Herbalism as animism

I wonder if all kids are animists, until society teaches them not to be.


I know I was. I can remember my undoubting certainty that trees, rocks, objects had feelings and wishes. One of my mom’s favorite stories about me as a kid is about the sad, scrubby little Charlie Brown Christmas tree I insisted we buy one year. She voiced a lack of enthusiasm, but I said, “What if its feelings are hurt because everyone else has been saying the same things?” In the face of such totally cute little-kidness, naturally my mom couldn’t refuse and we got that tree. The Christmas tree lot guys thought it was cute too and gave us a bunch of ornaments for free. And that tree, as my mom is fond of saying, turned out to be probably the most beautiful one we ever had. Just like the Charlie Brown one. (Of course, from an adult perspective I rather suspect the tree’s feelings were more hurt over being murdered for the sake of holiday decor.)

As adult Homo sapiens we have learned not only to represent things, people, places, etc. using language (something I’m doing right this very second as I write) but this representation even becomes our primary way of relating to the world. So we tend to relate at a remove–first we represent something, then we relate to the representation. Although the act of representation is a kind of relating, we can create a representation in our mind virtually instantaneously and then stop relating to the original thing or person. The representation, of course, is not the same as the original represented thing, hence the sayings “the map is not the territory” and “a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” In societies where the scientific-materialist mode of investigation and explanation is privileged, things which cannot be represented by language are profoundly disturbing. Science depends on writing (i.e., representation) for replication of experiments, which is the means of assessing objective reality. Which is kind of ironic because observing the representation of the results of an experiment is not the same as observing the results, and the representation is always subjective, and science always dismisses things that are subjective as irrelevant because impossible to replicate. Indeed, representing-through-language is a way of making the totally subjective, the totally un-shareable, shareable. It’s the closest we can come–short of ESP–to bringing others into an experience with us. So we’re very dependent on it, and when something just cannot be shared in that way, it leaves us feeling isolated and alienated if only on an un- or semi-conscious level. When a culture has granted scientific-materialism the authority to dictate what is “real,” anything that cannot be assessed by the scientific method has to be dismissed as unreal or it will literally upset the entire fabric of that society. This process doesn’t happen only on the communal level but within each individual in that society–or I should say, each individual who is primarily reliant on the scientific-materialist paradigm to dictate real-ness.

Not actually a topic change

I think children start learning language earlier than we give them credit for, but it’s still a long process, and I suspect there is a period where kids live in a world that is much more directly experiential, less representational. I wonder if this is part of why young children seem to have more “psychic” and “paranormal” experiences. We like to say they are more “open,” whatever that means. But as they become more linguistically-proficient, for kids that have a lot of experiences that are not capable of being adequately represented by language–such as those “psychic” and “paranormal” ones–the inability to represent those experiences to themselves or others can lead to social isolation. When they do try to represent, they are likely to be dismissed as liars, fantasists, delusional, or mentally ill. Better to keep quiet about it. The Burning Times aren’t such a distant memory, after all.

Unfortunately, I imagine for many children the instinctual understanding that everything is alive, is a person*, a subject (or indeed that the distinction between subject and object is pretty much arbitrary and/or bogus)–which is to say, animism, is one of those un-representable experiences that gets locked inside a drawer in the mind, all too often to be replaced by some other religious orthodoxy, scientific-materialist atheism, or shrug-the-shoulders-and-forget-it agnosticism.  

Stories like my Charlie Brown Christmas tree are pretty much par for the course with empath kids. Like ghosts, transgender, and clowns, empath-ness (I don’t want to say “empathy” because that means something different) is one of those things that can’t be fully represented by language, which makes it threatening to the social status quo. Plus there wasn’t even a word for it until pretty recently (I don’t know the history of it, although I believe it did exist before Star Trek: TNG…but I could be wrong). The defining thing about empath-ness, as opposed to the empathy that non-sociopathic humans have, is the experience of others’ feelings. I don’t mean that we understand how others are feeling–that’s empathy. I mean that without any conscious intent, I directly feel others’ feelings, to the point that I cannot always tell which are mine and which are yours. This includes both emotional feelings and some physical feelings as well as a physical/emotional/mental sensation of what, for lack of any other word, I can only call energy. (I hate to use that word because it’s so abused, especially in New Age thought, but like I said, you can’t represent this stuff with language.) As an empath, I could never dismiss animism because I feel the aliveness of beings, although I didn’t have words (even inadequate ones) for any of it until I was an adult. When I did find that word, I was happy to have a way to represent (and thus relate) animism, though I thought it was stupid that it’s written of as a primitive belief system. As if people graduate from silly, childlike beliefs like animism and sympathetic magic to polytheism, then to monotheism, and finally to scientific-materialism. (Oh, 19th-century social evolutionary theory! You’d be funny if you weren’t such a tool of oppression.)

