Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chatting With Your Ferns About Love and Weather

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight.

In the southern state of India's Tamil Nadu, an enormous banyan tree in a dry, dusty plain had been the original inspiration for the experimental city that has become Auroville. A large meditation center was built nearby and all roads in Auroville generally run to this tree, heart and soul of a utopian village populated by eco-conscious foreigners and likeminded Indians. A no-noise zone, the shade under the canopy is a pleasant place to gather, rest, and contemplate. It's not unusual to see the banyan's trunk embraced by visitors, literal 'tree huggers,' whose state of grace smiles seem to suggest they are being hugged back. And perhaps, as I later learned, they are.

I recently watched a 1970s documentary called, "Journey to the Secret Life of Plants," one of the weirdest psychedelic movies ever made, the apogee of the flower-power movement (pun intended). Its soundtrack was arranged by Stevie Wonder who appears briefly in the movie in an incandescent dreamcoat traipsing through a similarly effulgent landscape. Star power, sure, but the real interest here is the idea of plant life having a higher consciousness.

This idea is not at all novel. For centuries, Hindus have believed in the unity of life. Man can witness his spiritual flowering reflected in flora, understanding the elements of the human body as being one with the "infinite cycle of creation." This belief in the unity of existence is reaffirmed through chanting of Vedic hymns (at this point, those familiar with the inequities in India's social caste would likely reference Mark Twain's famous assessment, "In India, all life is sacred, except human life.")

One could convincingly argue that Christianity makes the same argument, as in funereal rites: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return."

This complementary relationship between man and flowers was for centuries founded upon faith. In recent years however, we have learned that the cognizance of the green world is more alert than we could have ever guessed. In 1960s San Diego, California, an inquisitive member of law enforcement, Cleave Baxter, decided one night to investigate what would happen when he attached a polygraph's sensors to his house plant. His intention was to record the plant's nervousness if he were to approach it in the most threatening manner: with fire. A non-smoker, the administrator would have to retrieve some matches from his secretary's desk. However, the moment he consciously decided to burn the leaf, Baxter noticed the polygraph needle jerk violently. The plant, it seems, read his mind and reacted fearfully. Baxter, a no-nonsense all-American empiricist, was sold.

More experiments followed. For example, a timer drops a thimble of salt water into a plant's soil, leading to flustered needle marks on the polygraph paper. Analysis of numerous tests confirm his hypothesis. Explaining in his own words, the clean cut officer sounds not too different from a Hindu Brahmin: "even on the lower levels of life there's a profound consciousness that binds all things together."

Some progressive scientists have attempted to build on this discovery with fascinating results. In one such test, a man was connected with a plant to the same polygraph machine. He was shown a movie with various scenes designed to elicit strong emotions at selected intervals. The man became excited when viewing a sensuous breast and then despaired at archival footage of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. The plant responded correspondingly.

(What does this say about those people who can't seem to take care of plants, for whom flora becomes wilting petals, browning leaves, crackling textures? Can we read into a man's state of emotions through the state of his succulents?)

A team of scientists and engineers was able to build an interactive greenhouse in which machinery translated the energy emanating from plants into sound; visitors to the greenhouse exploring the botanical garden affected the mood of the plants so that the "music" emanating from the speakers modulated according to the interaction between the two distinct species of life, a conversation, or a "live concert," if you will.

Similarly, engineers in Japan created a computer capable of transforming the electrical output of plants into modulated sounds. At a temple in Kyoto, the president of Fuji Electronics and his kimono-clad wife demonstrate to a group of journalists how the machine enables one to communicate with a cactus. The wife attempts to teach it the Japanese alphabet; it murmurs back to her an approximate sound (but does not titter in response to her own nervous giggling).

Even the scientists in 1970s Soviet Russia became involved in testing though their methods were a bit more torturous. For example, a scientist blows tobacco smoke on a plant to test its irritability (he seems to enjoy peeving the plant). The sentience of a cabbage plant is then tested. A scientist slices through a distinct cabbage causing the unharmed plant to register alarm. That fits accordingly with the tests from San Diego. But what is especially interesting is that when the same scientist wielding the sharp knife enters the laboratory room two hours later (sans knife), the cabbage plant becomes agitated once more.

Wow. So plants can not only read our thoughts but they may very well have memory as well... what are the philosophical implications of these conclusions, particularly for vegetarians whose diet is a protest against the cruelty of meat-eating? What might carrots, cauliflower, and zucchini feel about being boiled, steamed, sliced? The agony of the silent scream (and the end of the riddle of regarding a tree falling in the forest... if the surrounding trees are perceptive to its collapse then it certainly makes a sound, doesn't it?)

