This article is the first in a series discussing the writings of Peter Tompkins and others like him on the subject of plants. It follows on from an introduction (which it will be helpful to have read before proceeding here), in which I mentioned his belief in nature spirits. In the preface to The Secret Life of Nature¹, he said: “Researching for The Secret Life of Plants in the 1970s, I accumulated some extraordinary material on nature spirits, but the book was already too long and — said my publisher — too ‘far out’. Better not strain credulity” (Pvii). This later book is the result of his subsequent explorations and research, so that here he is able to say: “Walking through the woods, I do not see the spirits, but I sense them all around me, and I no longer feel alone” (Pxi).
In modern times, belief in fairies, nymphs, sylphs etc. would be considered almost a sign of madness. So let’s examine what led him to this belief. I’ll begin by going back all the way to the introduction to The Secret Life of Plants², where the conclusion is:
- “Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of soul. It is only we, in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata”.
- “plants may at last be the bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and philosophy”.
Here are some of the statements which led the authors, Tompkins and Bird, to that conclusion:
- “A climbing plant which needs a prop will creep towards the nearest support. Should this be shifted, the vine, within a few hours, will change its course into the new direction. Can the plant see the pole? Does it sense it in some unfathomed way?” (p9)
- “Plants… are capable of intent (their italics); they can stretch towards, or seek out, what they want in (mysterious) ways”. (p10)
- “the inhabitants of the pasture… appear to be able to perceive and to react to what is happening in their environment at a level of sophistication far surpassing that of humans”. (p10)
- “The sundew plant will grasp at a fly with infallible accuracy, moving in just the right direction towards where the prey is to be found. Some parasitical plants can recognize the slightest trace of the odour of their victim, and will overcome all obstacles to crawl in its direction” (p10). “Insect-devouring sundews pay no attention to pebbles, bits of metal, or other foreign substances placed on their leaves, but are quick to sense the nourishment to be derived from a piece of meat” (p11). (I’ll add some further material on carnivorous plants in the next article.)
- “Plants seem to know which ants will steal their nectar, closing when these ants are about, opening only when there is enough dew on their stems to keep the ants from climbing. The most sophisticated acacia actually enlists the protective services of certain ants which it rewards with nectar in return for the ants’ protection against other insects and herbivorous mammals”. (p10)
- “Is it chance that plants grow into special shapes to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of insects which will pollinate them, luring these insects with special colour and fragrance, rewarding them with their favourite nectar…?” (p10)
- “Is it really nothing but a reflex or coincidence that a plant such as the orchid Trichoceros parviflorus will grow its petals to imitate the female of a species of fly so exactly that the male attempts to mate with it and in so doing pollinates the orchid?” (p10)
- “The ingenuity of plants in devising forms of construction far exceeds that of human engineers” (p11). Examples are given.
- “Plants are even sentient to orientation and to the future… (There is) a sunflower plant, Siliphium laciniatum, whose leaves accurately indicate the points of the compass. Indian liquorice, or Arbrus precatorius, is so keenly sensitive to all forms of electrical and magnetic influences it is used as a weather plant. Botanists who first experimented with it in London’s Kew Gardens, found in it a means for predicting cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions” (p12).
- “So accurate are alpine flowers about the seasons, they know when spring is coming and bore their way up through lingering snowbanks, developing their own heat with which to melt the snow” (p12).
- Plants “have now been found to be able to distinguish between sounds inaudible to the human ear and colour wavelengths such as infra-red and ultra-violet invisible to the human eye; they are specially sensitive to X-rays and the high frequency of television” (p12).
Much of the above was inspired by the research of an Austrian biologist Raoul Francé. (The authors say that he could have written their book 50 years earlier.) He says that “plants which react so certainly, so variously, and so promptly to the outer world, must have some means of communicating with the outer world, something comparable or superior to our senses. Francé insists that plants are constantly observing and recording events and phenomena of which man — trapped in his anthropocentric view of the world, subjectively revealed to him through his five senses — knows nothing” (p13)³.
Conventional scientists, of course, have dismissed such ideas, and will continue to do so, attempting to come up with reductionistic explanations. For the sake of the discussion, however, I’m going to suppose that Francé, Tompkins and Bird have got it right. The question then arises, are the plants aware of what they are doing, therefore aware of themselves existing as individual entities? Or are they acting unconsciously, being controlled from a deeper level of their being, either by some kind of psychological factor, or something akin to a nature spirit? Or, taking it to a further level, are they being controlled by the brain of a much greater superorganism, the planet Gaia?
In an Appendix (click here) I add some more material on carnivorous plants, and I’ll discuss the possibility of the existence of nature spirits in the article after that.
1. Thorsons, 1997
2. written with Christopher Bird, Allen Lane 1974, my copy Penguin 1975
3. This is a quote from Tompkins/Bird, p12, not Francé.