Communication with the Plant World
All ideas must have a beginning, a spark of inspiration that sets them into motion, and so it was with the subject I’ve chosen here. It began a while ago, when a member of our small group of like-minded people brought me a diagram of her garden, and on it were areas where there were empty gaps in two otherwise healthy lines of raspberry plants growing in tunnels. I took the plan home with me, and after I’d map-dowsed it, the reason for those gaps being where they were became obvious, because passing through them was a line of adverse energy - or geopathic stress.
Past experience had taught me that it is possible for such lines to be diverted away from threatened areas, both on the ground and on a map, and the procedure followed here was identical to that normally used on troubled dwellings. If left untreated, this kind of stress can do untold harm to the inhabitants, both physical and psychological. And in just the same way, a wide variety of plant-life can also suffer, ranging from small seedlings to trees, succumbing to its debilitating effect. I hoped that my actions would prove successful. Then not long ago, much to my gratification, I received several photographs showing bare soil in the first, followed by a proliferation of weed-growth (usually an encouraging sign), and finally healthy young raspberry plants emerging in the last.
As humans, we have the ability within us to give assistance when needed to our fellow mammals, and in just the same way this can be applied to the world of plants. In effect it is really a form of communication between living organisms. And what about other hints that communication with that world could exist? Speaking from my own experience, for as long as I can remember, some of my favourite walks have always been in woodland, and whenever I’m there I often experience a sensation of the trees around me being somehow mindful of my presence, just as I am of theirs - not watching, in no way menacing, and yet somehow aware: a trick of the imagination perhaps? I don’t think so, because whenever I’m in these places that same feeling never fails to return.
So often when the subject of human affinity with the natural world comes up in conversation, I’m saddened to see how frequently it is derided as being something slightly nebulous and unscientific, deserving only to be consigned to the ‘flaky’, mildly lunatic fringe. But this reaction is, I suppose no more than could be expected, representing as it does the outlook of an increasingly urbanised, left-brained society, far removed from contact with other life-forms that in truth have been an integral part of our being for the greater part of our existence. In fact, despite criticism from the ‘civilised’, our affinity with the natural world is really far closer than those detractors would have us believe.
On the evolutionary tree, our species (Homo sapiens) emerged around 160,000 years ago. Yet today, we are only separated from the dawn of the Neolithic age and the first farming in the Middle East by something like 11,000years. Of these time-spans, that first 149,000 years is by far the larger of the two, the second being a mere fraction of it. And humanity’s existence as an society is an even smaller fraction - not much more than 200 years. So, standing back and looking at ourselves in this light, it is sobering to realise that for by far the largest part of our existence we have not been urban or industrial beings, neither have we been farmers. And regardless of any hubristic claims to intellectual superiority, we continue to remain creatures best suited to the life of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer, developed over many thousands of years, a part of, and in harmony with the natural world. And alongside us there have always been animals. Depending on species, we have used them as guards and companions, as well as for food, clothing and transportation.
Then there is the world of plants, at first sight so unlike us, rooted in the earth, static, seemingly insensitive and incapable of expression. Admittedly, they have long been useful as sources of food, warmth and material for building, but for many this is their totality of purpose - useful providers satisfying our needs, yet void of any sentience, and unable to communicate.
But to those of us who have been involved for any time with plants, whatever their species, the first of those observations (or rather inaccuracies) can soon be laid to rest merely by observing the heads of flowers on a summer’s day, when they will slowly keep turning to face the sun, closing their petals when it sets, or if rain threatens. In human terms such movements are classified as instinctive, but if we begin to analyse these actions and the reasoning behind them, another question comes into play, namely where does instinct end and intelligence begin - and is there really a dividing line between the two? And if we then search for any possible evidence of plant communication with humans, it is not too difficult to find. There are certain individuals, “green-fingered” gardeners in whose care most plants will invariably thrive, whereas in the hands of others there are strong chances that they will either never reach their full potential, or wither and die. And for their success, green-fingered gardeners must possess an affinity with their charges, and in order to respond to this affinity, the plant must have to apply some form of recognition. Either consciously or unconsciously, it would seem that some degree of intelligence must play a part in the process.
