This new series considers different kinds of relationships with these osmotic beings we’ve been co-existing with ever since humans appeared on the Earth; beings who not only provide our world with food, medicine, building materials, textiles, beauty, inspiration for art, myth and more, but who also exist in their own right and in connection with the non-human world.
Over the next month this series will look more deeply at our relationship with plants, beyond (but not excluding) the garden and cultivated field, beyond their utilitarian value to humans.
So what might a plant practice look like and what do the plants have to say to us?
Anyone can connect with plants, so interwoven are they in our lives. It starts with a decision to make time and space to go out and sit with them and pay attention, to open up, listen at depth, and engage in a two-way dialogue. I see this practice as a kind of responsibility, an obligation even, given the times of ecological unravelling we live in. It’s a way of giving back to the living world we are part of, a way of being in communication and not in control.
It’s also a dynamic way to engage in imagination and ‘dreaming’, qualities of the heart and of the so-called ‘right hemisphere’ of the brain.
I was in my 30s when I first began to ‘tune in’ and ‘hang out’ with (mostly wild and feral) plants in the late 1990s. This became an intense practice of being in relationship with plants and trees wherever I found myself and is still an intrinsic part of my life today.
On one of those early days, I made a connection with a single white foxglove which had seeded itself and was in flower outside our kitchen back door in Oxford. Three of us had met up to spend some time with this plant, and after we’d sat with it for a while we went in the house to lie down quietly and take notice of any impressions, feelings, physical sensations or ‘information’ that arose.1 When it came to speaking about our experiences out loud with each other, my two friends’ readouts were fascinating and many-levelled, almost epic. I felt disappointed and almost embarrassed when it came to my turn to speak. I had just one word from the foxglove to share: belonging. That was it.
But in the months and years to come, learning to belong turned into an ongoing and demanding practice. Belonging to the Earth, belonging to life, became key in a time of mass alienation from and destruction of the living world. Foxglove provides the heart regulating drug digitalis, and if I was to belong, the heart was where I needed to continually return to.
Through this and other experiences with plants I came to realise that I was never actually alone in the world.
Gradually, through this and other experiences with plants (not all of them quite as direct as the foxglove), I came to realise that I was never actually alone in the world. Whether I was in an Oxford waste ground or the Botanical Gardens, sitting with a goat willow or becoming friends with heartsease, or in the high desert of south-east Arizona accompanied by very prickly ocotillos and rainbow cacti, it was the plants that were the doorways into a deeper connection with these territories.
The ‘plant people’ in this series – writers, artists, scientists, feral gardeners, lichenologists and more – all have their own approaches to plant-human communication that go beyond the straight and narrow worlds of utility, commerce and control. And so we enter the rich (though not always easy) realms of reciprocity and relationship with the green living beings we depend on for our existence. (MW)
Listening to the Plants
On Becoming a Taoist, Sannyasin, Sadhu Gardener
As dreams are the healing songs
from the wilderness of
So wild animals, wild plants, wild landscapes
are the healing dreams
from the deep singing mind
of the earth.
– Dale Pendell
Maybe it was the introspective nature of the Covid pandemic or the looming shadow of California climate collapse (drought, fire, floods), or the shimmering dreamtime insights from the psilocybin mushrooms, but I was losing the desire to continue to control and manipulate the world of plants.
The Fall from Grace: Money Ruins Everything
Decades spent working in commercial farming and gardening playing the roles of rural organic farmer, then urban farmer, migrant fruit picker, tree pruner, plant nursery worker, residential maintenance gardener and designer. Mindless landscape transformation. The subtle but continuing anxiety of participating in the frenzied, soul-crushing plants-for-profit, mindless and destructive small-scale landscape transformation.
Engaging in the fossil fuelled dominated world of plastic pots and plastic bags of soil and mulch. Plants pumped up on chemical fertilisers. Creating vanity projects for the wealthy and privileged out of synch and harmony with the local people and native landscape.
Signals from the Bioregion: The Plants Speak
If it is the highest and the greatest
the plant can direct you. Strive to become
through your will
what, without will, it is.
– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
You begin to make an effort to once again start listening to the plants themselves. It’s a slow, quiet language that stands somewhat outside the human realm and it vibrates in harmony with the larger surrounding ecosystem of air and water and soil and sun and moon and starlight.
