Sunrise Magazine Online


A Plant's-Eye View of Life

By W. T. S. Thackara

Science, in its best conception, is that creative institution of mind which seeks to fathom in some tangible measure the breadth and depth of universal being. Therefore, all men and women, to the degree that they seek to understand themselves and the role they play in the evolutionary drama of life, are scientists. There are moments in the search, however, when the inquiring mind turns upon itself in an effort to evaluate the very process of discovery, the effectiveness and reliability of its methodology. From such introspection some scientists have remarked they emerged with fresh perspective, not only of the process of research itself, but also of the workings of nature and of themselves, each as an integral part of nature.

Luther Burbank, accoladed in his lifetime as the "wizard of horticulture," was once asked to lecture upon his unorthodox methods in plant breeding. The audience, members of the American Pomological Society, was reported to have sat agape as he "told all":

In pursuing the study of any of the universal and everlasting laws of nature, whether relating to the life, growth, structure and movements of a giant planet, the tiniest plant or of the psychological movements of the human brain, some conditions are necessary before we can become one of nature's interpreters or the creator of any valuable work for the world. Preconceived notions, dogmas and all personal prejudice and bias must be laid aside. Listen patiently, quietly and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach, shedding light on that which was before a mystery, so that all who will, may see and know. She conveys her truths only to those who are passive and receptive. Accepting these truths as suggested, wherever they may lead, then we have the whole universe in harmony with us. At last man has found a solid foundation for science, having discovered that he is part of a universe which is eternally unstable in form, eternally immutable in substance.

From our twentieth-century perspective, where the quest for knowledge extends incomprehensible light-years into infinite space and, ­conversely, into the equally infinite recesses of the atom, it is perhaps ironic that the kingdom which provided man with one of his first scientific challenges — agriculture — should play a new and central role in unlocking the mysteries of life. Plants, with the aid of sensitive monitoring instruments, are literally telling us, if we have the ears to hear, about rarely observed and little understood dimensions and qualities of nature and man.

Preeminent in this research is the suggestion that consciousness is universal, that it is the matrix which unifies all life and provides the basis of kinship for all beings. That plants are sensate, able to monitor threat, emotion, and other physical and mental changes, as well as intelligently (not to be confused with self-consciously) to respond to the environment, are some of the more remarkable observations. From these, we may well con­clude that plants may help enable man to find a touchstone for self-exploration: to discover and cultivate some of his own hidden potentials.

Two writers, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, have joined forces in a survey of who's who and what's what in this promising field. On the best-seller lists for several months, The Secret Life of Plants (Harper and Row, New York, 1973, 402 pages) is a highly readable account of the latest research in plant "consciousness" and sensitivity; also included are fascinating sketches of the pioneers whose ideas were often so ahead of their time that they could not be properly evaluated by their contemporaries. The book has naturally met with skeptical reaction and been criticized as unscientific. This is to be expected and, in some instances, a suspended judgment is called for. The label "unscientific," however, seems inappropriate; for in no place does the book pretend to be anything other than a nontechnical report written by nonscientists of recorded observations and related material. The privilege of evaluation is left to the reader.

The Secret Life of Plants deserves recognition on at least two counts. In the first place it presents significant information which, if true, could have an enormous impact on the generally accepted scientific worldview. Its second value is of a more philosophic and psychological nature. As the account unfolds the reader is provided with unexpected insights on the road to truth and the many obstacles which may be encountered upon it — chief of which seems to be human limitation.

The book opens with the work presently being conducted in the laboratories of lie-detector expert Cleve Backster,* whose experiments might in retrospect show plants, as Tompkins phrases it, as "the bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and metaphysics." Connecting the electrogalvanic skin-response section of his lie-detector to his secretary's Dracaena massangeana (a palm-like indoor plant) in the hope of determining how long it took for water poured on the roots to reach its leaves, Backster was intrigued by the very human characteristics of the tracing on the graph paper. Observing this, he speculated upon what might happen if he threatened the physical well-being of the plant. Dunking a leaf into hot coffee generated no reaction. He then conceived a worse threat: he would burn a leaf with a match. At that moment of intent, he saw the recording pen leap into wild excitation — apparently responding solely to his thought. Further investigation seemed to show that neither Backster nor the plant were oddities: according to the authors the same experiment has been replicated by other researchers with other plants on other recorders, thus making the results far more important to the scientific community as a phenomenon in need of explanation.

*Cf. Sunrise, February 1971 and June-July 1973.

Around this observation of a type of primary (evidently telepathic) perception in plants, the rest of the book develops. Since the authors have assembled an immense amount of material bearing upon the hidden but vital interrelationships between plants and man, it is beyond the scope of this review to summarize their work. Rather it attempts to examine a few of the book's central themes.

Historians of science, in their study of paradigm-changing discoveries, have noted recurring patterns of psychological reaction to novel concepts which threaten to upset an established world view.* Scientific progress is not seen as the brick-by-brick addition to the temple of knowledge our schoolbooks describe. Instead, it advances upon us in waves with fresh ideas crashing into the foundations of the old, entrenched dogmas. Almost invariably one or more inquisitive and open-minded investigators observe something that does not fit into and cannot be explained by the theories and commonly accepted beliefs about nature. If this anomaly is not buried or otherwise squelched by the powers of reaction, the new idea may receive a fair hearing; and if supported by factual evidence and by researchers, the event may be ­recorded by future historians as the germ which helped to fructify a new era of enlightenment.

*See Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for one of the best analyses of these patterns.

