An invitation to communicate with plants
text and photos by Nance Klehm
painting by Adam Grossi
Six years ago, I had my first loud and explicit communication from a plant. It was a pine tree that called to me—an 800-year-old pine in Ireland. It was encompassed in a buttery halo, rhythmically puffing pollen smoke signals from its multitude of male flowers. Its fecundity pulled me to it. I put my hand on its deeply flaked bark and it held me. I could not move my hand and didn’t want to. It poured itself into me, filling me like a river. “Oh, I see,” I told it silently. The strength of its flow made me start to cry.
Learning to listen to trees led me to hear other plants as well. And talking back to them. I found that some plants pulse, while others stream: their flows are different frequencies, strengths and textures depending on the plant’s species, its health and its age. Plants are networked batteries; trees are pneumatic tubes and portals.
Recently I asked a few people to sit with a plant that they’ve been “noticing.” The people I asked are sensitive people, but not experienced with plant communication. This is what they shared with me…
Nicole showed up on her bike with her plant and a sawed off shovel nestled in her bicycle basket. We met in a park on the north side of Chicago that was close to her house.
“It was amazing how much the plant shed on the bike ride here, like it was losing what it didn’t need on the move,” she said.
We spent some time looking for a sunny out-of-the-way spot to plant her plant. Eventually we came across an area between the fence for a swimming pool and a small grove of pines. Under one of the pines was a mattress and a blanket, in its branches a pair of pants hanging to dry.
“Six weeks ago I was in ceremony with a community of people brought together by Oscar Miro-Quesada,” she said. “He was doing this ceremony called ‘Sacred Space/Urban Grace’ in five cities. Five of us were asked to bring plants to this ceremony. We were to bring a tree, fruit, or native to this region. We made a pledge to plant our plants in a public park or public space. These plants of ours were in ceremony all weekend. We charged the energetic matrix of the plants to symbolize the greening of the city and the restoration of the Earth. It was a tremendous healing.
“I picked a compass plant, which is a native prairie plant that orients its leaves in the cardinal direction of North and South. I put this particular compass plant on my mesa, which is like an altar. I sat cross-legged, with the plant between my legs. I put my left hand at the base of the plant as a prayer, asking my guides to talk to the plant’s guides and that they talk amongst each other and to translate to me anything needed. I held the intention to listen to the plants.”
Nicole started digging a hole for the compass plant when the cops pulled up. She approached them smiling, slowly wiping her hands of dirt on the side of her pants. She explained to them that she was just planting a plant and no, that it wasn’t marijuana. She smiled a lot and talked slowly. The cops smiled amusedly and drove off over the lawn. She resumed her story.
“I had my eyes closed and I felt a pulse. It wasn’t mine, it was a round energy field. This field changed. Sometimes it was close, sometimes fluttery like eyelashes batting.
“I didn’t get any messages in a language I understood, but I did get another sensation of a connection being made and suddenly I was quickly enveloped. The plant held me. That seemed groovy. That seemed really nice. That was a good feeling.”
She blessed the compass plant with a rattle, summer solstice water, Florida water and tobacco, then put it in the ground with worm castings and more solstice water, placing four stones around its base. We scraped globs of sap from the pine tree to burn at a later time, and left.
I met Linda at Cabrini Green, a notoriously doomed experiment low-income housing project in busy downtown Chicago. Linda indicated a large community of plants growing through the chain link fence as “her” plant, horseweed.
“I work near here, near a dandelion and white clover park,” she said. “I walk by here at lunch time to get out of the office and spend time with these plants. I saw it everywhere and I got curious. It smells sweet. It seemed not poisonous, so I ate it. it doesn’t taste too bad: pepper with a little mint, like candy with a grassy underneath. I associate light blues and purples with it.
“I found a patch of it and pulled one out and put it in a jar, thinking I’d get to know it more at home. One day I was absentmindedly stroking it, vibing it. It has these little 1/8-inch white flowers, and it’s kinda prickly. It’s a bushy cattail, pet-like. I realized it was sucking on me. Like it was sucking out my bone matter. It is a powerful plant. It’s probably not a good plant of you have arthritis…
“Another time I was sitting in my car with a leaf trying to get something from it and it started pressing on my Mount of Apollo, which is in the palm of the hand. It means ‘Art’ and ‘Beauty’—which I need a lot of both right now.”
