A Plant's-Eye View of Life

By W. T. S. Thackara

Science, in its best conception, is that creative institution of mind which seeks to fathom in some tangible measure the breadth and depth of universal being. Therefore, all men, to the degree that they seek to understand themselves and the role they play in the evolutionary drama of life, are scientists. There are moments in the search, however, when the inquiring mind turns upon itself in an effort to evaluate the very process of discovery, the effectiveness and reliability of its methodology. From such introspection some scientists have remarked they emerged with fresh perspective, not only of the process of research itself, but also of the workings of nature and of themselves, each as an integral part of nature.

Luther Burbank, accoladed in his lifetime as the "wizard of horticulture," was once asked to lecture upon his unorthodox methods in plant breeding. The audience, members of the American Pomological Society, was reported to have sat agape as he "told all":

In pursuing the study of any of the universal and everlasting laws of nature, whether relating to the life, growth, structure and movements of a giant planet, the tiniest plant or of the psychological movements of the human brain, some conditions are necessary before we can become one of nature's interpreters or the creator of any valuable work for the world. Preconceived notions, dogmas and all personal prejudice and bias must be laid aside. Listen patiently, quietly and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach, shedding light on that which was before a mystery, so that all who will, may see and know. She conveys her truths only to those who are passive and receptive. Accepting these truths as suggested, wherever they may lead, then we have the whole universe in harmony with us. At last man has found a solid foundation for science, having discovered that he is part of a universe which is eternally unstable in form, eternally immutable in substance.

From our twentieth century perspective, where the quest for knowledge extends incomprehensible light-years into infinite space and, conversely, into the equally infinite recesses of the atom, it is perhaps ironic that the kingdom which provided man with his first scientific challenge -- agriculture -- should play a new and central role in unlocking the mysteries of life. Plants, with the aid of sensitive monitoring instruments developed in physics laboratories around the world, are literally telling us, if we have the ears to hear, about rarely observed and little understood dimensions and qualities of nature and man.

Preeminent among the ramifications that follow from this research is the suggestion that consciousness is universal; that it is the matrix which unifies all life and provides the basis of kinship for all beings. That plants are sensate, able to monitor threat, emotion, and other physical and mental changes, as well as intelligently (not to be confused with self-consciously) to respond to the environment, are some of the more remarkable observations of late. From these, we may well conclude that plants will enable man to find a touchstone for self-exploration: to discover and cultivate some of his own hidden potentials. Here we have evidence which intimates the cyclic progression of human understanding. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," it is only after ceaseless exploration that we return to that point from where we started and there to know it (at least more fully) for the first time.

Two writers, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, have joined forces in an effort to assist the general inquirer to such a juncture in a survey of who's who and what's what in this promising field of endeavor. On the best-seller lists for several months, The Secret Life of Plants (Harper and Row, New York, 1973, 402 pages, $8.95) has succeeded in opening to public view a highly readable account of the latest research in plant 'consciousness' and sensitivity; also included are fascinating sketches of the pioneers whose ideas were often so ahead of their time that they could not be properly evaluated by their contemporaries. In certain quarters the book has met with skeptical reaction and been criticized as 'unscientific.' This is to be expected and, in some instances, a suspended judgment is called for. The label "unscientific" however, seems inappropriate; for in no place does the book make pretense to be anything other than a nontechnical report written by nonscientists of recorded observations and related material. The privilege of evaluation is left to the reader.

The Secret Life of Plants deserves recognition on at least two counts. In the first place it presents significant and startling information which, if true, will have an enormous impact on the generally accepted scientific world view. (See Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for one of the best analyses of this phenomenon.) Its second value is of a more philosophic and psychological nature; for, as the account unfolds, the reader is provided with unexpected insights into the geography of the road to truth and the many obstacles which may be encountered upon it -- the chief of which is man.

The book opens with the work presently being conducted in the laboratories of lie-detector expert Cleve Backster, (Cf. Sunrise, February 1971 and June-July 1973) whose experiments might in retrospect show plants, as Tompkins phrases it, as "the bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and metaphysics." Connecting the electrogalvanic skin-response section of his lie-detector to his secretary's Dracaena massangeana (a palm-like indoor plant) in the hope of determining how long it took for water poured on the roots to reach its leaves, Backster was intrigued by the very human characteristics of the tracing on the graph paper. Observing this, he speculated upon what might happen if he threatened the physical well-being of the plant. Dunking a leaf into hot coffee generated no reaction. He then conceived a worse threat: he would burn a leaf with a match. At that moment of intent, he saw the recording pen leap into wild excitation -- apparently responding solely to his thought. Further investigation proved that neither Backster nor the plant were oddities: the same experiment has been replicated by other men with other plants on other recorders, thus making the results far more important to the scientific community as a phenomenon in need of explanation.

