The Secret Teachings of Plants

Stephen Harrod Buhner

The Secret Teachings of Plants is presented in two parts, the first exploring mainstream and fringe scientific theory about the heart, the second exploring more poetically the direct experience of plants, people and nature through the modes of heart-centred perception that the first half posits.

One of the many inspirations for this book is James Hillman’s essay ‘The Thought of the Heart’. Following Henry Corbin and Robert Romanyshyn, Hillman analyzes and laments the atrophy of the belief that the heart may be an organ of thought, perception and imagination; an organ not torn, as it is in our age, between the insensate pump and the sentimentalism of romance. As ever, Hillman’s call is for deliteralization, to experience the reality of psychic life through the precision of myth and metaphor. After the initial chapters—a rather humdrum establishment of the familiar intuition vs. intellect axis—Buhner’s attempt here to situate his argument’s foundations at the edges of the physical sciences had me wondering whether this search for verifiable physiological correlates to “heart perception” might be undermining the specific power of this tradition that Corbin and Hillman helped bring into the 20th century. I don’t know the science enough to judge this section fully. It’s full of tantalizing studies and inferences about the capacity of electromagnetic fields to transmit meaningful patterns, and of the heart, composed of “60 to 65 percent” neural cells, to decode these patterns. You mean… Hillman’s elegant metaphors on the “thought of the heart” might be—literal after all?

It’s an intriguing arena. Consulting the oracle that is the web, Wikipedia has the heart as an unambiguous “muscular organ”, with no mention of neurons. Whereas Google informs us, via around a thousand results mostly composed of technical articles in journals, that heart neurons do indeed exist, without mentioning prominently to what extent—or purpose. Did I miss a meeting? I need to follow Buhner’s references…

Still, after some fascinating, yet hard to quickly substantiate science, Buhner wisely pulls the rug out:

Even though the foregoing five chapters are a good metaphor, they are only a metaphor.

Quickly we’re plunged into Buhner’s real realm of concern: living experience, grounded in feeling and honed by a rigorous yet holistic intellectual discipline. The immediate concern is plants as healing agents, and anyone conversant with the basic anthropology of shamanism and magic will recognise the animistic attitudes and techniques unfolded here—though they may have some new light shed on their knowledge by Buhner’s dual approach of drawing on his own experience as a healer, and liberally quoting from his intellectual and spiritual forebears. There’s people I’m familiar with in this loose “tradition”: Corbin, Hillman, Dale Pendell, Thoreau, Bucky Fuller, Goethe—a lot of Goethe. And there’s people from the fringes of agricultural science that it’s been a pleasure to meet: Luther Burbank, Masanobu Fukuoka and George Washington Carver.

I can’t pass comment on the numerous practical exercizes at the back, not having tried them out yet. But, while this book fails to launch into the spheres of inspiration achieved by, say, Pendell, it has much to recommend it to anyone interested in how connected we are to the vegetable ecology.