Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

February 16, 2013

Plants Talk, but Who Listens?

Plants and fungi communicate with animals, and each other, through chemical signals. An apple skin fills with pigment to announce its ripeness to animals that might eat it and excrete the seeds far from the tree. A flower’s smell carries on the breeze and attracts just the right butterfly to spread its pollen around.

The worldwide web of chemical chatter helps to keep habitats vibrant. For example, if a tree limb is invaded by insects, it will not only pump pesticides through the vasculature of that limb, but also emit a signal chemical to alert other nearby limbs and trees of the threat. If the forest is on the brink of killing off an insect species, it may select a tree to cease pumping pesticides and serve as an insect sanctuary — thus maintaining a balance between trees and their pests, and preventing both killer infestations and the evolution of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

Humans are animals. We are affected by plant talk — it’s how we decide what kinds of fruit, vegetables and grains we like. Yet, we are not lately respecting what plants have to say. We tend to think of food plants and medical herbs as something to buy preprocessed at the store, with no roots in the Earth. In consequence, we don’t know how to act on this planet. As a species, we’ve become like someone who is way too drunk for this early stage in the party, talking too loud, not listening, and obliviously stepping on everyone else’s toes.

A variety of tropical plants speak through caffeine, a chemical deadly to insects, desired by humans, goats, and certain other animals. It is entirely appropriate for sub/tropical peoples such as Arabs and Han Chinese to live symbiotically with coffee, tea, or cocoa trees. Yemen is a land of dry, rocky mountains, but some valleys are terraced and planted with lush coffee forests. Yemenis use coffee “cherries” as well as beans, since they live close enough to the tree to utilize the fresh fruit. Yemeni men stop to gather and drink coffee between morning prayers and the start of work, and men and women drink it throughout the day. Coffee inspires prayer and poetry.

Qat farming in Yemen

Actually, these farmers are raising Qat, Yemen’s other stimulant with its own traditions and rituals. A number of old Yemeni poems concern the debate between coffee and qat.

“Oh Coffee, you dispel the worries of the Great, you point the way to those who have wandered from the path of knowledge. Coffee is the drink of the friends of God, and of his servants who seek wisdom.

No one can understand the truth until he drinks of its frothy goodness. Those who condemn coffee as causing man harm are fools in the eyes of God.

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility“

–Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir, 1587, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

There are no significant caffeine plants that grow in the temperate latitudes. Yet, we have a large proportion of caffeine-dependent people (myself included). In order to pull caffeine from its natural place in the order of things, Western powers imposed insane colonial policies on the tropical nations, forcing people out of villages and small farms and onto plantations that raised coffee, cocoa, tea, or sugarcane — the last, largely so that even the humblest of Westerners can add sugar to their coffee or tea or afford the occasional cheap chocolate bar. People in the global South are held in poverty and oppression for our cheap perks. Although we typically use caffeine in a fairly healthful way, caffeine expresses a negative social consequence of making long, dull work days more tolerable and tolerated. I rather suspect that things on Earth would run a little more harmoniously if caffeinated plants were known in the temperate zone as exotic novelties, instead of almost a human right like water and food.

Sugar, the sister of caffeine, sets an example of a substance casually ripped from its physical and chemical plant matrix, a different sort of distortion in the ecological chatter. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, where it was grown to be chewed or juiced from about six thousand years ago. By a few centuries after the time of Christ, Indians were crystallizing sugar from the juice. Greeks were using expensive imported sugar in medicine. By the Middle Ages, humans had plainly lost perspective over sugar, with Arabs irrigating the desert to grow the water-loving cane. People all over ate it until our teeth rotted out and we died of diabetic complications.

Wisely applied, we can use a little chemistry to extract the good stuff from plants and make better medicines or flavorings. Yet, our tendency is to go all-out in purifying something all the way down to a white powder or a volatile liquid, regardless of the results. We believe in the myth of the “active constituent” that supposes only the most predominant, loudest-speaking chemicals in a plant are of any interest. Our economic mindset is scarcity, so we always try to get the most “bang for the buck.” Dosages and nutritional values are distorted, and secondary chemicals that enhance a plant’s flavor or effects are purified away. White flour is little more than starch, cocaine is hundreds of times more problematic than coca tea, clarified beer and wine (fungal products) lack protein and B-vitamins, and so on and so forth.

“Yellow butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin corn,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant throng.

Blue butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin beans,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant streams.

Over the blossoming corn,
Over the virgin corn,
Wild bees hum;
Over the blossoming beans,
Over the virgin beans,
Wild bees hum.

–Hopi planting song

“High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar.” — Corn Refiners Association

The processed food around us has been designed to taste good, store forever, and come cheap. In order to fulfill all three requirements, food technologists have essentially been forced to engineer deceptive food. This food compensates for the lack of fresh, quality ingredients with chemical artifice. A few kinds of fats, salt, sugar (often chemically bastardized) and sometimes MSG provide flavor in place of the cornucopia of interesting herbs and vegetables that would make for healthy food, but require care and freshness. Plants mainly tell the truth, and food technologists mainly lie.

