Richard Mabey: “Plants are agents of their own life forces”

Anyone who has ever ingested a psychotropic plant recognizes both the emotional/ mental/perceptual/spiritual power of that plant as well as how it is embedded in and interwoven with a vast visible and invisible community of plants that breathe and laugh and cry and sing as they go through continuous transmutation of form forever — this endless creative fire at the heart of being.



How Plants Think

October 16, 2015

by Richard Mabey

theguardian, via Keith


We understand the importance of vegetal life like never before, but only so far as it serves our human needs. Plants have come to be seen as the furniture of the planet: necessary, useful, attractive, but “just there”, passively vegetating. They may beautify our landscapes and help us breathe, but we have lost the sense of wonder and respect due to them as active agents in their own life stories. Indeed, affording them “intrinsic value” is now taboo in many conservation circles, and they are weighed up purely as commodities. The Wildwood has become an “ecosystem service”. Wordsworth’s “golden host” has been rebranded as “natural capital”. I wonder about the long-term effects of defining plants as a biological proletariat working for the benefit of our species, without granting them any a priori importance.


We haven’t always been as dismissive of plants as – to use [Oliver] Sacks’s word – individual. Throughout history their sheer otherness has made them subjects of meditation about life’s essential constraints and opportunities – about the boundaries of the self, the nature of ageing, what makes a stonecrop differ from a stone. When I began tracing this tradition of imaginative botany, I found it went at least as far back as the ice age, whose cave painters, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous phrase, saw organisms as not so much “good to eat, as good to think”. The number of Palaeolithic plant images is tiny compared with those of animals, but they seem preoccupied with structure and form. Branching patterns appear often, as ribs in a leaf, or as forks – the basic binary division, the turning of one into two, a universal pattern in nature. There are flower-like forms, too, which may be literal blooms, or imaginings of stars, or phosphenes, those optical flashes seen during trances. I have only seen one carving that has the apparent unambiguousness of a field-guide illustration. On a bone from the Gironde dated to about 15,000 BP (before present – in carbon dating, before 1950), a twig bearing four bell-like blooms rises up like a miniature maypole in front of a reindeer antler. The flowers are lantern-like, pinched and cut into a “V” at the lip, with their stalks projecting alternately up the stalk. It is a passable impression of a sprig of bilberry, or one of its ericaceous relatives that grew abundantly on the ice age tundra. Foliage and fruit were food for the reindeer, which were, in turn, food for the local hunter-gatherers. So, it’s a clever juxtaposition if it’s deliberate – except for one complicating feature. When I looked at a closeup photograph of the carving, I spotted something I hadn’t noticed before. Near the point at which each bloom grades into the stalk, there is a small curved line, like a breve or a closed eyelid. When I focused on it, the “flowers” suddenly flipped, like the shapes in an Escher illusion. They became birds’ heads and necks, or maybe a notional impression of young, suckling animals. The flower as feeder as well as food. Had the artist made a kind of visual pun, or a metaphorical image about the circularity of the food chain? Palaeolithic artists used metaphors freely, beginning the tradition of glimpsing meaningful resemblances that is a defining feature of human perception. If animals have chiefly provided analogies for our physical behaviour, plants – rooting, sprouting, branching, flowering, bearing fruit – have come to be the most natural representations of our patterns of thought.

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