Around this observation of a type of primary (evidently telepathic) perception in plants, the rest of the book develops. Since the authors have assembled an immense amount of material bearing upon the hidden but vital interrelationships between plants and man, it is quite beyond the scope of this review to summarize their work. Rather the attempt will be to examine a few central themes that emerge from the book's pages.

Historians of science, in their study of the events surrounding those discoveries which have resulted in dramatic insights into the structure of and processes in nature, have noted recurring patterns of psychological reaction to novel concepts which threaten to upset the established world view. (Scientific progress, some of them maintain, is not the brick by brick addition to the temple of knowledge that our Western schoolbooks describe. Instead, it advances upon us in waves with fresh ideas crashing into the foundations of the old, entrenched dogmas. The facts of history tend to confirm this view. Almost invariably one or more inquisitive and open-minded investigators observe something that simply does not fit into, and cannot be explained by, a significant part of the theories and 'commonly accepted' beliefs about nature. If this anomaly is not then buried or otherwise squelched by the powers of reaction, the new idea may receive a fair hearing; and if supported by factual evidence and by researchers, the event may be recorded by future historians as the germ which helped to fructify a new era of enlightenment.

Cleve Backster, whose experiments may qualify as such, opened a 1973 lecture on "Plant Consciousness" with an observation of Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Planck, that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." (Scientific Autobiography, pp. 33-4.) The frustrations, aspirations and achievements of those whose pioneering efforts in the hidden potencies of plants made them acutely aware of the penalties of creative exploration are briefly yet sympathetically portrayed in The Secret Life of Plants. Most of the names are well known: poet-scientist Wolfgang von Goethe; the "Black Leonardo," George Washington Carver; and "wizard" Luther Burbank. Perhaps the most interesting, and least known of the group, is a Hindu, whose experimentation in animal and particularly in plant physiology was, as even the staid Encyclopaedia Britannica has it, "so much in advance of his time that the precise evaluation of it was controversial."

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose's career originally began in physics as a lecturer at Calcutta's Presidency College, reputedly India's best. Bose supplemented his teaching with research, and in 1894 started investigating the wireless transmission of "Hertzian" or radio waves. He succeeded in 1895 -- a year before Marconi was to receive official recognition -- but being in India, declined to travel to England for patent application. Attracting the attention of the Royal Society, he subsequently published in their journal a paper on the "Determination of the Wave Length of Electric Radiation," and was later awarded a doctorate from London University. Continuing his work with radio, he noticed in 1899 that certain metallic components in his radio receivers lost their sensitivity with continuous use, exhibiting a type of fatigue characteristic of human and animal muscle tissue, and which recovered full sensitivity after a period of rest.

This led him to further speculation and research concerning the so-called boundary between the organic and inorganic -- a boundary which Bose increasingly felt to be exceedingly tenuous. Seeing the analogy between metals and animal tissue, he then sought to determine if a similar response might be found in plants. The results proved positive, and opened for Bose a quarter-century epoch of plant research. By combining physics with botany he was able to anticipate much of the experimentation now being conducted. Punctuating these efforts were his internationally recognized labors for the advancement of science, as for instance his 1926 appointment to the League of Nations Committee on Intercultural Cooperation, which he shared with physicist Albert Einstein, mathematician H. A. Lorentz, and Greek literary scholar Gilbert Murray.

Perhaps the best evaluation of Bose's work was his own summation, made after retirement:

In my investigations on the action of forces on matter, I was amazed to find boundary lines vanishing and to discover points of contact emerging between the Living and the non-Living. My first work in the region of invisible lights made me realize how in the midst of luminous ocean we stood almost blind. Just as in following light from visible to invisible our range of investigation transcends our physical sight, so also the problem of the great mystery of Life and Death is brought a little nearer solution, when, in the realm of the Living, we pass from the Voiced to the Unvoiced.
Is there any possible relation between our own life and that of the plant world? The question is not one of speculation but of actual demonstration by some method that is unimpeachable. This means that we should abandon all our preconceptions, most of which are afterward found to be absolutely groundless and contrary to facts. The final appeal must be made to the plant itself and no evidence should be accepted unless it bears the plant's own signature.

