I have recently been reflecting about a conference I spoke at a while ago. A few people were discussing a problem they felt they had in getting to know plants. How do we communicate with plants, the delegates were asking? What does it feel like? I didn’t have any answers for them as a lot of this tends to be subjective and I’m not an expert on this area at all. We discussed expectations and experiences though. What did they mean? What was their understanding of communicating with plants? I said in summary “If you’re a herbalist you are already connecting but maybe not in the same way as the “voice in your head” crowd“. The conversation was really interesting and had me formulating some ideas.
On reflection, what I was saying is plant communication isn’t all “woo woo” based. Yes, there are people who can Intuit a lot about plants and their medicine. I’ve seen it happen and on occasion it’s happened to me. But only on a rare occasion. But communication doesn’t just happen on the esoteric animist level. It can happen on a very real physical level but we need to know ourselves very well. We need to be skilled in the art of discernment. Not telling Spector from illusion, or other persons lie from truth but telling self-delusion from reality. A much harder skill in my honest opinion as i find people are very rarely honest with themselves, myself included.
If you have ever met me you will know I stand with feet in three worlds; the scientific, the intuitive and traditional. In fact, I’m cynical and pretty hard on myself. My cynicism and grounding in tradition helps makes sure that I’m not lying to myself about my intuition. As does my grounding in Science. I feel there is a natural synergy between the three approaches. Each is a counter weight to the other. After all, self-delusion really is an enemy of knowledge we gain through experience. It helps to understand ourselves before we move into any “getting to know through personal experience” exercises.
In brief, delusion and fantasy has no place, we must be honest. To a fault. So, when it comes to plant exercises and communication let’s make a promise to cut the bullshit with ourselves, and step out of any fantasy life we may live in. This doesn’t help anything in the long-term. By being honest, we remove doubt that what we are experiencing is linked somehow to the plant we are eating, drinking smoking etc. Then apply any counter measures of cynicism you have> explore the lore and science see whats what.
make a promise to cut the bullshit with ourselves & step out of any fantasy life.
Bringing them to you – Communicating Inwardly
So how do we know plants are communicating with us? So concentrating on the less esoteric approach lets speak about our bodies. You have a preference for certain foods. Maybe you like red wine over white wine? Maybe you like sour flavours over bitter flavours? It’s not often we spend time listening to our bodies and the effects of plants on ourselves. Do you know why you like red wine over white? Is it because of a taste, or perhaps a memory, or perhaps earlier experience leading to unthinking reactions? The response to taste is a sign of your bodies affinity and constitution. It links to whole systems of herbalism (such as Ayurveda).
This is how your body communicates to rational mind centred you. It’s your body letting you know what the plant is doing and if it’s useful for the body at this point. You are communicating with the plant at a biological level. No “voice in your head” but a response. Memories and other people’s expectations also impact on how we react to things. This is our own subjectivity. Remember we need to discern what is us, what might be other people and what is the plant. Remember to cut the bullshit. Though memories imbibing plants bring up can be a useful springboard for exploration in and of themselves.
Have you ever relaxed deeply into a cup of english breakfast tea and felt the caffeine waking you up? Does it feel good or bad? Where does it start and where does it end? How does your stomach feel? This is your body telling you about the plant. It’s communicating through your physical body. Which is then translated by your senses and thinking/emotional mind. This is a skill to develop. Not many folks naturally feel and embody these things. Not many are in tune with their bodies as they might be or sit behind a lie about their own physicality. There can be hard lessons here.
We must know the world as it truly is before we seek to understand it.
Are you a super taster? Do you have an amazing sense of smell and adore the perfume of certain plants and flowers? Does this allow you to make amazing blends of herbal tea with a taste and subtle aroma? Or incredible perfumes and incense delicate and striking? What feelings does this incense or tea bring to you? How does your body feel? Remember, cut the Bullshit.
Are you good at botany? Can you name difficult plants? Allowing you to place plants into schemes and hierarchies? Do you understand the energetics systems? Allowing you to synthesise amazing formula? We all bring a natural empathy to plants. We all have a talent. These affinities can be a good place to start the journey of getting to know plants. Use your natural gifts to move into exploring the plant world and you will start to learn how they communicate with you.