Someone who studied in detail similarities between plant and animal life-forms was the Bengali scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858 – 1937). A physicist, biologist, botanist and archaeologist, whose revolutionary work in both plant physiology and in the wider field of science won him wide acclaim, membership of the Royal Society and a knighthood. In addition he was also a member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences. In his plant physiology work, the instrument Bose used, the Crescograph, was of his own invention. With magnification of up to 10,000, it was originally designed for measuring plant growth. He had adapted it to measure the response to various stimuli, eventually enabling him to prove parallelism between plant and animal tissue.
Beginning by studying the mechanical movements of plants, as with the flowers following the sun (phototropism), he went on to discover that they possessed scent organs which, although appearing entirely different from our own, functioned in the same, or similar ways. Looking further, he found that the vegetal digestive organs of insectivorous plants were very like animal stomachs, and that leaves responded to light in a similar way to the retinas in animal eyes. Like animal muscles, plant cells showed signs of fatigue after continuous stimulation, and, contrary to popular belief, a plant could not absorb unlimited doses of carbon dioxide, showing after a while signs of suffocation. However, just as with suffocating animals or humans, successful resuscitation could be brought about with oxygen. And when fed shots of whisky or gin, plants would be seen to sway and collapse in the equivalent of a drunken stupor. Eventually they would revive, but for a while they would appear dazed and sickly: their version of a hangover.
In the course his experiments, Bose made it clear that all plants are irritable, or extremely sensitive to stimulation, and this was manifested by an electrical response - a point to be later studied in greater detail by Professor E.J. Lund of Texas State University. Over a ten-year period, Lund showed that a plant’s cells produce electric fields which, as Professor Bose had implied, could serve as nervous systems - and it is these that trigger its growth rather than growth hormones, as had previously been believed.
Throughout his career, Bose showed a reluctance to patent his inventions, his reason being that knowledge was for the furtherance of science as a whole, rather than remaining the sole property of any individual or company - a nobility of spirit similarly expressed by that great exponent of dowsing, the Abbe Alexis Mermet.
Another researcher, working later in the 20thcentury, was Marcel Vogel (1917-1991), an IBM research chemist working in San Jose, California. Vogel was a scientist with wide-ranging areas of expertise: studies of luminescence, magnetics, phosphor technology, optical devices and liquid crystal systems. He was also responsible for many inventions, among these the magnetic coating for hard disc-drive systems, still in use today.
For his studies, Vogel worked with Philodendrons, the fleshy leaves of which had a high water content. When attached to stainless steel electrodes, these were then wired to a pen-recorder and chart.
In one experiment Vogel stood before the plant with outstretched fingers, almost touching it, at the same time deliberately directing thoughts of love and affection towards it. Whenever this was done, the pen recorded a series of ascending oscillations on the chart and, at the same time that this was happening, he felt energy pouring back from the plant into his hands.
On another occasion, with two plants wired to the recording machine, he cut off a leaf from one of them. As soon as he had done this, the plant immediately responded to the injury inflicted on its companion. But, Vogel discovered, this would only happen if he was paying attention to the second plant. If when he removed a leaf from the first plant he ignored the second plant, then there would be no sympathetic response.
As regards trees, Vogel had no doubts about their ability, not only to sense human emotions, but also to give out regenerative energies. He noted how American Indians would, when they felt depleted, sit or stand with their back against a pine tree, absorbing its energy. In Europe too, it was well-known that Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’ Count Bismarck had daily drawn renewed strength from an oak tree in the same way.
After years of studying human communication with plant life, in the course of a television lecture, Vogel felt able to confidently state:
“It is a fact: man can and does communicate with plant life. Plants are living objects, sensitive, rooted in space. They may be blind, deaf and dumb in the human sense, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are extremely sensitive instruments for measuring man’s emotions. They radiate energy - forces that are beneficial to man. One can feel these forces! They feed into one’s own force-field which in turn feeds energy to the plant”
He further stated that:
“A life-force, or cosmic energy, surrounding all living things is sharable among plants, animals and humans. Through such sharing, a person and a plant become one”.
To anyone who has been involved with healing, that last statement makes perfect sense. Of course when he refers to a plant and a person becoming one, he does not mean it in a physical sense, but rather their individual auras, or force-fields blend into one. And this, at the beginning of a healing session, when the healer ‘tunes in’ to the client, is exactly what he or she is visualising - and, in effect, what actually comes about.