Roald Dahl, that visionary genius of fiction, has a story dated from 1953 called "The Sound Machine" in which an inventor has created a means in order to record low and high-pitched noises inaudible to the human ear. His next door neighbor, Mrs. Saunders, is creating a cacophony of howling agony with her gardening. Confronting her, he asks pointedly, "How do you know that a rose bush doesn't feel as much pain when someone cuts its stem in two as you would feel if someone cut your wrist off with a garden shears? How do you know that? It's alive, isn't it?"

The inventor takes the machine and its earphones to a tree and hacks at it with an ax: "a harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low-pitched, screaming sound... drawn out like a sob..." He feels terrible about the wound he's gashed and contemplates the horrors of agriculture: "He thought immediately of a field of wheat standing up straight and yellow and alive, with the mower going through it, cutting the stems... Oh, my God, what would that noise be like? Five hundred wheat plants screaming together... no, he thought, I do not want to go to a wheat field with my machine. I would never eat bread after that. But what about potatoes and cabbages and carrots and onions?" (The story ends with the inventor insisting that his doctor friend rub iodine on the tree's laceration.)

The idea of interconnectedness explicit in this film reminds me of the water crystal experiments of Masaru Emoto. Emoto believes that words not only give form to powerful feelings but have vibrations that affect our everyday invisible world as well. Projections of appreciation and anger are written on test tubes of water, left aside, frozen, and when the ice is melting, there is a two-minute window in which to photograph the consequences language has on the crystals. His findings, taken at face value, are fantastic.

For example, this crystal was formed from the word "happiness:"

And this one, conversely, from the word, "despair:"

Significantly different, right? Similarly, this crystal was viewed from "good job:"

And this one from, "You did it wrong!"

Emoto assumes that because humans are composed 70% of water, it's natural to conclude that our wavelengths, whether positive or negative, are projected and assimilated towards those around us. In a somewhat related experiment, Emoto photographed Tokyo tap water which looked distinctly unhealthy, contaminated as it was by chemicals. He then had five hundred people pray for its health. Following this consensus of hope, there had been a detectable change in the crystal makeup.

One can criticize Emoto for being selective about which crystals are photographed and that scientifically, his methods could be considered spurious. But if you want to examine the argument from dissenters closely, they seem to suggest that our thoughts, feelings, and ruminations have absolutely no effect on our environment.

Does this not seem as outlandish as the discoveries of Emoto and Baxter?

It's not just a crisis in imagination on their part, but an indifference to the metaphysical. You don't have to be a hippie to be excited by the vitality of the living world, its chatter and its music.

So do not forget to wish your flowers, "Good morning," when you are watering them. It might make a difference...


  1. You have posed the famous "If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound" in an interesting way, in that you're talking about sound from the point of view of a tree, which has no ears. Therefore "sound" is a subjective term (a categorization which might be termed as "naturalist"). What we're looking for here is what you hit on later with Emoto's vibrations. Anything, not just "living beings", and everything is made up of matter vibrating at a certain wavelength, some faster some slower. While trees wouldn't be able to "hear" a brother or sister of theirs falling, they could sense the vibratory disturbance in a number of ways: through the air, through telepathy, through this "memory" of which you speak, but overall you are correct, indifference to the metaphysical is not only short-sighted but plain criminal.

  2. Now what am I going to eat???
    Buddha teaches that all life is suffering, is this part of what he meant??
    I've been meaning to watch this documentary for ages.
    Now I will, but what snacks to eat while I do??

  3. I loved this entry.
    I was wondering if you have any links to the information about the research done anywhere, because I've been googling without much luck. Biology and botany are major interests of mine...

    Anyway, keep up the great writing! You're quickly becomig one of my favorite flickr contacts to follow...

  4. Excellent post** *
    you've heard mileece's music generated from plants, yes?
    Loved your photos too!
    E v a * - *

  5. Great post.

    Further research reveals that the Hieronymus Bosch-L.A. quote comes not from Reyner Banham, as I thought, but from Baudrillard.

    See here & here.

    Since you like films from the 70's, you might enjoy Reyner Banham's silly BBC program about Los Angeles:

    (And to correct more of the misinformation I fed you, Banham taught at UCSC, not UCSB.)