plants and may go down to the molecular, atomic, and even subatomic level (Tompkins and Bird,1971).
Not surprisingly, Backster’s theories were rejected by the scientific community. The main reason: plants don’t have a nervous system and can’t perceive the world as we do. In other words, because they don’t have what animals do, they can’t possibly have senses beyond ours. Admittedly, I’m skeptical of his work but intrigued by the metaphysical connotations. I’m also not entirely convinced efforts to repeat his work– which have never replicated his results– were done correctly. Maybe the plants sensed the researchers were not open to the possibility of their perceptions? Well, how about some music?
The Sound of Music and Plants
Dorothy Retallack published her research on plants and music in 1973, and her The Sound of Music and Plants was an instant hit. These books came out during a time when people in the 1970s were opening their minds to the spiritual side of life, a unique time in our cultural history. Retallack’s experiments, which were part of her senior thesis at the Colorado Women’s College, showed that playing music to plants increased their growth rate. And it wasn’t just music but certain types of music. According to Retallack, the best music for plant growth is soothing, positive classical, or Indian music. Interesting, like my parents, plants don’t like Rock ‘n Roll, and its harsh, heavy, angry, or discordant sounds.
Although her work has received significant criticism by the scientific community (e.g., Chalker-Scott, below), her work was repeated by scientists that have supported her conclusions. For example, the numerous experiments summarized by Chowdhury and Gupta (2015) showed that specific audio frequencies in the form of music facilitated the germination and growth of plants, but non-rhythmic and inharmonious sounds had a negative effect on the growth of plants. (e.g., rock music — sorry Led Zeppelin).
Songs of the Trees
When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.— Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
Trees truly live in a different world than we do, a world where time, at least from our perspective, is slow and endless, where seasons roll by like days, decades like weeks, centuries like years. Where life is measured in millennia. If any plants benefit from something like primary perception, it would be our ancient long-lived trees. So it is written in the Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllben (2016).
Wohlben, a lifelong forester, writes that trees speak a sophisticated silent language and communicate complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. He discusses significant scientific research showing that neighboring trees may help each other through their root systems thorough intertwining roots or connections via extensive fungal networks. They are not the solitary individuals we see, but families that help each other through an extended nervous system very different from our own, one which connects to nearby trees. It is analogous to the Tree of Souls in the movie Avatar, which connects to all life on the planet through its global root system or it’s wind-borne seeds, the Atokirina.
Clearly, their is much more to plants than we see. Even without a deeper understanding of their significance, plants are intertwined with our lives at so many levels that we have worshiped them, especially trees, since the dawn of humankind.
Celtic traditions & Pantheism
Plants are a key part of worldwide myths and legends. In Celtic traditions, for example, people believed that different trees served different mystical purposes that helped them through their lives. As such, they were considered sacred and the abode of nature spirits. Similarly, in Norse legends, the Yggdrasil was an immense ash tree at the center of the cosmos and was considered holy. Its was connected to the nine worlds of the universe with its roots and branches and was the center of Norse governing activities.
This connection of all life with the universe is a philosophy that embraces the belief that all things, the physical, biological, and spiritual, are connected. These are elements of Pantheism a belief that everything in the universe is linked in a profound unity of spirit; everything is interconnected and interdependent and that both in life and in death in humans is an integral part of this cosmos-wide unity (Harrison, 2016). Pantheism was the dominant belief of many philosophers and poets from Wordsworth to Whitman and is still very common today.
In my book, Songs of Thalassa, the main character Sage develops an environmental consciousness based on her Hawaiian culture and Pantheism that supports environmental protection of all life.
Songs of Thalassa
As the vibrations washed through, her mind soared over Thalassa’s landscape, passing the ridges and valleys covered in a pastiche of red, yellow, and orange colors….The humming was low, vibrant, and intense. There was joy in their union and strength in their harmony; they were conscious of themselves and each other. With a shudder, she realized their consciousness included her.Excerpt from Songs of Thalassa by Brian Tissot
In Songs of Thalassa, all things on the planet Thalassa are interconnected in a profound symbiosis. One way this is illustrated is through the red, orange, and yellow lichen-like organisms that cover the land and seafloor. At several points in the book. Sage experiences their spirits which are connected across the landscape and seascape of Thalassa and ultimate to earth. Sage’s experiences on the planet led her to embrace her Hawaiian beliefs of connections to her ancestors and a new belief that all life is connected, even across the universe. My inclusion of this philosophy in my book is based on the idea that plants, indeed all things, are sentient and have souls.
What this means in your life is the path before you. Maybe you feel a connection to plants when you are in your garden or see a beautiful flower on a hike, or you have a relationship with a special tree. Maybe now you’ll give extra thought to what you are feeling and how plants around you are responding to your emotions or the music you play. For if plants truly have souls, then we are missing essential connections to spirit in our lives, the spirit present in all things. A life-force we should all embrace. Honestly, I don’t know if plants have souls but I chose to believe they do and seek their wisdom and solace throughout my life. Only time will tell.
- Chalker-Scott, L. The Myth of Absolute Science “If it’s published, it must be true.” Unpublished handout. 2pp. Accessed 6/10/20
- Chowdhury, A.R. and A. Gupta. 2015. Effect of music on plants–an overview. International Journal of Integrative sciences, Innovation, and Technology. IV(6): ISSN 2278 – 1145
- Coulson S.J. and Midgley N.G.The role of glacier mice in the invertebrate colonization of glacial surfaces; the moss balls of the Falljokull, Iceland. Draft manuscript. 24 pp.
- Goodavage, M. 2019 Amazing Facts About Your Dog’s Sense of Smell. Dogster.com. Accessed 6/10/20
- Greenfieldboyce, N. 2020. Herd Of Fuzzy Green ‘Glacier Mice’ Baffles Scientists. NPR.com. Accessed 5/28/2020.
- Which animals Have the Best Hearing Abilities? Hear.com. Accessed 6/10/20.