One of the first things I did as a new Pagan was roam the hills and woods near my home looking for flower faeries. I felt, at the time, like I had seen a few, as well as the faery of the tree in my back yard. When I did my self initiation as a solitary eclectic Wiccan (I don’t call myself Wiccan anymore) I used fronds from a local willow tree to form a circlet to wear. Weeping willow is still sacred to me to this day. I’m typing this with a willow frond in henna on my arm, and “willow” remains part of my magickal name.
For a lot of Pagans the natural world is alive. When we harvest herbs or living wood for magickal use we ask permission from the plants before we cut them. I have always done this and still do it. For so many of us there is life, consciousness, and soul in everything. In my teens I used to have a hard time mowing the lawn. I don’t anymore. I still believe in the soul within nature but in a different way.
A lot of people believe that plants have feelings, both in the Pagan community and outside of it. A lot of times it’s said dishonestly, as another gotcha for vegans and vegetarians, so much so that my friend has coined a new logical fallacy for it, ad plantarum. But a lot of the time it’s also sincere. I know shamans who forge alliances with plant spirits, and obviously I know people who hug trees. I’ve met at least one person who spiritually identifies as a tree.
For non-Pagans the idea that plants have feelings comes mainly from the polygraph experiments of Cleve Backster. Almost inadvertently he found himself studying the responses of plants, hooked up to polygraph machines, to his thoughts. He tested for responses in the plants when he would intend to harm them or pretend to be about to. His plants were supposed to be able to recognize someone who had harmed another plant in the vicinity. Once from his car he was supposed to have telepathically told his houseplants that he was coming home and they responded on the polygraph. His experiments have been repeated many times and gotten a good deal of mainstream attention.
For Pagans, the belief in plants’ feelings seems to come from Backster’s experiments as well as a mixture of animistic belief and direct psychic experiences. A lot of us talk to trees and other plants to get insight or to ask permission before cutting something we want for a spell. Plants can form important parts of Pagan religions, from sacraments to plant spirit allies to world tree cosmologies.
I’ve only ever seen these beliefs seriously affect a person’s behavior once. A shamanic acquaintance had determined that he could never become a vegetarian because it would disrespect his plant spirit allies by saying plants’ lives matter less than animals’. That’s the only personal example, other than asking for permission to cut a tree or not wanting to hammer nails into a living tree.
I know that there are people who chain themselves to ancient trees to prevent them being cut down, at great personal risk, but I don’t know these people personally. But I do know a number of people who believe that plants are conscious. Usually it manifests in a “well, I have to eat something” attitude. It’s lamentable, but death is necessary in order to eat, and if plants are morally equivalent to animals it doesn’t make sense to favor one over the other.
A good friend of mine often says, “All life eats life.” It’s just the way nature works. I talk a bit about appealing to nature in my article Nature’s Law and Our Relationship with Animals. But ultimately, and with respect to my friend, I consider this the “everyone else is doing it” argument.
This seems to be a justification, and a pretty compelling one. It lets us sigh resignedly and admit defeat: we can’t live a truly harmless life. I understand that somewhat. As a vegan I have to compromise. Tires have animal products in them, and my only way to opt out is to not drive. That’s not realistic where I live. Sometimes we can’t fully live our values because there’s not always anything we can do about it.
Except that when it comes to plants’ rights, there is something we can do about it.
Saving the Plants
A quick and easy way to save the lives of plants is to eat only plants. It sounds counter-intuitive until you think about it. In order to eat an animal or his or her excretions, you first have to feed that animal plants. In the case of cows, that’s 17 pounds of grain to yield one pound of beef. A lot more plants are injured or killed than if we just ate them directly.
The rainforest is being burnt at an alarming rate. A lot of it is being cut down to grow grains and soybeans. Not for humans to eat, but to feed to cows so that we can eat them. Worldwide demand for meat is going up. By skipping the middle animal, trees, soybeans, and other plants would actually be spared.