Anyway, through all my years of exploring other religions (on my own and in the academic context), I have never abandoned my animistic relationship to the world because it’s just so obviously true and real. I once had a moment of spiritual gnosis where it was suggested to me that when we die, every other experience we’ve had may turn out to have been a kind of virtual reality, but we’ll see that our relationships were real. If that’s true, then we better get right with the other persons in our world, and I don’t just mean the human ones. Otherwise we had better hope that a happy afterlife isn’t based on a majority vote of Earthlings. Revenge of the Coprophages? Yikes.

*Person can be defined in myriad ways, but this is not so much about the definition of the word as its implications. So I’m going to save myself some work by quoting from this discussion of animism and personhood at Eaarth Animist, where my point is stated more succinctly and effectively than I could do:

“[Beings] are persons in that they have their own lives going on and for that reason, even though we probably have no clue what those lives are about…they have value beyond anything to do with humans….’Person’ is a way to get humans to think “Oh! They have value outside of me using them.” (Although sadly many humans see other humans as having no value outside of using them!).”

Herbanimism & ethics

tiny grass

Tiny grass is people!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think science is fun and interesting; and I tried to do it as a career for over a decade. Unfortunately, I had this annoying habit of spotting holes in the materialist paradigm, I didn’t join in making fun of people with spiritual beliefs (even the ones I didn’t agree with), and I was overheard at a couple parties talking about seeing ghosts. This kind of behavior is not the way to get ahead in science, so Science and I divorced amicably and here I am back with my childhood sweetheart, the herbs.

They don’t mind at all that I’m an animist or an empath, in fact they’re pretty encouraging about the whole thing. (Yes, I am well aware there are many humans who will still dismiss me as a liar, fantasist, delusional, or mentally ill, and others who will think I’m a blasphemer, possessed, or a Satan-worshipper. Believe me, I can feel it. But it doesn’t make me any less right.)

The more I work with plants the more I feel their different personalities. Personhoods. They’re not like animals because they have a more communal structure: If you work with one dandelion plant in an area, you’re really working with all of them, because they’re all communicating chemically through their roots and pheromones and who knows how else.  (For more on that, watch this: NATURE: What Plants Talk About.) Surprisingly, in spite of the horrible plant-murders humans commit in the name of a perfect lawn, the worts don’t seem to hate us. In my interactions with them, and I realize it’s different for each person, most actually really like being helpful. I’ve found calendula, dandelion, and pine to be very generous, and plantain I just spontaneously started to call “Mama Plantain” because the quality of his/her/its/their caring vibe is so like our maternal archetype.

At the same time, the more I work with plants the more I feel a heavy ethical responsibility. First there is the disturbing fact that human persons are so constituted that we have to kill to live. We don’t photosynthesize, we get necessary nutrients by eating other persons. (Although I respect the choice not to eat non-human animal persons if you are able,  I have always been offended by the because-killing-animals-is-immoral argument advanced by some vegetarians. If killing animals is immoral, why isn’t killing plants? That has never made a lick of sense to me. If you have some ethical scheme that distinguishes some persons as “edible” then ok, but at least be honest about it.) And sometimes when we make herbal medicines, we kill the plant-person to make medicine from its dead body. I don’t say that to make anyone “feel bad” but it should be disturbing. If it’s not then ok, maybe you should feel a little bad that you haven’t considered the implications. If it helps you can at least be comforted by knowing that the number of plant persons you kill, even if you have a very busy clinical practice, is probably far less than the number of persons of various species which pharmaceutical companies kill. I see my first obligation as recognizing my role as a (reluctant) killer even as I strive to be a healer, and as dependent on the plants for my continued existence.

A second obligation is to learn to communicate with the plants better. You can ask for permission to remove a plant’s body parts or kill it, but what’s the point if you can’t understand the answer? Even empaths have to learn to discern among the bazillions of messages with which we are bombarded. Some of which are true only from perspectives we don’t share. Better communication includes learning to recognize plants in all their seasonal guises, as well as the characteristics of their communities, and their relationships to the region generally and its communities of other persons. This is work to last a lifetime!

The third obligation, as I see it, is to extend this process of relating to everyone else in Indra’s Net.

The weight of these obligations is, I think, all the greater because so many other humans aren’t living up to them. There are a few humans who would exploit-to-destruction every other being on the planet just to add another hundred thou to their bottom line, and the rest of us are in various states of exploitation. If our attitude toward other species is that they exist for our use and pleasure, then frankly we don’t deserve any better than what we’re getting. It’s our God(s)-given right and our sacred responsibility to poke holes in the wool over our eyes, which can start with something as small as investigating alternative healing modalities and can blossom into conscious, collaborative relationships with the living universe.