Born 28 years before Marcel Vogel, Harold Saxton Burr (1889-1973) was Professor of Anatomy at Yale University School of Medicine. He is best remembered today for his ‘Electro-dynamic theory of development’. In this, he claimed that all living things - humans, animals, plants - are moulded and controlled by electro-dynamic fields, and these could be mapped, using sensitive vacuum-tube voltmeters. Calling these fields ‘Fields of Life’ or ‘L-Fields’, he believed them to be the organisers of life-systems, serving as a matrix, preserving the ‘shape’ or arrangement of any material contained within it, in the same way that a jelly mould outlines the shape of the future jelly. For instance, a frog’s egg scanned in this way would reveal the form destined to develop from it. Although this section of Burr’s medical work was aimed at researching the causes of cancer and its treatment, I include it here because, despite being mainly applied to the human body, his conclusions concerning ‘L-Fields’ are also relevant when studying the same aspect of plants. And it was plant physiology that was to make up a long-term study of his, commencing in 1938, and with almost continuous records being kept until 1968.
For this study, a Maple and an Elm, growing outside, and an Alligator Pear tree (Avocado) growing inside Burr’s laboratory were used. The bark on each was carefully removed down to the Cambium layer, with every effort made to avoid injury. Silver chloride electrodes were imbedded within it. It is here that mitosis, or cell-division takes place, resulting in the changing diameter of the tree, a measurable characteristic.
When examined, the records clearly showed that the life-fields of the trees had varied, not only with sunlight and darkness but also with lunar cycles, magnetic storms and sunspots - plainly showing that trees are highly sensitive to these occurrences.
After Burr’s death in 1973, his work was continued by a student and colleague, Dr. Leonard Ravitz. Specialising in the field of psychiatry, he concentrated on the human dimension. In investigating the effects of the lunar cycle on the human L-Field, he discovered that the field reaches a peak of activity during the full moon, thus giving credence to the age-old beliefs concerning its effect on the mind. He also confirmed, working with hypnotherapy, that a person’s mental and emotional conditions coincide with variations in their L-Field. Although Burr’s work (and his book ) failed to offer, as many readers had hoped it would, any pointers to life after death, Ravitz revealed something that may or may not have a bearing on this issue. He discovered that the L-Field disappears entirely, not after, but just physical death.
Harold Saxton Burr’s L-Fields and Matrix theories must have left many (me included) wondering exactly what it was that he was finding, and what exactly were L-Fields? Along with names like ‘Subtle Energies’, ‘Vital Energies’, even the widely-used ‘Earth-Energies’, the name seems only to tell half of the story. I know that we’re all likely to use these terms on a day-to-day basis - but what exactly they? Burr used a highly sensitive volt-meter for his work, efficient in its day, but now far outstripped by later, more sophisticated equipment: first the SQUID (Super QUantum Interference Device) and the later SERF (Spin Exchange Relaxation-Free) magnetometers. The SERF, developed in the early 2000s, is capable of measuring minute biomagnetic fields given off by the brain (magneto encephalography - or MEG), and the heart (magneto cardiography - MCG).
Human beings are very much electrical creatures, with highly complex electrical activity amongst their 70 trillion individual cells, but the body’s electrical fields are extremely small. And wherever there is an electrical field, there will always be an accompanying field: a biomagnetic field.
Researchers are known to have measured signals emanating from the hands of healers, which are in the same frequency range as human brainwaves, and these are . I cannot help but deduce both from this, and the way that bio-magnetic fields are continually issuing from the human body, that Burr’s L-Field must be what we now know as the Aura surrounding all living creatures. The origins of this be magnetic, and the same would apply to trees and plants.
Since the death of Marcel Vogel in the early 90s, work has continued on plant intelligence. One of its main investigators is Professor Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia. Investigation began in 1997 whilst researching her doctoral thesis, and she has continued with this work for the last 20 years. Based on the biggest, deepest-rooted trees, which she termed ‘Hub-trees’, she has discovered a network of string-like mycorrhizal fungi reaching out beneath the forest-floor, forming an intricate web of tree to tree communication - an information highway. The fungi, of which there are around 8,000 different species, live in mutual benefit with the trees, helping them to acquire water and nutrients from the soil, in exchange for carbon, in the form of sugars, which is formed by the trees through photosynthesis. Initially using radioactive isotopes of carbon as a tracer, Suzanne Simard was able to detect which trees were in communication with each other.
