This article is the second in a series discussing the writings of Peter Tompkins and others like him on the subject of plants. It follows on from an introduction, part 1, and an appendix to part 1. I’ve reached the point where the possibility of the existence of nature spirits, otherwise known as elemental beings, has to be contemplated, no matter what modern Enlightenment science tells us, in order to explain the behaviour of plants (and much else besides).
Belief in nature spirits is an ancient tradition found all over the globe. It is the basis of animism, described as the “ancient philosophy that views everything in Nature as having an indwelling spirit/soul, including the plants, rocks, waters, winds, fires, animals, humans, and other life forms. Animism is the foundation of shamanism and has been considered the earliest form of human religion on planet Earth”¹. It will be interesting to see whether the earliest form of human religion has stood the test of time.
Some examples are:
- the ancient Greeks, who believed in dryads, nymphs, satyrs,
- Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), where there are yakshas (male) and yakshini (female), described as “a broad class of nature-spirits… connected with water, fertility, trees, the forest, treasure and wilderness”². There are also nature spirits in the Japanese religion of Shinto, where they are called kami. Shinto is animistic; it is “shamanic and regards all things as alive, aware, sentient, and of spirit — just like us”³.
- the Hebrew apocryphal tradition, where the Book of the Secrets of Enoch “states that everything from blades of grass to herbs in the field have special spirits”⁴,
- so-called pagan traditions, including Druidism.
Moving on to more modern times, esotericists believe that there are various elemental beings, existing in a different level of reality: these are called gnomes (earth spirits), undines (water spirits), sylphs (air spirits), and salamanders (fire spirits). (These terms refer to the ancient concept of the four elements, not what we understand by earth etc.) An outstanding example would be the 16th century Swiss healer Paracelsus, whom Manly P. Hall has described as “the Swiss Hermes, and the greatest physician of modern times”, and who says that he “has given us the most complete analysis of these strange creatures who live, move, and have their being unseen and unrealized by mortal man. Though we daily see their works, we have never learned to know the workers who, day and night, function through Nature’s finer forces”⁵ .
Here I’m going to pose the question, considering that now most people find such ideas ridiculous, why did the ancients actually believe?
We assume perhaps that people have always experienced the world in the same way that we do (saw through similar eyes, heard through similar ears), but formerly misinterpreted it, naïvely believing that hidden agencies were at work behind the weather, and so on. This is not necessarily true. It is reasonable to assume that through the centuries, consciousness, and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious psyche, have themselves evolved. My assumption is that ego-consciousness has gradually become stronger, and that in the past the boundary between psyche and the material world was less pronounced. We might perhaps say that daily life once had more of a dreamlike quality. This would mean that, if nature spirits, or for that matter any spirits, do actually exist, then people in earlier times might have had a direct experience of them, and that is why they believed in them.
It is not just me who thinks that. Jonathan Black is the author of The Secret History of the World⁶, which is a compendium of knowledge which “has been taught down the ages in certain secret societies” (p17), “common to Mystery schools and secret societies from all over the world” (p25). His book “is the result of nearly twenty years’ research” into esoteric texts. More significantly, however, he was “helped to understand these sources by a member of more than one of the secret societies, someone who, in the case of one secret society at least, has been initiated to the highest level”. Black “had been working for years as an editor for one of London’s larger publishers”. One day this man walked into his office; he “was clearly of a different order of being” (p 23-24). They became friends, and this man became Black’s mentor, educated him in these secret teachings.
That background information is my attempt to suggest that Black should perhaps be taken seriously. This is what he has to say about my idea: “In the ancient world experience of spirits was so strong that to deny the existence of the spirit world would not have occurred to them. In fact it would have been almost as difficult for people in the ancient world to deny the existence of spirit as it would for us to decide not to believe in the table, the book, in front of us” (p58). They were not necessarily imagining these things; they were possibly literally aware of the reality of nature, and other, spirits.
So, belief in spirits is alive and well even in modern times, among the self-appointed guardians of secret ancient knowledge. ‘Science’, of course, thinks that it knows better. However, it insists on only taking into account the material world, what can be appreciated by the five senses. As ego-consciousness has become stronger, we have become progressively cut off from the spirit world. That does not mean, however, that it has ceased to exist. Someone who thinks along the same lines is the prolific writer on spiritual and esoteric subjects V. Susan Ferguson. In an article inspired by the esotericist René Guénon, she talks about our ongoing “descent into matter and limited five-sense perception, which blocks our understanding of the Invisible Realms that are the support and substratum of this entire universe”.
