Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

It’s always fascinating to me to see some of my own weirder thoughts (built up, of course, from things that others have written) fleshed out in a book that takes things much further than I’d dreamed possible, backed by wit, vision, and hard science.

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, is one of those books. It isn’t a light read, but it’s a good read, and it’s quite amusing when it isn’t blowing your mind.

In the opening Note to the Reader, he says, “As Einstein so eloquently put it, We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The book is about nothing less than learning to use a different kind of thinking. As he works patiently through the project of reframing our concept of the world so that we can change our kind of thinking, he gives us little quotes from the great minds of the past that make it clear that this is nothing new: what he is teaching is exactly how the great minds thought, and the reason we call them the great minds.

The core insight is that the Earth is alive. This does not mean it is a dead ball of rock covered with a skin of viciously competing life-forms clawing toward the light. It means that the Earth is a living entity in its own right, an entity that regulates the global environment just as the human body regulates its internal temperature and blood-glucose levels. But the Earth is not simply a giant thermostat that clicks on and off in a predictable, machine-like way. Rather, it displays all of the characteristics of a living being with a very high (though non-human) intelligence. It is, in fact, far more intelligent than humans. It possesses billions of years of accumulated memory, and its neural net, composed of countless bacteria, mycelia, and plant root nodes swimming in a sea of brain-chemicals like serotonin (which is everywhere) girdles the entire planet.

I feel certain that one of the reasons James Cameron’s film, Avatar, had such a profound impact on people, is that it reminded us viscerally of the truth of this insight, that the Earth is alive. It is an insight that has been rigorously trained out of us by a human education that states unequivocally that we are the masters, and the world is a dead thing to be used, covered with inferior species that also exist by our leave and for our pleasure.

One of the sections of the book that fascinated me was on the natural function of all the psychoactive chemicals that inundate the soil and waters. He talks about the role of these chemicals in promoting neuroplasticity, which underlies the ability to learn, and in neural gating, which is what underlies the ability to selectively ignore sensory input.

I’ve been reading that many “gifted” individuals suffer from sensory overload, or a “gating deficit,” which interferes with their ability to filter out sensory input. It is (in our society) labeled a pathology and is sometimes treated with drugs to forcibly blunt the senses. Interestingly enough, the different mode of thinking that Buhner lays out consists precisely of lowering the neural gating threshold and “opening the gates of perception.”

This is one of the primary functions of many of the psychoactive compounds that suffuse the natural world, such as DMT (the active ingredient of ayahuasca), LSD (concentrated from naturally-occurring ergots), and the one that is confounding our legal system right now, cannabis. These psychoactive compounds change our perception, just as they change the perceptual processing of bacteria, carrots, and trees. They make us more aware of our surroundings, by lowering our perceptual gates and allowing us to sense more.

This is also one of the primary functions of many religious and contemplative ritual practices throughout the ages: opening the gates of perception. While we don’t have a full account of the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece, they seem to have contained a strong element of sensory overload, possibly combined with psychoactive compounds. The essence of a rock concert or a large drum circle is sensory overload and entrainment within the driving rhythm — again, often combined with psychoactive substances. There are quiet, contemplative approaches as well, all of them attempts to quiet the “monkey chatter” of the mind that runs free when our sensory channels are closed tight and the mind has nowhere to go but ’round in circles, often combined with psychoactive substances produced by the body through hunger, sleep deprivation, or induced fevers (as in a sweat ritual).

Opened perceptual gating is how we talk with Gaia, the world-intelligence.

In a different world, a different time, people with “gating-deficit disorders” would have been the shamans who speak with the plants to find their healing properties; the seers who see the bad rains coming, or the locusts, or the droughts; the story-tellers who follow the Golden Thread into the metaphysical reality behind the world’s appearance, and convey to the people who they are as children of Gaia: what their purpose and meaning is.

The rise of all this literature, fiction, film-images, and the shift in scientific thinking, signals to me that such a world and time is returning. As it must, if our species is not to be thrown out of the game as a hopeful experiment gone wrong.