Cleve Backster, whose experiments with plants may eventually qualify as such, opened a 1973 lecture on "Plant Consciousness" with an observation of Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Planck, that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it" (Scientific Autobiography, pp. 33-4). The frustrations, aspirations, and achievements of those whose pioneering explorations of the hidden potencies of plants made them acutely aware of the penalties are briefly yet sympathetically portrayed in The Secret Life of Plants. Most of the names are well known: poet-scientist Wolf­gang von Goethe; the "Black Leonardo," George Washington Carver; and "wizard" Luther Burbank. Perhaps the most interesting, and least known of the group, is a Hindu, whose experimentation in animal and plant physiology was, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "so much in advance of his time that the precise evaluation of it was controversial."

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose's career originally began in physics as a ­lecturer at Calcutta's Presidency College, reputedly India's best. Bose supplemented his teaching with research, and in 1894 started inves­tigating the wireless transmission of radio waves. He succeeded in 1895 — a year before Marconi was to receive official recog­nition — but being in India, declined to travel to England for patent application. Attracting the attention of the Royal Society, he subse­quently published in their journal a paper on the "Determination of the Wave Length of Electric Radiation," and was later awarded a doctorate from London University. Continuing his work with radio, he noticed in 1899 that certain metallic components in his radio receivers lost their sensitivity with continuous use, exhibiting a type of fatigue characteristic of human and animal muscle tissue, and which recovered full sensitivity after a period of rest.

This led him to further speculation and research concerning the so-called boundary between the organic and inorganic — a boundary which Bose increasingly felt to be exceedingly tenuous. Seeing the analogy between metals and animal tissue, he then sought to determine if a similar response might be found in plants. The results proved positive, and opened for Bose a quarter-century epoch of plant research. By combining physics with botany he was able to anticipate much of the experimentation now being conducted. Punctuating these efforts were his internationally recognized labors for the advancement of science, as for instance his 1926 appointment to the League of Nations Committee on Intercultural Cooperation, which he shared with physi­cist Albert Einstein, mathematician H. A. Lorentz, and Greek literary scholar Gil­bert Murray.

Perhaps the best evaluation of Bose's work was his own summation, made after retirement:

In my investigations on the action of forces on matter, I was amazed to find boundary lines vanishing and to discover points of contact emerging between the Living and the non-Living. My first work in the region of invisible lights made me realize how in the midst of luminous ocean we stood almost blind. Just as in following light from visible to invisible our range of investigation transcends our physical sight, so also the problem of the great mystery of Life and Death is brought a little nearer solution, when, in the realm of the Living, we pass from the Voiced to the Unvoiced.
Is there any possible relation between our own life and that of the plant world? The question is not one of speculation but of actual demonstration by some method that is unimpeachable. This means that we should abandon all our preconceptions, most of which are afterward found to be absolutely groundless and contrary to facts. The final appeal must be made to the plant itself and no evidence should be accepted unless it bears the plant's own signature.

Written nearly forty years ago, the statement now seems almost prophetic to the more metaphysically-minded. History teaches that knowledge is a powerful double-edged tool capable of being used and abused. In an area such as extrasensory perception, where so many know so little, the dangers should be obvious. If in our present research with plants we discover not only the influence of thought upon the various kingdoms of life, but also develop the skills to manipulate this power, we will have launched ourselves into a new arena of experience: one which will certainly require a more acute sense of ethical responsibility. On the other hand, creative solutions to many of the blights of human existence could be part of the "fallout" from plant research.

The Secret Life of Plants explores some of these byproducts, one of which one such seems to have been anticipated a few thousand years ago. According to Pythagoras, all things including celestial bodies (which he considered animate, sentient organisms) move in fundamentally harmonic, vibratory rela­tionships with each other, producing a majestic symphony of life — the Music of the Spheres. Plato, developing an aspect of this idea, highly recommended the study and performance of music in education. Moreover, he felt that only certain modes of music should be played, accord­ing to the temperament of the individual, in an effort to refine and bring forth the higher nature of the soul.

Modern research is now indicating that music of the proper "mode" brings forth increased and improved quality of production in plants.* Tompkins and Bird describe in some detail the work done by Dorothy Retallack, whose efforts were recorded by CBS-TV news cam­eras and broadcast on October 16, 1970.

*Cf. Sunrise, April 1973, "Threads of Coincidence," for accounts of Hindu and Hopi Indian knowledge of music's effect on plant growth.

Retallack was required to devise an experiment for a college biology class and, having heard about the positive effects of Bach and Beetho­ven on wheat fields in Canada, sought to determine how music might affect growth patterns in plants. In sum, the plants placed in a con­trolled environment reacted favorably, growing faster and more abundantly, to the harmonic strains of the classical composers — in some cases actually growing in the direction of the music. Highly percussive sounds, especially the hard Rock of Jimi Hendrix and the like, stunted their growth and they often leaned away from the speaker. The most appealing music, on the other hand, was not Western, but rather the quarter-tone melodies of Ravi Shankar's sitar, an Indian lute capable of producing the most refined and subtle tonal modulations. In some cases the plants inclined an unprecedented sixty degrees to the horizontal in an effort to merge with the musical source.

Despite the inferences which could be drawn, it is only fair to point out that these are the recorded reactions of plants, not people. The book continues with discussions of plants and electromagnetism, the mystery of auras and Kirlian photography, and devotes two substantial sections to exploring new frontiers in agriculture, which, in terms of returning to points of beginnings, seems right.

If a central message emerges from the pages of The Secret Life of Plants, it undoubtedly echoes Burbank's thought, to have "the whole universe in harmony with us." It is perhaps fitting, then, as often the advice of a child will stop us cold in our tracks, that we turn our ears to the voiceless whisperings of the lowly plant. "Know thyself" was the Greek motto, and if we are to sound a harmonious note in the symphony of his own life, we could perhaps learn much by following the sug­gestions and examples found throughout this amazing kingdom. If then we listen with a true openness of mind and heart, we too might hear the music of the spheres.


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If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves. — C. G. Jung