We followed the chain link fence around the corner and she took me to a second fenced-off lot with a field dominated by thousands of five-foot-tall horseweed swaying in the breeze.
“Look how beautiful it is,” she said. “No one is interfering with it. I’m kind of jealous of it.’
A week later, I got this e-mail from Linda:
“This morning I went to the ‘garden of wild delights’ to check on the primrose pods and what I found was sickening. Every bit of it had been ripped away. All of the evening primrose and goldenrod—everything along the fence line—gone. The fields of amaranth and mallow mowed down. Remember how I said I loved it because it was a place nobody fucked with? At lunch I got a closer look at the damage. The sparrows were freaking out. They sounded so distressed. A bunny sidled up to me and craned his neck up at me. Bunnies need briar patches! This city needs an exorcism. Maybe that’s why I’m so angry.”
“How ridiculous to ‘clear’ this land before the winter. Seed source is so important to birds and animals in the fall and nothing is gained by mowing them down now. Besides. the plants have already dropped a lot of their seed, which means the developers will have to mow again come springtime.”
“I know! They’re right there on the verge! Apparently, the property of whatever developer owns that land doesn’t extend back into ‘Feather Duster Fields,’ as I’ve dubbed it, so my plant is doing fine. I went back today and found a few evening primrose inside the fence close enough to reach in, so I gathered some seeds and scattered some.
“I guess it bugs me because the gamma-lineic acid in the seeds is being researched for possible anti-tumor and specifically, anti-breast cancer properties. I think such a beautiful, valuable plant loaded with immature seed pods should be treated with a little more respect. My mom died of breast cancer, my dad’s sister and two of my sisters are breast cancer survivors…and incidentally, I looked up the significance of the Mount of Apollo in acupressure: it corresponds to the lungs and breasts. I’m going to scatter that seed everywhere. And you can eat the whole delicious plant!”
I met Michael at his home, a lofted industrial building behind a mega hardware store chain. Michael started with lighting tea lights, pouring me a glass of wine and a glass of water. He served a cheese plate with wild Armenian cucumbers, breadsticks and five kinds of cheese. He plunked his plant, a bamboo, on the top of a road atlas open to ‘Illinois’ and started talking.
“This is my plant: Fargesia rufa. It is a relatively new cultivar also called ‘Green Panda,’ which it really does look when it’s mature. It tops out at six feet. It is grown in Oregon but well here also. Cow, my cat, likes it too.
“I brought it into my bed to takes notes every morning.
“So I don’t know what you were expecting, but this is my experience: this plant says ‘hi’. It opens up upon looking at it further. There is a tremendous amount of growth. It’s a family tree—this one comes and stops, this one comes up and branches further. I stressed it by design. I pushed it to see what it would do and tell me if he could do it. He browned out. He got pissed—I had flushed him out. This bamboo has suffered a huge vitamin loss and I will need to put it on a program.
“A friend of mine sat with the plant and felt embraced. She works with kids in identifying with their bodies. to express themselves healthily. Maybe she should work with this plant with the kids…
“My personal experience: I gave attention to this bamboo and it inspired me in my absence from it. It was a facilitator—I mean, an instigator. It helped me ground myself into who I am. It told me that my experience is my responsibility.’
Cow climbed into the bamboo, climbed out and circled around it, leaning into it.
“It’s true that it shifted my thinking, but I can’t say this is the miracle plant. You can play with it.”
Michael holds a tea light under the stems to show them to me.
“I’m thinking about children and alienation from nature now. Nature will be there to deliver. It’s there. It’s welcoming. It’s opening. People should stop watching TV or playing video games. They should stop watching porno and start watching bamboo.
“I was paying attention to a plant—it’s not a modern urge. It’s a simple, profound thing that comes from nature. It’s a trickle, a dissemination… It’s not weird. It’s practical.’
Nicole Garneau was born in Chicago and has lived in the city for 20 years. She works at making art, performances, and ceremonies from a politically radical point of view that somehow embodies a world in which she wants to live. She makes work in multiple communities of people both locally and nationally. She loves to cook, embroider, speak Russian, and practice healing.
Linda Moran is endlessly fascinated by neuroscience and she has elf breath.
Michael Loran Hansel is an urban landscape designer in Chicago who enjoys the particularity of plants and their environmental possibilities.