This in turn activates memories of lessons and wisdom of the plant people teachers who inspired you in your youth:
The mystical herbalism of Hildegard Von Bingen.
The do nothing farming of Masanobu Fukuoka, tending his wild vegetables and orchards of citrus trees on a hillside in Japan.
Dale Pendell’s psychoactive plant poison and herb craft from Pharmako/Gnosis.
The defiant, feral, salvaged, wabi-sabi2 aesthetic of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage garden
and Adam Purple’s makeshift mandala garden rising out of the rubble of New York City’s Lower East Side.
Rudolph Steiner and Alan Chadwick’s biodynamic, holistic, spirit in nature gardening connecting heaven and earth: ‘Opening the soil to starlight’.
The ‘eat something wild everyday’ gift economy ethos of the forager Frank Cook.
The Mountain Paradise gardens of Joe Hollis.
Transfixed and transformed. No longer finding a need to force, manipulate or control. Once again resting in the grace of photosynthesis, eating sunlight, magical healing of the botanical plant kingdom.
The less I do, the more of an artist I am.
– David Hammons
There is no one so great as the one who does not try to accomplish anything.
– Masanobu Fukuoka
In Hindu philosophy the third and fourth stages of life are that of Vanaprastha, the forest dweller/hermit stage and the Sannyasa stage, in which you renounce worldly and materialistic pursuits to focus your attention on the contemplation of the gods. Finding myself philosophically poised between these two stages of life, my attention turns towards the contemplation of my gods – the plants, flowers and trees.
You leave your gardening tools and controlling mind at home and roam the hillsides and urban city streets becoming informed and inspired by the majestic forms of the native oaks and lichen-covered buckeye trees. You take notice of the dandelion and dock emerging from cracks in the sidewalks, the feral, fecund, poetic repairs of the plant successions that are transforming a vacant lot into a wild ‘crypto forest’.
Wandering around with a pocket full of native seeds and a backpack full of plant field guides, tossing seed bombs over chain link fences and highway dividing strips, planting acorns in the moist, rain soaked hillsides. The beginning of the path of a Taoist, Sannyasin, Sadhu gardener. (JG)
Cover of ‘The Art of Pruning’ with illustration by Claire Stringer
from The Art of Pruning: how to look at a tree
Learning to see, embracing the aesthetic eye
We begin by looking deeply into the tree. In doing so, the forms and patterns that come together to create the uniqueness of the tree are slowly revealed to us. Instead of imposing abstract, simplistic rules and guidelines on the tree, we allow the tree itself to guide us in our approach to pruning. Working with form, dimension, space, biological time and also the life-force of the tree, we can move away from the mechanical, rule-based approach of pruning, towards a more intuitive, poeticized and artful form. This ultimately allows us to better understand the beauty and essence of the tree.
Finding the essence
To discover a tree’s essence, we begin to study and observe its aesthetic beauty and unique biological characteristics. Shape, texture, colour, and form all come into play:
the paper white bark and the lacey curtain-like branches and leaves of the birch
the star-like leaves, horizontal branching, and the fall colour of the Japanese maple
the twisting, curving branch structure and elegant flower show of the magnolia
the strong architectural form and the muscular branching patterns of the oak
Trees also exhibit seasonal essences: spring flowering, lush green summer growth, fall colour displays, the bare branch calligraphy of their winter silhouette.
This changing seasonal essence is a barometer of the weather, a timekeeper of the seasons, and a nature-based performance art show moving in slow motion throughout the year.
The job of the pruner is to try to capture and hopefully enhance the essence of the tree, creating a balanced composition between trunk, branches, leaves, and flowers.
Finding the line
The line of the tree consists of the shape and movement within its trunk and branches.
By observing the line of the tree we are able to uncover its branching patterns, leaf density, and the feeling of movement within its structural form.
The branching patterns of the tree are not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but also act as elegant biological solutions that have evolved to move water, oxygen, and nutrients throughout the tree.
By making aesthetically informed pruning decisions, we keep intact the integrity of the tree’s branching structure, make cuts which are conducive to the health of the tree, and also highlight the gracefulness, beauty, and movement found within the tree’s form.
1 We called this process ‘visiting and dreaming’, and it became the foundation stone of the plant practice. First, we would visit the plant or tree before going home to return to the visit in our imaginations. We would then speak our experiences out loud with each other.
2 The beauty of the natural cycle of growth and decay and of all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.