One of the things that Buhner states in several places is that Gaia is profoundly indifferent to the human species. In a way, that makes perfect sense: genus homo is a real newcomer to the Gaian ecosphere, and homo sapiens sapiens is just an eyeblink. It may be that the only reason we are still here is that we are so new She hasn’t quite noticed us. One of James Lovelock’s nightmares — he’s the fellow credited with introducing the Gaia Hypothesis to the scientific community — is that if we pose too much of a threat to the Earthmind, Gaia may just up and decide, “You know, this whole oxygen experiment isn’t really working out. Let’s go back to a methane atmosphere.” If you thought global warming was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’.

But I’m not so sure about this one. I can’t say I’m a good channel for the Gaian intelligence, but in my few and fleeting contacts, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of both beauty and loving attention. I think there’s still a trace of mechanistic science floating around in this book, and an underestimation of the vast intelligence of the Gaian mind. I think — or at least, I want to believe — that each of these experiments Gaia has crafted, from pufferfish to humans, was not a toss-off, a “Let’s shake up some genes and see what comes out, and if it’s a monster, we’ll just step on it and start over.” No experienced potter would make a bowl that way, and if Gaia has nothing else, She has experience.

That store of experience also means, of course, that She is no sentimental pushover.

However, if She does remove us from the Earth, I think it will not be with indifference, but with great sorrow. And disappointment.


I was so enthralled with the book that I blogged before I finished reading it, and one of the most mind-blowing thoughts comes right at the very end, when Buhner talks about the ecological function of humans.

Clearly, humans have one, as do all organisms — else we wouldn’t be here. But what is it that we actually do?

Buhner’s suggestion comes from an earlier part of his book, where he talks about sex, which permeates the living world: it’s how genes recombine, which is key to how Gaia functions. An early form of sexual propagation was based on diffusion, either through water, or through the air. But at some point in her endless experimentation, Gaia came upon the idea of directed sexual coupling, through pollination: a new kingdom, like the insects, came into being, and in the wonderful dance of multi-layered meanings that is the signature of Gaian activity, they serve not only their own reproductive purposes, but also the reproductive purposes of the plants they harvest for food. Both species change: the plants develop bright colors and sweet nectar to attract the insects, and the insects develop physical features to assist in carrying pollen and a preference for nectar from certain plants so that they carry genes from one plant directly to another plant of the same species. It’s quite elegant.

So it turns out that microbes from the Earth are going into space all the time, propelled upward by winds, by volcanoes, by asteroid strikes; any number of these get carried out of the earth’s atmosphere, hitching rides on low-flying rocks that skim the atmosphere but do not stop, and other mechanisms. It is propagation through diffusion into space. The odds that any of these will end up on, say, Venus or Mars, are not zero, but they are miniscule. It would be so much better if they could hitch a ride on something actually directed toward Venus or Mars in a kind of microbial pollination.

Humans, for some unknown reason, have always had an obsession with exploring….

Buhner also notes that when a plant reaches reproductive maturity, all its resources go into producing the seed, to the profound (apparent) detriment of the plant. In fact, the plant starts looking downright shabby and used-up as it “goes to seed.”

It’s a loose set of suggestive metaphors, but it frames a fascinating thought. Perhaps our human overuse of global resources has been intended all along by the Gaian intelligence toward a specific end: namely, seeding other planets. And the more fascinating thought is this: we’ve already accomplished that task. It isn’t, and has never been, about human propagation. We are merely the pollinator species — the husk around the seed. Our purpose has always been to spread the Gaian seed to other worlds, a seed which is, at root, microbial.

Humans have sent probes to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its moons, and various asteroids. We’ve attached to, or attempted to attach to, various comets, some of which will return to dark objects far outside the solar system, like the Oort Cloud. We’ve sent at least one spacecraft entirely out of the solar system, into interstellar space. And despite “clean room” construction environments, every one of these probes has carried huge loads of bacterial DNA and microbial life.

We humans have pollinated the solar system. We have used up or displaced tremendous amounts of Gaian resources in the effort, nearly all of which can be restored — in time. Very long reaches of time.

This suggests that our destiny as a species may now be very different from what it has been for the last hundred millennia.

One comment on “Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

  1. Paula Prober says:

    “… there seems to be an overwhelming sense of both beauty and loving attention…” I feel that, too. Let’s hope so. Thank you for this explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

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