Members of the Jain religion have demonstrated a further step. Committed Jains are not only vegetarians but also fruitarians. In Jain ethics, one doesn’t take any part of the plant that would kill or even damage the plant. They won’t even shake a tree to make a fruit fall but will wait for the fruit to fall naturally. These are people who say plants have feelings and really mean it. There’s a surprising variety of foods on a fruitarian diet once you realize that things like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocados count.
When I write about veganism I like to say that I’m not asking people to live by my values, but pointing out ways they can live their own values of nonviolence and compassion. Yes, I stole that idea from the oft-quoted Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. If you really believe that plants have feelings – if, as L. Ron Hubbard said, tomatoes scream when sliced – fruitarianism is the way to live your values. There is no need to compromise because living by your values is perfectly attainable.
Plants are Alive…. Technically
Plants are living biological organisms. They have metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment which are essential to what we define as life. For instance, it’s known that plants can react to the sound of hungry caterpillars and marshal chemical defenses.
Plants are also known to turn toward the sun, but not because they deliberate on it; it’s because many plant cells naturally grow and stretch, but this action is inhibited by sunlight. As a result, the part of the plant away from the light stretches while the part of the plant toward the light doesn’t. The plant seems to be reaching for the light, but the mechanism doesn’t require consciousness, only chemistry.
If plants don’t have thoughts and feelings, in a sense their life is a self-sustaining process much like a fire or a whirlpool. Like a fire or whirlpool, it can be beautiful and awe inspiring. But can these things have rights or even real needs?
Morally, the important question is: Does a plant care whether it is harmed or killed?
Caring one way or another, having a preference, is what separates voluntary surgery from violence, sex from rape. Only an individual’s wants, needs, and values give meaning to actions. Killing a sentient plant is murder; killing a non-sentient plant is essentially rearranging molecules, no different than snuffing out a fire or moving a rock from one place to another. If a plant has no wants, needs, or values, then it has no rights and doesn’t mind what you do to it.
So, do plants have feelings?
Many people, maybe even thousands, have attempted Backster’s polygraph experiments. The results seem amazing, but when the experiments have been attempted in a controlled scientific setting, those results disappeared. (references below)
The polygraph was testing for galvanic skin response: how resistant skin, or in this case leaves, are to electrical current. This can change as moisture in the subject changes or as humidity in the room changes. When external factors were controlled for, plants no longer seemed to react to the thoughts of the experimenters. This was more recently taken up by the Myth Busters with the same result: nothing happened.
Plants have no brains or nervous systems and show no external signs of consciousness. With no scientific demonstration to the contrary, there’s no reason to suppose plants have consciousness outside of spiritual beliefs or psychic experiences.
Plants and the Psychic
Though there’s a lot to criticize, there’s some pretty good evidence for the existence of psi phenomena. But it’s also been shown to be pretty unreliable. After 24 years of study, the CIA closed down its remote viewing program because it hadn’t proven of any value to the intelligence agency. Psychic studies have shown a good number of hits but a greater number of misses. That leaves me questioning the accuracy of psychic experiences with plants, including my own glimpses of flower faeries in my early Pagan days.
I’m not questioning the value of communicating with plants. I’m just suggesting that we don’t really know what’s going on.
Here’s Rumi Da reflecting on Backster’s experiments:
Basically it was found that plants respond more to the thought of being cut, burned, or torn than to the actual act. He discovered that if he tore a leaf from one plant a second plant would respond, but only if he was paying attention to it. The plants seemed to be mirroring his own mental responses. He concluded that the plants were acting like batteries, storing the energy of his thoughts and intentions. He said of these experiments: “I learned that there is energy connected with thought. Thought can be pulsed and the energy connected with it becomes coherent and has a laser-like power.”(Rumi Da, purveyor of fine crystals).*” (http://skepdic.com/plants.html)
Even though the study itself was debunked, if we wanted to ignore that and treat the conclusions as well-founded, this seems to paint a different story than that plants care if they’re harmed. This makes it sound like plants are mirrors of consciousness, reacting to our consciousness and possibly not even having a concern about their bodily integrity. Not as though they are individuals themselves.
