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.
“… 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.
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It’s an excellent, eye-opening book indeed, so my thanks again for introducing me to it.
One minor disappointment is that while the author does a great job explaining how humanity’s current relationship with Gaia is broken, he doesn’t really spend any time talking about whether it was always broken, and if not how it got broken.
But while reading about plant intelligence, it brought to mind an interesting observation I read in another book several years ago, which IIRC went something like this: “Humanity’s current failure to live in a sustainable way could be looked at from another perspective as being an enormous success for the plants that have flourished since our switch to an agrarian lifestyle.”
The suggestion being that we may have been unknowingly manipulated by intelligent plants such as cereals to “do their bidding”. Could these plants be the actual “forbidden fruit” mentioned in the Book of Genesis?
Several articles have come up recently that indirectly talk about these plants as being the “culprits” – if we could ever define a plant in such a way – whose own success lead to our culture of inequality, exploitation, warfare, etc.
For now this is all just seed for thought (excuse the pun). But here’s a few links to the articles I mentioned in case you are interested.
The Case Against Civilization: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-case-against-civilization
How Neolithic farming sowed the seeds of modern inequality 10,000 years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/dec/05/how-neolithic-farming-sowed-the-seeds-of-modern-inequality-10000-years-ago
The Global Dominance Of White People Is Thanks To The Potato: https://quartzy.qz.com/1148452/potato2/
He touches on this at the end of the book, and it’s a thought I have not been able to get out of my head. What if… What if… What if humans are simply the pollinator species? What if we evolved, big brains and all, to simply USE UP all of that stored carbon to produce a short-lived “space age” intended to get seeds of Gaian life into the solar system? And now, having accomplished that task, it’s time to recycle the carbon, starting with either a massive warming trend, or even a return to an oxygen-poor, methane-rich atmosphere?
It’s an oversimplification, I suspect. But it puts our human hubris about our place in the world, “a little lower than the angels,” in a very, very different light….
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Our history really doesn’t seem like random coincidence, does it?
So please indulge me in going a step further down the rabbit hole of “what if?” (this topic may make up part of the story I am writing):
What if Gaia is not responsible for making humans do crazy stuff? If earth is part of an inter-planetary ecosystem, what if the seeding or colonizing is happening the other way around and Gaia is the target of outsiders?
For instance, if you were an intelligent life-force intent on spreading throughout the cosmos, you would have to have a strategy to defeat the defense mechanisms of planets like Gaia, as happens all the time on a smaller scale in smaller ecosystems right here on earth.
If I was an extremely intelligent species intent on doing that, I wouldn’t send ships or soldiers or weapons to overcome the planet with brute force if I didn’t have to, I’d use the most energy efficient method possible by turning one of its own species against itself to do most of the hard work for us.
But which species and how? How about that hairless ape in Africa and Europe? What if we somehow put it in that big brain of theirs that they are special, that Gaia is actually an enemy that cannot be trusted to meet their needs so they must take matters into their own hands – literally, with a plow – and make that planet their own. Then once they have completely changed the planet the way we like, we let them kill themselves off…
I think it is at least plausible. What do you think?
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Mark: In terms of writing fiction, I think it is an interesting and potentially fruitful background premise. It could lead to a really good story.
In terms of a way of organizing our real-life experience, I have misgivings. But in trying to express these, I’m finding that I need more space than a comment. Perhaps you’ve inspired me yet again.
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Here’s my line of thinking on it: with regards to storytelling, alien invasions are sexier and more palatable than you could probably ever make the pollinator-species hypothesis.
“Guess what people? Not only is humanity not the big deal we all thought it is, but we’re pretty much just designer worker bees. Once our job is done – a job we never chose by the way – and we’ve exhausted our usefulness, we’re probably doomed for the scrap heap of history.”
I doubt that would inspire neither comfort nor action.
At this point getting to the exact truth may not be necessary. It may actually be better to present any of these ideas in a way that the exact truth remain unknown (which is the direction I am leaning via the use of unreliable narrators and other fiction techniques).
Because the solution to either scenario is pretty much the same: to survive, humanity has to start thinking differently. In this sense the ambiguity and discomfort of not knowing could be a useful teaching aid because it gets people actively thinking in a different way than merely passively receiving pre-packaged knowledge the way a lot of education has become.
Thanks for the help.
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It’s the presuppositions that have to shift. I’m looking at your statement: “to survive, humanity has to….” It reflects modern thinking, which presupposes that survival is the goal, and I think that is perhaps at the core of the inviable way of thinking. Consider some variants:
“to thrive, humanity has to….”
“to fulfill its purpose before it dies, humanity has to….”
“to serve its higher purpose, humanity has to….”
“to add its share of beauty to the world, humanity has to….”