All of these things (and there is a lot more I haven’t touched on) point to plants communicating with us on a body to plant level. This, of course, is a personal experience. One that might not speak to our rational minds. Our reaction to certain things is exactly that. Our own. But this is a start in learning how we interact with the plant world around us and our body is telling us what the plants are saying through our biology. It’s a skill to feel into this and unpick fantasy from reality.
To reiterate. We need excellent discernment skills to succeed in this approach. For example, many religions do not approve of “being in one’s body”. We have to be careful of mind sets, like “original sin“, “pray away the gay“, “man up” and other psychological barriers we may have that make us scoff at these experiences. If this is hard to deal with, there are plants and groups that can help support you deal with any body related issues. Sometimes we need help to cut the Bullshit.
Going Where they Live – Terroir – Communicating Outwardly
So we have our internal baseline. We can experience plants through our preferred way of interacting. It’s time to explore the plants where they are. Exploration of their individual habitats leads us to something “Wine Officialdom” calls Terroir. The term itself can be traced back to French wine makers attempting to understand the differences between wines produced in certain regions of the country. As one might expect, they found that the soil in which grapes are grown can have a huge impact on the resulting wine, thus marking the first time that terroir — from terre, the French word for “earth” — made it into the wine vernacular. Terroir is the impact the local environment has on plants which grow in it. This is mostly to do with the climate, soil, water, sun and air quality the plant finds itself in. We must also be aware that humans have an impact on this as well. How we prune, interact and move through the environment (i.e. car pollution) will impact on the plants around us. So, terroir is a combination of things local to the environment. This all links to the phenomenon which impacts our food and herbs (and ultimately us). It’s a study in plant-based phenomenology. I.e. we are exploring the language of phenomena of our local environs, what impact it has on our local plant life and what our place is in that. A simple start of this process is to keep a local wild crafting diary. It’s use will be particular to its creator and therefore pure to yourself.
Why is this important apart from giving you a few fancy words to use at wine-tasting parties or scrabble? It’s important because communication is a two-way process. What we are enabling by exploring our local environment is a new way of understanding. We are answering the question how our environment impacts on the plants around us. Not only this, if we explore a few plants through the seasons, every year, we can tell when their berries are sweetest, or when the leaves are less tannic, or when the roots hold the most sugars. We start to understand the impact of different weather and climate systems on these plants year to year. It brings us to the knowledge of our ancestors. What you are developing is your own folk knowledge. You might just find it resonates with older folk wisdom or brings new understanding as you develop your own approach and tradition.
Indulge your senses, breath deep and hedonistically of the plants perfume.
An exploration of Terroir allows us to find out which environment best suits the plants around us. What difference the weather systems make from year to year to harvests. What animals and insects depend on the relationship with the plant. This helps link us to the ever-allusive genius loci. It embeds us in the movement of the year. We are getting to know one another.
How to …
So how do we do this? To help you on this journey I have provided a simple image that can form the backbone of your calendar diary for a single plant. (You can download it from the picture to the left). Just start wherever you are in the year and choose a number of plants to explore. (For me this is Elder, Hawthorn, Rowan, Apple, Lemon Balm and Blackberry). Indulge your senses, breath deep and hedonistically of the plants perfume. If you make any remedies notice the tastes, value, colour etc. Note everything that you can about the plant. Obsess over it and things you make from it – from scent of the bark to colour of the seeds. Note when it flowers, goes dormant, any disease, timings of fruiting and flowers. If you have the capacity test the soil, for PH and what is it made from i.e. loamy, peat, clay etc please do so. Really get to know the plant in question and its environment. Then just keep the observation going. Tasting leaves and different parts if edible at the different months and noting the subtle shift in flavour and texture. You will soon be making the sweetest jams, tastiest ciders and mind-blowing incense. All because you have a respectful relationship with the plant in question and now it habits, wants and desires as deeply as a close friend.
There are many routes to helping you communicate with plants. Not all of them approach it from an esoteric and intuitive level. We can rely on our own body senses we pay little attention to in our modern paced life style to help us reach a more nuanced understanding. For this we really need to know ourselves well and cut the bullshit. We can approach our natural environment as partners to help us recognise the unseen language of nature. This approach will lead to a pure local knowledge for any practitioner. If prevailed with will show many secrets that help us communicate with the genius loci and plants around us and lead us into our own local traditions.