That’s somewhat been my experience in plant communication. I will occasionally talk to trees even now. When I make potions I will reach my mind into the herbs to talk to them and I seem to hear a response. I’ve had enough psychic hits where I don’t feel I’m completely fooling myself. I’ve had the same experience with crystals. In all of these cases, I’ve noticed that my state of mind seems to control where the communication goes.
When we ask plants for permissions to cut them, coincidentally they always seem to say yes. Why? Perhaps because we’re not really talking one-on-one to another sentient being. Perhaps our minds are in some way interacting with the plant (or crystal, weather pattern, or whatever we’re talking to) in a way that isn’t merely talking to ourselves, but also isn’t quite what it seems.
It brings to mind Jung’s concept of the active imagination. It’s a meditative technique in which aspects of the unconscious can be interacted with as separate beings. One way it could play out is to imagine sitting with a wise teacher and having an imaginary conversation with them. As the session went along, genuine insight could occur. Others use this or similar techniques not just to explore the unconscious but to get real psychic insights.
Could something like that be going on with plant communication?
Some other alternative explanations are that species of plants have a sort of oversoul or collective consciousness, as some shamanic cultures believe; we may be communicating with nearby nature spirits or spirits interested in the plant; or we could simply be wrong and just imagining it.
I bring up these alternatives because psi phenomena is really shaky ground. It’s not a good place to start building up an ethical or biological worldview. We don’t allow psychic visions as witness testimony. When a man kills someone because he knew, psychically, that the person was a demon, we don’t usually give it much credence. Psychic insights are for our own life, not for governing the lives and deaths of others. It would have to be a lot more reliable to have a real place in ethics.
It’s long been my opinion that the place of the psychic and the religious in ethics is to make us more strict. That is, our religious beliefs shouldn’t give us license to do what reason says we shouldn’t do. Instead, it should inspire us to be even more conscientious.
Let me give an example. Pythagoras was an ethical vegetarian, and was said not to eat beans because he believed that the souls of the dead inhabited bean plants. Vegetarianism was for him a reasoned response to what he knew about the world (animals suffer and want to live). The bean plants were part of a spiritual belief, and it further restricted his actions. But the spiritual belief of his time, that the gods wanted animal sacrifices, didn’t give him license to violate his own reasoned position about animals. He didn’t sacrifice animals or attend altars where that happened. Psychic and religious experience informs our ethical choices but can’t violate reason itself.
We can’t know for sure that plants don’t experience emotion, any more than I can prove there’s not an invisible elephant in my shower. But there’s no evidence to show that they have emotion and every reason to think that they don’t. They don’t have brains or nervous systems. But we do know that animals have emotions, feel pain, and desire to live. So many of us ask plants for permission to cut them. How often do we ask animals for permission when we eat them? Can’t we tell they don’t want to be cut or harmed when they try to run away or fight back?
When I talk about this or any justice issue, I try to walk a line of saying what I mean but also not being bossy and telling people what to think or do. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. If you believe as science is repeatedly showing, that nonhuman animals can suffer as much as we do, what does that mean for you? Is it thoughts, feelings, and needs that gives someone moral standing, or is it something else? How can you best live true to your own values?
The following two studies debunk Backster’s claims:
Horowitz, K. A., D.C. Lewis, and E. L. Gasteiger. 1975. Plant primary perception. Science 189: 478-480. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/189/4201/478.abstract?sid=cf4c5eef-f1a3-4103-970b-6db6dfb7a846
Kmetz, John M. 1978. Plant perception. The Skeptical Inquirer. Spring/Summer, 57-61.