By Lisa Bland —
Spring is finally here! As the light and warmth increase with longer days, it feels natural to jump into action with the buzz of new growth and bursts of reviving energy all around us. Our long winter sleep is finally over, and everywhere life is busy emerging, growing, reproducing, and preparing for new beginnings.
Comprehending the amount of activity going on in spring is mind-boggling—plants shooting their roots down into the earth and photosynthesizing the sun’s energy, bugs crawling through the soil, animals digging out of their burrows, the mating dance of almost every living creature, the search for food, the struggle to nourish fragile new life, defending territories against competitors, and avoiding being eaten, to name a few. In our modern lives, we take notice as the seasons change, but when we perceive our biological similarity and inter-relatedness with plants and animals, we view our place among living things a bit differently.
In Western culture, the fact that we have a word for nature shows we see it as separate from humanity. In most Indigenous cultures of the world, the idea of humans as separate from nature and other living species seems ridiculous, and most cultures lack the terminology for such a concept.
In his fascinating talk titled, “Intelligence in Nature,” presented at the 13th Annual Bioethics Forum, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKwzYQm-OuY), anthropologist and writer Jeremy Narby describes living with the Ashaninca people in the Peruvian Amazon and suggests defining nature outside of us disengages us from the world and is purely a Western concept, lacking in intelligence.
Evolutionary biology’s theory of common descent shows us all life originated from a common ancestor approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Geneticists have determined that humans share 80-90 per cent of genetic material with other mammals, 70 per cent with fish, around 50 per cent with fruit flies, and almost a quarter of our DNA is similar to that of plants.
Despite our genetic kinship with other species, our definitions of consciousness and intelligence are human-centered. In his talk, Narby describes a major shift that has taken place in academia over the past 10 years where not only is the definition of intelligence being redefined in how we view animals, it’s also beginning to shift in relation to the plant world.
Although plants lack brains, they act like brains, says Narby. They use cell-to-cell communication, and have signals and receptors just like in our neurology. They have evolved more than 15 distinct senses such as sensitivity to gravity, humidity, water, and soil competition, and variations of our five senses such as perceiving sound and colour in the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum. Scientists now recognize that plants are capable of complex behaviour and if our definitions weren’t so limiting, could be considered minimally cognitive.
In a fascinating video showing time lapse photography of two bean plants in competition, Michael Pollan, bestselling author of The Botany of Desire and article, The Intelligent Plant, which appeared in The New Yorker, describes that when you look closely at the two plants competing to climb a single bean pole, when one plant reaches the pole first, the other plant flails around grasping to find another pole until it appears to give up hope and gradually withers away. (www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants)
Beyond the science of our genetic relatedness, the fate of humans has always been tied to plants. At every level of society we ingest, trade, transport, grow, cultivate, surround ourselves with, desire, and depend on plants. Plants have been around a lot longer than humans and created the context we emerged from millions of years ago. With such a long-lived relationship, you would think we might sense these deep ties and view plants with awe, reverence, and gratitude—even just to appreciate that they absorb our carbon and supply us with the air we breathe.
Anyone who spends time gardening, admires the diversity of colour, fragrance, and form in flowering plants, walks in the cool shade of a forest, has taken consciousness-altering plant substances, or forages for wild plants and berries, senses there is a depth of relationship and connectedness to plants that reaches beyond the physical realm. It’s more like a kinship.
It seems the scientific dialogue is beginning to consider plants not as merely passive objects but as capable of learning and communication and, by extension, a life form deserving of dignity and possessing intrinsic worth. In 2008, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology issued a statement on the dignity of living beings which gives moral consideration of plants for their own sake.
The desire to understand and connect with plants in the local environment has called many to explore and learn to identify, gather, cultivate, and prepare wild plants for a sense of connection, well-being, and greater health. First Nations people have developed a complex understanding of plant medicines over centuries, as well as protocols around gathering that protect the resource, show gratitude and respect, and attempt to balance taking with giving.
Narby explains that among the Ashaninca Shamans of the Peruvian Amazon, the goal of shamanism is to see the point of view of other species. The Ashaninca believe that the plants teach a melody of their unique essence, the illnesses they cure, and how to prepare their medicine. They believe the teachings of the plant can be accessed by preparation and ceremony followed by the ingesting of powerful psychoactive plants such as ayahuasca, or by sitting for long periods near a plant absorbing its presence or sleeping next to it and studying one’s dreams.
In his books, The Cosmic Serpent, and Intelligent by Design, Narby looks deeply into the nature of kinship between plants and humans and suggests that the transfer of information occurs through the DNA’s ability to transmit and receive messages at a the cellular level, and it is this level shamans are accessing when they receive messages from plants.
Maggie Ranger, chartered herbalist, owner of Earth Dance Botanicals, and founder of the Belles Lake Retreat and Wellness Center near Horsefly, has been following, educating, sharing, and exploring a life closely tied to plant medicines for decades. Using local harvested plants, she prepares varieties of herbal tea mixes, healing salves, massage balms, infusions, and tinctures. Along with receiving teachings from First Nations elders, Ranger has been working on her own and with the teachings of renowned author and herbalist, Susun Weed and founder of Wise Woman Center in New York.
“Susun’s book, Healing Wise, about the medicinal usage of common wild plants and weeds is one of the first books I pick up when I need to treat someone,” says Ranger. “I picked it up over 20 years ago, and it is like a familiar friend I’ve known a long time. It’s a lot of fun to use, and blends information about the chemical properties with the essence or personality of plants.”
Ranger has integrated the use of plants into every aspect of her life, and uses them daily with family, friends, and her own health. “My children only went to the medical system for diagnosing,” she says. “If my grandson has a belly ache, I give him tea. If he has a cough I make him cold medicine.”
“I feel so blessed I have the opportunity to be out on the land, live on it, share the medicines, and make my living from it,” she adds. “The demand for this knowledge is growing as people realize that the modern medical system is not always working for them. I sit with the plants all the time. I sit with them before I pick them and take a deep breath. They remind me that nature is here to nourish and have a relationship with us.”
In the early spring, Ranger picks cottonwood buds used for a skin medicine in her salves and baby creams. “Spring is also the time to gather the tiny purple violets that peek out of the grass, and nettles—an amazing tonic full of vitamins and minerals than help build the immune system,” she says.
The plants are there year after year. Ranger travels from Farwell Canyon, into the Horsefly and Likely Mountains, and down into the Lillooet and Yelakum Valley. “My favourite is picking wild roses in June—there are so many in this area,” says Ranger. “I love being with the bees and butterflies. The smell is enchanting.”
“The more you connect with the plants, the more you realize there’s a subtle language going on. “I truly believe that’s why people are able to harm things. If you’re disconnected, you’re able to harm things.”
Ranger is excited to announce that The Belles Lake Retreat and Wellness Center will be hosting a three-day herbal healing workshop with Susun Weed on October 16, 17, and 18. Spots are filling up fast, so be sure to register soon. Call Maggie Ranger at (250) 620-0596.
Whether you are walking in the forests, gardening, or appreciating the weeds at your feet, enjoy the beauty of this vibrant season.