To the student of Theosophy the story of the living earth is no mere myth. A Theosophical study of Nature shows our planet to be a pulsing, living being, whereon lands slowly rise and lands slowly sink throughout the ages. Even the winds and currents of the sea have their ordered courses, which shift and change with the slow change of continents. The various classes of plant and animal life, as well as the Races and Sub-Races of man, move through their majestic cycles along with the lands upon which they live. All is part of one grand scheme, the rising to Godhood, and beyond, of all that lives.
To study the plant kingdom is to learn something of man. To study the history of man is to understand the living earth which is his home. "That which is above is as that which is below." "There is one law for all things, both the great and the small." How often we have heard these and similar words, and how seldom we have used them as keys to unlock the mysteries of Nature!
The story of plant life on this earth is the story of a race that is passing, a race that had its heyday millions of years ago, and is now slowly declining. In most cases our forests are composed of the relics of once world dominant species whose story is a dramatic one of changing climates, of the cyclic rise and fall of lands, of vast migrations occurring pari passu with the migration of the great animal stocks.
Yet it should be remembered in studying plant life on this earth that a "race" in the vegetable kingdom is not composed of individualized "lives" as we find in the human kingdom. A tree, for instance, is not a fixed, personal, self-conscious being; a tree lives in its descendants, passes on from plant to plant its identic life: reimbodies, one might say, at once. A tree is an exact instance of the Greek idea of palingenesis. So that when we speak of plant migrations, we should think of the life and consciousness composing the "life-wave" and not of the individualized forms. Think of the tree as a continuing life-entity, older than the hills it grows upon.
Just as there are two lines of evolution in the development of the human race, i.e., a higher and a lower, so are there in the plant kingdom. The plant kingdom emanates or unfolds from "above" downwards, as does man; for it is spiritual in essence and has its origin in the invisible spirtual world. This is the higher evolution. But it also differentiates into myriads of forms, and this may be spoken of as the evolution from "below." Both lines of evolution have to be taken into account. The scientist gives his entire attention to the evolution of differentiation, being ignorant of any more fundamental causal factors.
There are some scientists, however, who are aware that there is more to evolution than the reaction of an organism to environment. Dr. Robert Broom, in his Presidential Address, July 1, 1933, before the South African Association of Science, said:
The origin of species and of much of evolution appears to be due to some organising and partly intelligent spiritual agency associated with the animal or plant, which controls its life processes and tends to keep the being more or less adapted to its environment. But in addition to this there seem to be other spiritual agencies of a much higher type which have been responsible for what may be called greater evolution — the evolution of vertebrates, the steady advance from fishes to amphibians, to mammals and ultimately to man. These spiritual agencies appear to have worked by directing from time to time the inferior agencies which are associated with the animals and plants.
H. P. Blavatsky, in her Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge gives a clear key to two types of evolution in the building of the plant kingdom:
Every form, we are told, is built in accordance with the model traced for it in the Eternity and reflected in the Divine Mind. There are hierarchies of "Builders of form," and series of forms and degrees, from the highest to the lowest. While the former are shaped under the guidance of the "Builders," the gods, "Cosmocratores," the latter are fashioned by the Elementals or Nature Spirits.
H. P. B. further likens the variations even within one class of plants to the ray of light broken into its prismatic colors.
The different variations of plants, &c., are the broken rays of one Ray. As the ray passes through the seven planes, it is broken on every plane into thousands and millions of rays down to the world of forms, every ray breaking into in intelligence on its own plane.
Thus she shows that even the lowest stages of form development are due to the inner intelligence, whatever the effect that outside forces may have upon it. She says further:
From the acorn will grow an oak, and this oak, as a tree, may have a thousand forms, (1) all of which vary the one from the other. All these forms are contained within the acorn, and though the form which the tree will take depends on extraneous circumstances, yet that, which Aristotle called the "privation of matter," exists beforehand, in the Astral waves. But the noumenal germ of the oak exists beyond the plane of the Astral Light, it is only the subjective picture of it that already exists in the Astral Light, and the development of the oak tree is the result of the developed prototype in the Astral Light, which development proceeds from higher to lower planes, until on the lowest plane it has its last consolidation and development of form.
In exactly the same way, we are taught, does invisible spiritual man work his way downwards into material form.
In the plant kingdom there is much to suggest the Root-Races and Sub-Races of man. The various classes — even the various orders — form distinct groups. Research reveals that each of the classes of the vegetable kingdom is contemporaneous with one of the Root-Races of mankind, as though it slavishly followed the pattern of division and subdivision of the human species. For example, the sub-tropical coal forests existed during the time of the First and Second Root-Races. The Gymnosperms, or cone-bearing trees, originated and flourished during the Mesozoic Era, when the Third Root-Race of mankind was in its prime, and, finally, the Angiosperms came in with the Atlanteans, or Fourth Root-Race.
