A Perspective on Plant Spirituality
By Shea Smith
When we plan our classes at HAALo, we choose topics that our community is “buzzing about” or about which we see a pattern of questions happening regularly in our shop. Recently, we’ve had a steady stream of conversations with our customers who come in to share whispered conversations of “talking to plants” and “hearing things.” We always inwardly listen intently and then assure our customers that they are quite sane and have not had some sort of mental breakdown. “Whew!!” They generally feel normal but this business of hearing plants … well, that’s just weird!
But it’s not. At least, not in our world. Many, many people who are sensitive, observant, and deeply connected to the natural world feel “plant-speak” or hear the languages of our green friends. Some of us can remember childhoods full of talking to the outdoor elementals, only to be told it was our imagination or that we should stop being so childish and grow up. No wonder as adults we question the validity of our experiences—is this just our so-called child’s imagination again?
I would encourage you to not dismiss these intimate interactions, but instead get curious, as you would with a stranger who has sent out the mildest of gestures toward flirting with you. Would you just think, “Oh geez, I’m imagining that glancing of eyes, and that spark of interest?” No, you’d be secretly delighted and curious. Consider plants to be the ultimate flirts, the Teachers of Teachers.
They send out tendrils of secret, subliminal communication constantly: “Yes—see us! Inhale us, eat us if you wish, use us for medicine, respect us. We are here with you always whether you notice or not. We visit, we depart, we rest, we come back, sometimes we stay indefinitely, but we are most definitely aware of you. We have survived for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. We have an Earth intelligence and lineage of experiences you cannot even imagine in your extremely short Homo sapiens existence.”
No, my friends, you are not imagining a conversation. You are stepping into a deeper level of understanding, hearing a language primordial, and remembering a long-ago awareness of our connection to nature. One of my first remembrances of nature-speak came from a forest of trees when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was sweeping a path through the pines, clearing the needles to make a hallway to my kitchen in my secret home of the trees. The branches were playing and encouraging me to use them as secret passageways and hidden doors into new realms. I distinctly remember hearing a pine tell me of a secret room, in the base of her trunk on the other side and hidden by a boulder. I curiously scrambled over the rock and indeed found a hollowed-out home to woodland animals.
Another tree in New Mexico called out to me once from a trail when I was a teenager. As I came upon it, leaving my path 20 feet behind, I found it too was hollowed out, with a hole deep inside its roots begging to be explored. My young-adult mind rationalized that I must have heard an animal and that this couldn’t possibly be any more than a diseased tree. I pity that young woman 35 years later. Now, I would smile, thank the tree, make a small gesture or token of respect, and listen for however long it took to hear the rest of the conversation.
I like to think that I’ve wizened up a bit. At this point in my life, trees, plants, flowers, insects, animals, mushrooms—they are all friends in varying relationships, just like my human companions are.
There is the black widow spider in the corner of my bathroom ceiling that I grudgingly became friends with many years ago. She was a terrifying beauty that hung out daily above the toilet and I watched her carefully … very carefully. I came to understand her through a year of multiple daily observations as I used the seat five feet below her. I watched her movements, the beauty of her shiny, ebony exoskeleton. The warning of her red belly. I knew she moved at night and hunted in a web she had built in a nearby window because I saw teeny droplets of spider poop every day when I would wipe the windowsill. I faced my fears of her dropping down on my shoulders or head when I needed to use the bathroom nightly, and I trusted our intricate relationship: We could both terrorize each other but chose to respect our territories.
It was hard, though—I hated looking up on a full-moon night shining through the skylight and not seeing her in the corner or window. My mind seemed to try to play fear games with me: Was she waiting stealthily under the toilet seat to guerrilla attack me as I sat down? Was she ready to pounce hidden in the roll of toilet paper? That entire year was a pivotal point in my relationship with terrifying insects. I began to try to engage with them—all of them: wolf spiders, mosquito eaters, pincher bugs, ants, centipedes. And all because of the black beauty hanging in my corner.
Finally there came a time, after my son was born and my mom was visiting, that I thought it was time to reclaim my indoor sanctity and return her to the wild. It was a memorable day. She knew. I knew. As I entered the room, carrying a jar, her normal predictable movements became erratic and she dropped down from her corner cove with precision accuracy to the floor in a millisecond of exquisite web mastery. Jar in hand, I captured her. I slid the stiff paper under the jar dome and carefully carried her out into the summer day to place her near a backyard creek.
My hoped-for response—that of her excitement to be back outside—was met with what I perceived to be fury. She raced at me so quickly I had to jump backward. She lifted her front leg and shook it mightily at me. I explained the situation. My mother was not thrilled to share the single bathroom with her and was frankly mortified that I had lived with this poisonous entity my entire pregnancy. She didn’t care or maybe understand. She charged me again and this time reared awkwardly with two legs waving at me. I apologized, knowing that I had broken the agreement we had lived within for more than a year—an unspoken contract built on trust and a learned, though odd, harmony. I was disappointed in myself, but I also knew that it was either her death by a first-time grandma, or this. I turned to walk away and then looked over my shoulder. She was sitting there, perched on all eight, watching me leave. I walked a few more feet, turned around, and she was gone, hidden in a maze of grass blades, invisible.
She helped me remember and begin the practice of relationships with all living creatures and eventually, I began the more serious practice of talking to the more benign but no less intelligent plants. As my herbal knowledge increased and I found myself babbling in all sorts of languages: the newborn–2-year-old language of my first child, puppy dog howling and barking, foster kitty-cat mewing, and of course, the entire farmacopoeia of Old McDonald animal sounds … I no longer questioned why speaking plant would be any different … I kid you not.
And it was this accidental assumption that plants, like all living beings, must speak—and with no rhyme or reason, I would occasionally be given the privilege of hearing a plant speak to me. These incredible and magical moments led me to seek out books, teachers, and friends who might have had similar experiences or even be able to teach me this unique style of relationship.
Out of this journey I found the worlds and writings of many herbalists, but especially the thoughts of Pam Montgomery and Eliot Cowan, to be illuminating and in fact remarkably similar to some of my own. I remember those initial years of questioning wonder and incredulousness, and I think that is why it is so meaningful for HAALo to bring teachers and books for those on similar journeys.
It has been with great excitement that we have continued to bring both shamanic and scientific herbal classes to our community. We are particularly thrilled for our spring nine-month apprenticeship in Earth Wisdom with Marza Millar starting in March 2017.
For more information please visit our website at www.HAALo.org.