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Archive for October 9th, 2010

Oregon White Oak

Plants as Teachers

If you are looking for a good teacher for learning about plants, look to the plants themselves. All knowledge that would lead us to live rightly on the Earth can be found in its plants.  You only need to possess excellent powers of observation and do what the plants ask you to do. If you know and understand the plant teachers, you will never be hungry, unsheltered, or unclothed. You will surely be a person who lives a prosperous, abundant life.

You have only to go outside and look about you.  If you spend enough time observing the plants, you will learn that they live in systemic communities.  Each plant lives in its own network of fellow plants that provide support and help attract nutrients and pollinators. Humans could learn from these communities, but many humans hold themselves above or apart from nature.

While you are outside, look out to the horizon if you can, and take note of the most prominent plant. Perhaps you see a giant white oak, which was once plentiful and extremely valuable to human survival for thousands of years in Cascadia.  If you live in the forest and cannot see the horizon, look up.  You will see the teacher trees, the mother plants, and their surrounding network of supporting plants. When humans slice away this support through such practices as clear-cutting, slash-and-burn procedures, and use of chemical herbicides, they put plant communities and other biological communities at risk. We must remember that we are all connected; we must hold each other up.

Plants have not forgotten that we are all part of the same community.  When we enter a plant community, the plants will try to heal us and restore us and bring us to a state of balance. What we need to learn is how to recognize  the healing that is occurring and give it support through our actions and the way we care for our bodies and minds.

In research conducted by entomologists Karban and Baldwin of the Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, plants were found not to be passive organisms at all.  The research challenged the human idea that because plants are firmly rooted in the soil and cannot run away from their enemies, they have long been considered passive in interactions with other organisms.

After decades of research on plant pathogen and plant herbivore interactions, the scientists found that plants take an active role in adapting to adverse conditions.” (Induced Responses to Herbivory  [page 83]).

One of my favorite passages in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book, The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth is a story about the interaction between deer and plants in a meadow.

Harrod Buhner writes about researchers asking the question, why don’t deer eat meadow plants down to the root when grazing? The researchers watched a meadow for several seasons, taking all sorts of samples.  In the end they found that the plants themselves control the deer, sending off an aroma and plant chemistry that signal the deer to eat, and then, when the deer have eaten just to the tops of the stems, emitting a bitter chemical that causes the deer to stop eating.  Both plant and deer are healthier for the grazing: the plant receives a good trimming that allows it to build better plant structure, and the deer receives nutrients.  What is most amazing in this story is that the plant is able to switch its chemical output almost instantaneously.

Now if all this is true, why would you, a human, be surprised that when you enter a forest, the plants want to bring you to a state of balance in their community?

Plants teach and compel and push us to return to our true nature and our place in the surrounding community.  When we walk in the forest and we are covered by synthetic chemical smells–smells of plastic and petro and synthetic hormones and medicines–the plants will rain down upon us a curtain of plant substance chemicals. The plants will clean the air and water for us and try to reconnect us to the earth. The community we belong to is connected to all living and nonliving things on this planet. Until we find our way back to living balanced and harmoniously within the tapestry of life, we will continue to feel disconnected and dis-eased. Don’t believe me?  Go into the forest and find a Western red cedar. Sit under the tree for an hour and see how you feel.  You will not only feel changed biologically and psychologically, you will feel connected to the place.

Original post to Portland Indymedia on January 19, 2008 – you can view original with comments at this link


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