This parallelism, as said, is even carried out to the matter of sub-sub-races. Take as an example of a distinct stock of plant life, the great class of the Gymnospeims, which flourished in the Mesozoic Era. They are like a great Root-Race. Two species of Gymno-sperm, the cycad and the gingko, are the earliest known representations of a type of plant growing over most of the land area of our earth during the greater part of the Mesozoic times. The following Gymnosperm types could be considered as minor, overlapping waves within the great wave of the Gymnosperms — as sub-sub-races within the Root-Race — each starting, generally, in the North, (2) as the races of man are said to have done, spreading rapidly, rising to its climax, slowly receding, to be followed by another and another wave, each wave dividing and sub-dividing as it progresses and develops.
First are the fleshy-cone trees, or Tecaceae, of which the podo-carp pine is one of our few living representatives, so old it is called the living fossil. The earliest remains of this tree are found in Greenland, the few living relics in Tasmania, southeastern Africa and South America. Related to and springing from this branch is the yew tree.
Second, are the Taxodineae, or taxed leaved trees, of which the Sequoia is our best representative.
Third, the Araucarineae, or fleshy leaved trees. The Norfolk Island pine and the monkey puzzle tree are living examples of the trees dominant during the Jurassic Period, and form the bulk of the petrified wood of our southwestern deserts, being today only in the southern hemisphere.
Fourth, come the Cupressineae, or scaly-leaved trees, of which the cypress and juniper are the best known today.
Fifth, we have the needle-leaved trees, which include the firs, pines, cedars, spruce, etc., the most abundant and progressive of our evergreens today.
As a postscript we add the little, green leafless desert tea, Ephedra, the last of the Gymnosperm race to develop.
The life-wave of the Gymnosoperms, with its many minor divisions, is a good example of a true evolutionary impulse coming down into the world of physical forms and passing through its life-cycle. Upon this vital current, the main evolutionary impulse, we find the forces of Nature acting, whether we call them "inherbalized" elementals and nature spirits, as does H. P. Blavatsky, or speak of the laws of survival and adaptation. These elemental forces tend to specialize and modify the basic type. The result is a central stream of evolution where vital forces run strong and true, with many over-specialized and egotistical little whirlpools and eddies shooting off from the main evolutionary course of the Builders, to stagnate and disappear. It has often been remarked that young, vigorous races of plants are more plastic, more adaptable to change, than old, worn-out ones.
In many instances, the offshoots from the main evolutionary current, drawn into their various side-streams through over-specialization along one line or another, have become so fixed in their predominant characteristics that they are incapable of change. Unable to adapt themselves to new conditions of environment, the vitality of such races is lowered, the rate of reproduction decreases, and extinction follows as a matter of course. Strains which have remained generalized in their evolution — that is, in which one or another organ or characteristic has not become over-developed or over specialized — still retain their vigor, although they may actually be older in point of time. Do we not find this the common plan in all the kingdoms?
In tracing the history of plant and animal life from early geologic ages, it has been found that the primitive or generalized type persists the longest, and that the specialized offshoots tend to disappear, so that in time the remaining racial stock appears to return to the original type, although that original type has itself improved through the ages. For instance in the plant kingdom, those leaves with an undivided or entire margin are considered more primitive in form than the deeply incised or compound leaves, which are evidence of a departure from the original theme. As a parallel illustration from the animal kingdom, in sea shells an abnormal development of ornament, such as spines, tubercules, or unusual patterns of growth, indicates decadence and coming extinction. Such creatures are in a side-stream or eddy, the plaything of elemental forces. They have gone off on a side-line, specialized in one direction, and have paid the penalty by becoming fixed and incapable of further evolution.
Another similarity between the races of man and the classes of plant life is the overlapping of one class with another. Just as each new great Root-Race of the human stock springs from the central point of the previous one, so it can truly be said that at about the midpoint of one class in the plant "life-wave" the following class begins to rise.
The Theosophical Leaders have told us of the plan of man's evolution through Root-Races and Sub-Races, Family Races and Nations. They have told us also that there is one law for all things. Why not apply to the lower kingdoms what we have learned, remembering that the vegetable kingdom originated in very early times, and that our records — both fossil and living — are but scattered and broken fragments in the book of plant evolution.
1. It is interesting to note in connection with differentiation that there are within just the oak family at least 200 named species. The majority are trees, but some are low bushes. Some are deciduous, some evergreen. Some have lobed and divided leaves, others have small, entire leaves. These 200 species interblend and in many instances are very difficult to distinguish one from the other. — A. J. S. (return to text)
2. A survey of the plant life of the world shows that the oldest types have the fewest living examples and grow farthest south, while the youngest types have the greatest number of living examples and are restricted to the northern hemisphere. (return to text)