Here she could easily be talking about modern science: “The people who have become prominent in all fields of modern life simply are no longer capable of understanding the real underlying metaphysical principles that are the substratum of the temporal illusory earth we stand upon. Thus the various and always changing theories that become the basis of our lives are profoundly flawed, unsound, and subject to collapse… The intelligence that is now held in high esteem is of the lowest order — regardless of how many corporate global policy institute think-tanks these modern era PhD priests are ensconced within”⁷.
Someone who understood this very well was the poet William Wordsworth. (It seems that poets often know better than scientists.) These are some lines from Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. He says that in early childhood we are still in touch with our origins in higher worlds: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” But then, as we grow up and become more accustomed to the material world, we lose touch with this: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy”. He laments this: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more”.
This may not be exactly what Wordsworth meant, but one interpretation of this could be the ego’s loss of connection with the psyche and its contents — it is often children who believe that they can see fairies. (Manly Hall says that “these little people are often seen by children, who remain clairvoyant up to about the seventh year”⁸.)
It seems obvious that nature spirits cannot be physical, otherwise everyone would see them all the time. Why is it then that certain people can sometimes apparently see them? Is it something special about the observer? Or do the spirits have the ability to become sometimes slightly more physical, dense enough to be seen? We might perhaps then call them interdimensional beings.
Modern educated Westerners may associate a belief in fairies etc. with primitive, simple-minded, poorly educated country folk. I would suggest, however, that the opposite is the case. In modern times there are two classes of believers (and there is a strong overlap between them).
The first is that group of gifted adults who still seem able to see; we call them psychics, clairvoyants, or sensitives. They operate from a place higher than the rational mind, which is what I take Wordsworth to mean when he says prison-house. They are not trapped within the prison of scientific materialism. This may be a natural gift, or it is perhaps an ability that can be acquired through spiritual training. Here is an example of such a person⁹.
The man in question was Geoffrey Hodson “with the gift of clairvoyance who claimed to be able to see fairies”. He was “a member of the Theosophical Society, a student of Buddhism, a practitioner of yoga, and a man who at first had regarded fairies as merely the products of the imagination, (but) had come to view them worthy of consideration thanks to an unexpected occult experience…”
(I hope readers will be familiar with the case of the Cottingley fairies. If not please take a few minutes to do some internet research.) Hodson was invited by Edward Gardner who, along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had been investigating the case, to visit Cottingley. Doyle considered him to be an “honorable gentleman with neither the will to deceive nor any conceivable object in doing so”. When he went to the glen with the two girls, he said that it “was swarming with many forms of elemental life, including wood elves, gnomes, and goblins, with even the rarer undines floating on the stream”. He said that the girls’ descriptions were essentially correct, but that “their powers of clairvoyance were more limited than his”.
The second type of believers are great esoteric or spiritual teachers. An obvious example would be Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy.
He would agree that these entities can be seen or sensed by clairvoyants, but not by humans in their everyday state of consciousness. We are talking here about the gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders mentioned above. He mentioned and discussed them in “Right and Wrong Use of Esoteric Knowledge”, a lecture delivered at Dornach, 18, 19 and 25 November 1917¹⁰.
These elemental beings, or nature spirits, also figure strongly in Theosophy, founded by Helena Blavatsky and others in 1875. Tim Wyatt is a modern Theosophist, and has written a summary of Theosophical teachings, more immediately accessible than some texts, called Cycles of Eternity¹¹. He says that the elementals are the builders of the material world: “Elementals and nature spirits belong to the three elemental kingdoms below the mineral. They build and preserve all the other four kingdoms of nature below the super-human” (p28). (This sounds very similar to the quote from V. Susan Ferguson above: “… the Invisible Realms that are the support and substratum of this entire universe”.)
None of the above, of course, proves the existence of nature spirits. However, the observations that I quoted in part 1 by Tompkins and Bird, and those by Inglis in the Appendix, suggest that there is some kind of psychological or mental life going on in plants. These invisible elemental beings are one possible explanation, especially in the context of this quote from Wyatt, that could resolve the questions that these authors are posing.
- Selena Fox, https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/about-paganism/guide-to-nature-spirituality-terms
- I don’t have a copy of 2 Enoch to hand, but I’m quoting John Whitman, The Psychic Power of Plants, W. H. Allen & Co., 1975, p162, who is himself quoting Dorothy Retallack, The Sound of Music and Plants, DeVorss and Co, 1973, p57
- Unseen Forces, Philosophical Research Society Press, 1936, available in the Kessinger Legacy Reprints series, p 3
- Quercus, 2010
- Click here for a link to her article.
- as footnote 5, p8
- The following account comes from The Secret Life of Nature, Peter Tompkins, Thorsons, 1997, p11f
- see lecture 2, https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA178/English/RSP1966/WroRit_index.html
- Firewheel Books, 2016