One day the things which can’t be presently measured, will be.
I hear plants.
For about 15 years I’ve been drawn to the healing capacities of plants and their many uses in traditional medicine and religious ritual, and maybe 5 years ago I heard them for the first time.
If you stumbled upon this post accidentally you might be wondering what the hell exactly you’ve landed on, and if you’re a fellow herbalist you might also be thinking the author is nuts, even if you want to believe in such things. Most people don’t have this experience and it’s definitely not something measurable (although communication between plants through pheromones is increasingly being studied, thankfully).
While studying Western Herbalism under the tutelage of JoAnn Sanchez (at SWIHA), I received a class handout with a picture of a human in traditional Indigenous dress sitting under a tree, with the caption, “If you listen, they will speak.” I was pretty much thinking “duh” even though I had zero idea what such an experience would be like, and doubted I knew anyone who did.
Over the course of those 14 months of study, I met more incredible healers and authors and manufacturers with magnificent plant wisdom than I could have imagined existed in the world, let alone the state of Arizona. Each one opened me up a little bit more to the possibility of inexplicable magic occurring in relationships with plants. I studied almost obsessively and applied my newly acquired knowledge with the fervor inherent in novitiates from any craft. Somehow, almost through osmosis, the skill developed within me of intuiting how plant medicines might be applied beyond what was scientifically measurable or acceptable.
Thus began my well defined wu-wu phase and subsequent rejection of all things modern medicine, as they were (in my mind) clear rejections of all things traditional medicine. I was a radical herbalist searching for ancient answers and determined to pull my fellows out from under the thumbs of big pharma and unnecessary medical intrusion. “You don’t need a pill for your allergies or blood pressure or pain or depression!!” I’m surprised I still have a voice from screaming this at the world.
Fortunately as I’ve matured over time I’ve released some of my aggression and now see a place in our world for evidence based medicine and all forms of healing, although I am relentless in my pursuit of healing the causes of illness rather than the symptoms, as our present medical establishment is prone to do. People on the receiving end have to be open to it though, and that’s really hard when symptomatic relief is so quick and easy, and traditional healing takes concentrated effort and personal responsibility (something else most people in general don’t really care to assume).
As my blatant rejection of all things conventional dissolved and I myself became a more open minded human, plants began to communicate with me in new ways. I got better at understanding the nuances of their abilities and the people they were best suited for. I learned that the best medicine is usually the medicine growing right near you, but not always. I accepted versatility and decided to let the plants themselves be my guide to their uses and applications.
And then one day in 2012, I had that one experience that changed me as an herbalist forever. I heard a plant. Not with a mouth and not with human words. And regrettably what I heard were horrific screams of anguish – a memory that will endure for as long as I live and one that serves as the foundation for how I approach other living things for their assistance, how I offer gratitude, and how I transmit my knowledge and skills to next generations of herbalists.
I was living in Arizona, and moving from one town to the next, about 20 minutes driving time. At the original home this incredible pumpkin plant had decided to grow to about 15 feet long. It rooted down right next to a sprinkler, and it was lush and green, perfectly prepared to grow pumpkins when the season changed. The month was June, which means at least 110 degrees in the hottest part of the day in the Phoenix metro area. I knew the house was going to be vacant for at least a month. No one was going to care for the pumpkin.
I made a really difficult decision to dig the pumpkin up and transplant it into our new back yard, a much more hospitable location with flood irrigation and lots of shade trees.
As soon as the roots began to come from the Earth, I felt sharp pains throughout my body. I cried. I felt awful. It was so hot. I did the best I could to wind the leafy vines around themselves, saturating the roots with wet soil. I placed it in the back of my friends Jeep and set off for the new spot.
At some point I turned around to look at the Pumpkin because I could hear screaming. Not the way I could hear music coming from the radio or my friend talking to me about transplanting this monster pumpkin. I could hear the screaming inside of me, but it was not my voice or my feelings. The plant was screaming at me with a mix of anger and pain, and it told me it was not going to live at the new place and I should have let it stay where it was.
I sobbed as I put the pumpkin in the dirt at the new place. I visited it and talked to it frequently, making sure it had enough water but not too much. I prayed for its survival but I knew it didn’t want to survive at this point, even if it were capable of doing so. I knew it was angry with me, believe it or not. I felt nothing but guilt and remorse and heartbreak for what I had done, so much so that I couldn’t fully process what I’d heard for quite some time after it all transpired.
I think one day I just casually said “I heard that plant…” and thankfully the person I told had full confidence in me and believed my experience even though they were the least similar of all my companions in terms of being into ‘hippie shit.’
From that moment of acknowledging the experience forward, I heard more and more plants. Sometimes seeking their voices out and sometimes being grabbed by the invisible arms of their messages. I once biked through a grove of honeysuckle and was overcome with nostalgia. I saw the word nostalgia flashing ahead of me over the honeysuckle bushes as I heard them being spoken (I am a bit of a synesthetic, and see words when I hear them). As soon as I got home I looked up Bach Flower Essences because I knew they had a Honeysuckle formula, and sure enough it’s used for treating unhealthy nostalgia that keeps one stuck in the past.
Another time I was staying with a friend, and approached a Rosemary bush to see if it would be ok to clip a few sprigs to aid in a mentally challenging writing task. I asked the bush what I could offer in gratitude, and I heard what sounded like a thousand tiny voices yelling COFFEE! COFFEE COFFEE! I was totally amused by a Rosmarinal chorus demanding coffee as an exchange, and wondered why they wanted it, being such a cerebrally active plant to begin with. I went inside, grabbed the rest of the coffee in the French press, and poured it around the base of the plant.
When my friend came home I recounted the experience to him, half expecting him to call me a quack or a crazy. Instead, he told me that every morning he poured what was left of the coffee and the grounds onto the plant.
What the heck? He’d made a little coffee addict out of the Rosemary and I’d heard them ask for a fix.
I’ve never really questioned the reality of plant communication because I haven’t had to, which is something for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Still, it can’t be measured, and the threat of unlovable commentary has made me reluctant to write about it with the goal of sharing the information. I sort of developed the expectation that plants talk to all the herbalists in their own ways, and only recently discovered this isn’t true, when an experienced herbal colleague told me plants had never spoken to her.
I’m sure herbalists and healers will want to know whether this is something you can be trained to do. I don’t have an answer for that, but I think even if you never hear a plant speak the way I have, you will absorb their knowledge (measurable and immeasurable) in unknown ways by making the effort to sit still and quiet, accepting them for what they are, and always offering gratitude for what they give you. This will make you a better herbalist and everything you produce will be better medicine.