Her research has shown that trees are able to sense gravity, the presence of water and obstacles likely to obstruct root movement. When they are attacked, they are able to broadcast warnings through their root systems and their mycorrhizal networks in the form of chemical signals. When, for instance, a tree was deliberately shaded, preventing its own photosynthesis, carbon-based sugars would flow to it from another tree, demonstrating active cooperation. And when an amplified recording of a caterpillar munching leaves was played to a tree, this would kick-start an increase in tannin production, making its leaves unpalatable to predators, even though this was not a real attack. Could this be an example of trees ‘hearing’, or perhaps sensing certain vibrations?
When investigating whether trees are capable of recognising their kin, Suzanne Simard found evidence that this was definitely so, especially among the larger, older specimens. These were well aware of their own seedlings regenerating around them, giving support by sending them nutrients through the fungal system and, when needed, chemical toxins to fend off pests and competitors.
As mammals, we are equipped with a profusion of neurons: nerve-cells that can rapidly transmit information between different parts of the body. In the brain, gathered together in sufficient numbers, neurons not only transfer that information, but also process it. Trees and other members of the plant world are also equipped with neurons, and like us they produce neuro-transmitters: chemicals such as serotonin* and dopamine*, used by human brains to transmit signals.
*Serotonin: A natural mood-stabilizer. It reduces depression, regulates anxiety, heals wounds and maintains bone health.
*Dopamine: A neuro-transmitter, and an intermediary in the formation of adrenaline.
Whether or not trees feel pain has long been a matter of debate, although it remains a distinct possibility, because they are able to produce their own analgesic, the plant hormone ethylene. They can also be anaesthetized, using a human anaesthetic. But unlike most other life-forms, including ourselves, they do not appear to have a centralised area similar to the brain for processing information. Yet, taking into account all the information researchers have amassed about them and their sensibility, the absence of some neurological processing centre similar to a brain seems impossible.
And it was the probability of a brain-like organ existing within a plant that was to influence Charles Darwin, when in 1880 he stated in his book “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle (the embryonic root of the plant inside the seed) acts like the brain of one of the lower animals: the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs, and directing the several movements.” The radicle is the first part of the seedling to emerge from the seed during germination. It grows downward into the soil, with the shoot emerging from the plumule (the rudimentary plant), and reaching upwards to the light (phototropism).
As far as the more recent research is concerned, I have here only spoken of work by Suzanne Simard, but in recent years interest has spread right across the North American continent, and far-beyond. In Australia, for instance, Eucalypt forests have been found to be using the same mycorrhizal networks for communication, and in some other areas plants have maintained a similar system by transmitting above-ground chemicals that can attract predators that eat pests.
The Umbrella Thorn Acacia, with its widely-spreading branches, has become a symbolic image of the African savannah. Growing to between 4 and 8 metres, its height protects it from the attention of most browsers; most, that is, except for the giraffe, whose height enables it to nibble and tear at the foliage. To the tree this is an uncomfortable, if not painful, experience and it senses a need to protect itself and others of its species. Although through the process of evolution it has developed sharp spines, the giraffe’s mouth has become largely immune to these, so a second line of protection is needed. This comes in the form of toxic substances that the tree can pump up into its leaves as soon as it senses the herbivore’s tearing tongue and teeth. Consequently the Giraffes move on, but the Thorn Acacia has already warned its neighbours by emitting a warning gas, ethylene, thus allowing them to pump toxins into their own leaf systems. Unfortunately the ethylene warning only has a limited range, a fact that has not escaped the giraffes, and so they move on to other similar trees a hundred or more yards away before recommencing their feeding! No doubt the evolutionary process will overcome this problem in time.
In part of what I said at the beginning, I mentioned how I believe that when I’m amongst trees, I have a feeling that they’re aware of my presence; but before finishing I feel I must, in the light of all that I’ve learnt during this preparation, enlarge on that statement. Yes, I am even more certain now of the awareness of trees - of me as I pass by, of other trees, and of all that is happening around them. They are acutely aware too of the Earth beneath their roots, of rocks to avoid before even touching them, of where they can reach down for the life-giving minerals and moisture it holds, of the pull of the moon’s gravity and of far-off explosions on the surface of the sun. In summing up, I can think of no better words than those of Professor Brian Cox, when he said: “The world we live in is beautiful, but it’s even more beautiful to understand”.
For anyone who would like to study trees further, I can do no better than to recommend (ISBN 978-0-00-8) by German forester and ecologist, Peter Wohlleben. It is informative and highly readable, and by far the best book I have come across dealing with this fascinating subject.
Alan Neal, Tavistock, October 2019