We have two human systems at work here that are incompatible with the web of life. Our system of science places a premium on isolating variables, on taking things out of life and into the laboratory to see how the smallest parts work in isolated conditions. We need to orient ourselves more to field observation to learn how things actually work in nature — biologists of many sorts need to be listening to plants, not bombarding their genes with crude inserts.

The second problem, and I would guess the much larger one, is our model of industry. To a subsistence farm family among the Amish or ancient Celts, pigs have a certain role on the farm: eating scraps to produce meat and fertile feces. To industrial people, a pig is a component in a production process, consuming costly inputs to produce a return on investment. It makes sense to farm pigs in tiny cages in warehouses, feed them a diet that causes them to bloat up, and dump their waste anywhere you can get away with, because only money is real. This degrades the environs around pig farms and brings us flavor-and-nutritionally depleted pork, but again, only money is real. A similar ethic affected industry under Communism, wherein Moscow would decree certain production goals, and Soviet managers would aim to meet those goals regardless of who or what they destroyed in the process. But, farmers who live among their plants, who are not economically forced into planting-by-numbers, are sensitive to the needs of the environment around them and degrade it very slowly, if at all.

Field edge boundary hedge - geograph.org.uk - 1001684

Half-wild hedges between fields represent a fine compromise between ecological needs and immediate human needs. The hedges can be a source of wild food, medicine, and pollinators, not to mention protecting soil from erosion and preserving species from extinction. English hedges are full of the plants you will find in old English songs and literature: holly and ivy, wild roses, oaks…  photo by Dr. Duncan Pepper

What would our culture look like if it listened to plants? I could imagine a permacultural utopia and present it here, but that would be relatively boring. The real point is to learn about that from the plants themselves, anyway.

One change we might make is to drop the use of coffee from the Eastern US to take up sassafras instead. Sassafras is a tree used as medicine in both native and settler traditions. It is the root used in genuine root beer, or it may be consumed as a tea. Sassafras was emblematic of the American colonies, being widely seen as one of the great delights discovered in the New World. It was used to feel warm in the winter, get vitamin C, resist colds and flu, and to reinvigorate oneself in the spring. It is thought to be a subtle stimulant or mood lifter and to help maintain a general state of well-being, as well as offering cures for a number of more specific ailments. Sassafras sounds like just the thing to lift the cultural malaise resulting from the coffee-structured work day, making us healthier in the winter and more cheerful, instead of aggravating anxieties. We could be supporting polycultural farmers here at home instead of practically enslaving workers on plantations abroad.

Sassafras seedling.

Naturally, the FDA bans the use of sassafras in regulated food and drink. In a laboratory setting, sassafras oil was administered to rats (biologically similar to beavers, a natural enemy of sassafras trees) at such high doses that the rats experienced chronic kidney irritation, and subsequently developed kidney cancer, which is somehow interpreted as demonstrating that the substance is a dangerous carcinogen in humans at any dose. The DEA even takes note whenever the essential oil is purified from the plant, because of the oil’s chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy). These organizations are dedicated not to the logic of nature, but to the logic of reductive laboratory science and profiteering industry. Consider the US government’s alphabet soup of agencies and their strange relationships with tobacco, as well.

One could still plant a sassafras tree in the backyard and harvest from it quietly. You would get to know that tree, its growth habit, even moods that affect its oil production. More than merely exploiting a means of production, you would be bound to the tree as an ally, giving it space and water in exchange for its beneficent presence.

Even the weeds in your lawn have something to say for themselves, if you will but listen.

SASSAFRAS
Fringing cypress forests dim
Where the owl makes weird abode,
Bending down with spicy limb
O’er the old plantation road,
Through the swamp and up the hill,
Where the dappled byways run,
Round the gin-house, by the mill,
Floats its incense to the sun.

Swift to catch the voice of spring,
Soon its tasselled blooms appear;
Modest is their blossoming,
Breathing balm and waving cheer;
Rare the greeting that they send
To the fragrant wildwood blooms,
Bidding every blossom blend
In a chorus of perfumes.

On it leans the blackberry vine,
With white sprays caressingly;
Round its knees the wild peas twine,
Beckoning to the yellow bee;
Through its boughs the red-bird flits
Like a living flake of fire,
And with love-enlightened wits
Weaves his nest and tunes his lyre.

Oh, where skies are summer-kissed,
And the drowsy days are long,
’Neath the sassafras to list
To the field-hand’s mellow song!
Or, more sweet than chimes that hang
In some old cathedral dome,
Catch the distant klingle-klang
Of the cow-bells tinkling home!

–Samuel Minturn Peck

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