I’d hate to be accused of being a Marxist, but it’s growing ever-clearer that our take on all the old stories, and most of our new stories, are modeled on the conflicts between the class structures of our Western form of civilization. It is a world of artificial scarcity in which the word “enough” has no meaning: the poor are threatened with hunger and death, while the rich are on a treadmill where they are always trying to overtake the person in front of them, and avoid being overtaken by those behind them, lest they become “poor.”
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Something about the “man-as-deliberately-hatched intergalactic pollinator” hypothesis has been bugging me for weeks but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I’ll take a brief stab at it now.
It’s not so much that it’s a really far-out explanation (excuse the pun), it’s that if true it would represent an immense amount of risk-taking on Gaia’s part. That is, unless there was some kind of foreknowledge that allowing one species to run amok could result in successful panspermia.
But how could such foreknowledge exist? Perhaps because it happened to Gaia first?
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That’s one possibility. Gaia could be the great-great-grandchild of some starseed sent out several billion years back. Complete with memories of “how to build a pollinator species.”
Another is that we might merely be the latest in a series of pollinators. A bit far-fetched. But given how little survives even a few thousand years of neglect, much less a full ice age, it’s hard to say how many hominid civilizations there have been, or how advanced they became: there would be little evidence of their existence. What we do know is that they didn’t use petrofuels (if they had, they’d have left the oil reserves in the same state we’re going to leave it for our inheritors, namely, inaccessible to low-technology), so if they got into space, they would have had to use magic crystals or some such thing. In that hypothesis, we couldn’t use their magic crystals because they would have used them up. As I said, far-fetched.
But the far more likely case (in my mind) is this: our leash is a whole lot shorter than we think it is, and Gaia has taken very little risk. Remember the Permian extinction. She survived that. She’ll survive anything humans do. We won’t, of course, which is why we have to be a bit more careful. And she has a lot of options: remember that one of the oldest rules about gods is that you make an earnest effort to not be noticed by them. Humans have really only become a major nuisance in the last century, and Gaia probably hasn’t gotten around to dealing with us yet — and probably won’t need to. Global warming isn’t a threat to Gaia: it’s a threat to our civilization. To our profits and our wealth and our pretensions.
Remember her little experiment with cyanobacteria a while back? The one that pretty much killed off everything on the planet by dumping toxic loads of oxygen into the atmosphere? If she’s happy with the human pollination experiment, she’ll need to reset the oil reserves (or make more magic crystals), and if we’re being a total pest, she might just cycle back to a methane atmosphere for a while. “A while” being a half-billion years or so. We really don’t pose a threat.
But even if we did pose a threat, Gaia is not human. We wet our pants at the thought of Death, and that isn’t universal, or even a species thing, it’s a culture thing. The Celts felt that dying in bed, of old age, was a dishonorable death: they would seek out death in battle. And they were quite human. I suspect Gaia is not motivated by fear of death. Again, look at that cyanobacteria experiment. So I suspect she would have taken the risk, anyway.
An appropriate supplement to Einstein’s quote “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” is Upton Sinclair’s quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
I think the word “salary” can be substituted with anything that people depend on for their safety, identity, comfort or sense of belonging, and the quote will still be accurate.
I never fit in because I really don’t think like most people, and because as a loser I had little else to lose by thinking differently. I have many gifts, but the most potent of them are not easily measured, described or exploited. I am also twice exceptional, so when it comes to my socioeconomic status, I have been a total failure by most accounts.
One could be charitable and say my situation is the result of bad luck, bad timing or due to systematic flaws in our society, hurdles that I should eventually be able to overcome with the right help, conditions and attitude.
But what if that was never part of the plan? Does Gaia – or humanity for that matter – really need more well-adjusted people? People who cannot or will not think differently because they still heavily depend on things staying the way they are more or less, no matter how messed up that is?
I claim no direct line to Gaia, but my gift of intuition tells me it is no accident that there is a growing number of maladjusted dreamers like me.
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Niiice. I like the idea we were created intentionally by the earth to achieve something, It’s difficult sometimes to figure out otherwise what we are good for, considering how we behave. It seems particularly worrisome when it comes to the environment, from far off it looks like we’re not doing anyone any favors, or are we? Personally it makes sense to me that we do have a purpose, that it possibly doesn’t involve ourselves, and that that purpose might not be very conducive to our continued existence. In fact it makes even more sense that the thing we are meant to achieve in turn wipes us out ~ it’s like some sort of automatic fail-safe that gets rid of us when we aren’t needed anymore. Question is; what is the mess we are making for ourselves, and does anything benefit from the mess we are making? I’d argue one candidate involves fossil fuels, the more we extract and metabolize the stuff like some sort of Gaian enzyme the more precarious our existence here seems to get. Is earth / life on earth better off with or without that stuff building up underneath it’s surface? My guess is it’s a lot better off without it… Not my theory though; read this or something similar somewhere at some previous point.
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