“Applied Magic(k)” – a column by the Center for Tactical Magic
THE ROOTS OF CULTURE
“What kind of times are they, when talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?” —Bertolt Brecht (To Those Born Later)
Most people have an appreciation for plants and make an effort to occasionally hike among them, repose in their shade or even co-habitate with them. And while it’s safe to say that we recognize plants’ value and usefulness, it’s also a fair assessment to state that the plant kingdom is frequently taken for granted. When we’re not trampling it, cutting it down, or eating it, we’re usually ignoring it altogether.
Perhaps that’s why the vast majority of modern people who encounter the idea of human/plant communication—or “psychobotany,” as we prefer to call it—find it strange. But it’s equally strange that this viewpoint has become normalized. After all, anthropologists largely agree that people have been attempting communication with the plant kingdom for as long as there have been plants and people. So why is it considered “abnormal” to attempt communication with plants today? And what can we hope to accomplish by entering into such a conversation in the first place?
From engendered grudges and evolutionary angst to theological quibbles and accusations of entrapment, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has certainly been fertile ground for all sorts of controversy. But surely there’s an upside. At the very least the Bible has given us a glimpse of Utopia: proto-hippies living blissfully in a magic garden. In one corner of paradise they receive vitality from the Tree of Life; in another they gain consciousness of self after sampling the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Of course Genesis isn’t the only religious text to promote the divinity within nature. The Egyptian god Osiris was often associated with the Acacia tree. The Babylonians regarded the Cedar to be divinely virtuous. In Norse mythology, Odin created humans from the ash tree. And Zeus could be beseeched at his oracle in a grove of giant oaks. Within Hinduism the great banyan tree still features as a prominent site of worship. Polynesian cultures maintain a belief in the mana that permeates not only the plant kingdom, but the entire world around us. Similarly, the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion (as well as a great many other pantheistic belief systems) still holds Nature to be imbued with various spirits.
And nature worship features prominently amongst pagan sects today much as it did thousands of years ago amongst the original Druids. Holding firm the belief that trees were sacred beings capable of communicating guidance and knowledge, these ancient tree-huggers are reputed to have awarded wayward lumberjacks with disembowelment and death. (A punishment that makes Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front, and other so-called “eco-terrorists” of today look tame by comparison). In some cases, the Druids constructed elaborate rites and ritual celebrations to consult the trees. At other times it was enough to simply relax in the shade of a whispering willow.
On the other side of the planet, indigenous communities across the Americas looked to trees, plants and Mother Corn for guidance and wisdom. The insights hiding within mushrooms, peyote, morning glory seeds, and ayahuasca could be released through consumption, while tobacco, marijuana, and salvia divinorum spirits were consulted through smoking. In fact, the Aztecs reputedly built complex herb gardens and divined messages through visions encouraged by psychotropic plants and fungi.
When not directly communicating with the inner divinity of flora, the ingesting and smoking of plants and herbs could assist in lubricating efforts at diplomatic communication amongst various peoples. For example, the Native American “peace pipe” served as a sort of botanical moderator between warring clans, competing tribesmen, and the European colonizers. In Fiji and other South Pacific islands, kava kava continues to serve much the same purpose. By sedating the body but keeping the mind alert, the milky brew helps insure a peaceful resolution to disputes brought about through conversation rather than fisticuffs. (Perhaps other world leaders should take a swig…)
In addition to the tale of Aladdin in the magic garden and the famed Cedars of Lebanon (as featured on the Lebanese flag), the Middle East provides at least one other prominent account of humans communicating with plants: Moses talking to a burning bush. Even today, or rather especially today, the notion is still considered appealing to many residents of the region as evidenced by the growing number of press photos featuring folks crowded around a blazing effigy of George the Decider. Although the message comes across loud and clear, perhaps this contemporary twist on the burning bush doesn’t quite qualify as a sincere attempt at human/plant communication. Yet, there have been other modern efforts to learn from our leafy friends.
In 1966, Cleve Backster, a former interrogator for the CIA and a leading authority on lie detection, conducted experiments in plant ESP, using polygraph (lie detectors) techniques. His experiments supported the idea that plants are sensitive to human thought. These conclusions, linked with growing interest in cybernetics, and well-established evidence regarding plant sensitivity to environmental changes, spurred additional research interests. In 1970, defense engineer L. George Lawrence remarked, “…a few stunning discoveries of excellent promise [have] prompted those most active in this field to predict that, in time, parapsychological methods might well rival the orthodox communications arts and sciences currently in use.” (Electronics World, April, 1970).
It appears that Mr. George has yet to be proven wrong. Thirty-eight years later, the U.S. Department of Defense has taken great interest in plant communication. Specifically, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the DoD’s budget-gobbling R&D branch, has sought to enlist plants in the so-called “War on Terror.” Their Biological Input/Output Systems (BIOS) Program attempts to create “sentinel plants”. When the plants are in the presence of certain triggers—chemicals released by explosives, for instance—they will supposedly offer a bioengineered response such as glowing/fluorescing, or ceasing the production of chlorophyll. Articles on the subject report that de-chlorophyllized plants over a broad geographic area would show up in satellite imagery as a once-green landscape now turned brown or even white.
The plants themselves haven’t yet stated how they feel about the whole affair, and the silence that we received from the animals we attempted to question can hardly be interpreted as enthusiastic support for the project. However, we did manage to get a few brief responses from some of the scientists who have received government funding for the aforementioned research. Although they weren’t exactly willing to provide details (or go on record), they strongly hinted that the program was a flop and has since been shut down.
But flop or not, we find ourselves faced with a situation that is both shadowed and illuminated. On the one leaf, the uber-technologized war machine has added to its slash-and-burn arsenal an environmental attitude that seeks to create a bio-engineered and fully militarized version of nature. On the other leaf, the interrogation of plants has somehow managed to bring us closer to our roots and to an acknowledgement that the nature of consciousness and the consciousness of nature is more magical than we might ordinarily suspect. Even though it currently seems difficult to maintain clear lines of communication within our own species, perhaps the notion of psychobotany can help to radically rearrange the way we think about communication in the first place. It may complicate matters for vegetarians, but expanding our capacity to communicate with other life-forms could plant the seed for a whole new breed of ecological alliance.
The Center for Tactical Magic is a moderate, international think-tank dedicated to the research, development, and deployment of all types of magic toward achieving the “Great Work” of positive social transformation.