Written nearly forty years ago, the statement now seems prophetic, and gives force to the saying that a few drops of rain presage the storm. What, then, might we ask, will be the nature of this impending storm, if there should be one at all? The lessons learned from retrospect may provide a clue. History on countless occasions has confirmed that knowledge is a powerful double-edged tool -- a tool which can be both used and abused. In an area, such as extrasensory perception, for instance, where so many know so little about something which may prove more potent than nuclear power in its effect upon mankind, the dangers are obvious. If in our present research with plants we discover not only the influence of thought upon the various kingdoms of life, but also develop the skills to manipulate this power, it is certain that we will have launched ourselves into a new arena of human experience: one which will require a reinforced and far more acute sense of ethical responsibility if we are not to commit the gravest offenses against our fellow men. On the other hand, creative solutions, previously undreamt of, to many of the blights of human existence could be part of the "fallout" from plant research.

The Secret Life of Plants explores some of these creative byproducts that are even now under development around the world. Remarkably enough, one such seems to have been anticipated in its conception, if not in actual use, a few thousand years ago. According to Pythagoras, all things including celestial bodies (which he considered animate, sentient organisms) move in fundamentally harmonic, vibratory relationships with each other, producing a majestic symphony of life -- the Music of the Spheres. Plato, developing an aspect of this idea, highly recommended the study and performance of music in education. Moreover, he felt that only certain modes of music should be played, according to the temperament of the individual, in an effort to refine and bring forth the higher nature of the soul.

Modern research is now indicating that music, of the proper 'mode,' does bring forth the better nature of plants -- in increased and improved quality of production. (Cf. Sunrise, April 1973, "Threads of Coincidence," for accounts of Hindu and Hopi Indian knowledge of music's effect on plant growth.) Besides this potential boon to agriculture, there is another facet of observation which plants may be revealing: the effect of various types of music on the quality of growth of our own souls. Tompkins and Bird describe in some detail the work done by Dorothy Retallack, whose efforts were recorded by CBS-TV news cameras and broadcast on October 16, 1970.

Required to devise an experiment for a college biology class, Mrs. Retallack, having heard about the positive effects of Bach and Beethoven on wheat fields in Canada, sought to determine how music would affect growth patterns in plants. In sum, the plants placed in a controlled environment reacted favorably, growing faster and more abundantly, to the harmonic strains of the classical composers -- in some cases actually growing in the direction of the music. Highly percussive sounds, especially the 'hard Rock' of Jimi Hendrix and the like, stunted them in their growth and they often leaned away from the hi-fi speaker. The most appealing music, on the other hand, was not Western, but rather the quarter-tone slitherings of Ravi Shankar's sitar, a type of Indian lute capable of producing the most refined and subtle tonal modulations. In some cases the plants inclined an unprecedented sixty degrees to the horizontal in an effort to merge with the musical source. Despite the inferences which could be very easily drawn, it is only fair to point out that these are the recorded reactions of plants, not people.

The book continues with discussions of plants and electromagnetism, the mystery of auras and Kirlian photography, and devotes two substantial sections to exploring new frontiers in agriculture, which, in terms of returning to points of beginnings, seems right. If a central message emerges from the pages of The Secret Life of Plants, it undoubtedly echoes Burbank's thought, to have "the whole universe in harmony with us." But in spite of the admonitions of generations of wise men and seers who for countless thousands of years have proclaimed the identic refrain of the Golden Rule of harmonious action, we seem to continue unheeding of the rule that is observed in every other of nature's kingdoms. It is perhaps fitting, then, as often the advice of a child will stop us cold in our tracks, that we now turn our ears to the voiceless whisperings of the lowly plant. "Know thyself" was the Greek motto; and if man is to sound a harmonious note in the symphony of his own life, he could learn much by following the suggestions and examples found throughout nature. Unity in diversity is a practical aim, and can be attained if we but align the conduct of our lives with the principle of altruism -- with our fellow men, and with all being. And if then we listen, with care, with empathy, and with a true openness of mind and heart, we too might hear the music of the spheres.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June-July 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


Science Menu