Life and Wisdom
My garden is late this year. Go figure, two full-time teachers with a seven-month-old and a house have a few other things to handle; but as April became May and May wound down to June, I had just cause for thinking that it might not go in at all, until, in the last week of May, we were finally able to get something in the ground. With ample water and a bit of pruning, everything seems to be coming along well, and given that climate change has rendered summer in my area a much longer affair than the break that extends from late May to mid-August, I trust the harvest will be meaningful, even if just for some culinary experimentation.
Gardening is an exercise in spatial and long-term thinking, neither of which are particularly easy for most of us. The geomancy of observing the shape of one’s space, where it makes sense to plant directly, where it makes sense to build, what varieties of plants will do well in which spots, where the sun rises and sets and where the light falls in its arc, how the ground takes water, what kind of dirt is locally abundant, and so forth all converge to render any agricultural enterprise an existential lesson in the antinomy of nature’s mercurial indifference to our efforts as well as its inherent sophianicity. And this is just if one is trying to grow plants for the purpose of eating them. Aesthetics adds an entirely new layer to the difficulties, since there are in fact rules to what successfully transitions an outdoor space from liminality to settlement, and there are lines on either side beyond which one does not want to cross. A garden that is in no way open to the ferocious, wild asymmetry of nature, to botanical and animal interlopers (benevolent, ambivalent, and malevolent), and that is wholly controlled by human means and for human ends is an ugly thing. Such gardens are in most ways worse, actually, than land that has simply lain fallow and in which nothing particularly interesting or arresting has been enabled or encouraged to grow, since such land has a more immediately actualized potency than the poorly made garden, which has to be torn up on top of the ordinary labor involved in changing the earth. Mushrooms should grow in the shade beneath zucchini leaves; rabbits should want to eat one’s strawberries, and to find ample brush beneath which to lay in wait for the furtive dash. Hummingbirds should have interest in one’s flowers, as should bees; passing deer should weigh the possibility that one’s dog will chase them away from the prize of one’s tomatoes, and field mice nibbling on a blueberry bush ought to think it worth it to do so even if the cat or the local owl of any competence should catch them.
If the divine, the human, and the animal all indwell one another, it is the plant and fungus that give them common shade, shelter, and supper. Our best evidence suggests that our earliest human ancestors were arboreal, dwelling in trees, and subsequently migrated to the forest floor and thence to the savannah; it would not be incorrect to say that in some sense we are always haunted by our canopic cradle, because time spent around trees inarguably makes us healthier and happier. Of course, trees were here long before us, and they have a much better claim to dominance on the planet historically than we do (though our deforestation efforts are sadly giving them a run for their money). Plants generally carry memories, and so witness the evolutionary saga of the planet better than most animal organisms alive today. Our earliest diet was surely carnivorous in part, but we depended on the ubiquity and availability of nutritious plants, roots, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and the like to survive whether or not we could find meat. It is still to plants that we owe our most basic form of substance since the agricultural revolution, the miracle of bread.
And, of course, plants have influenced our cultural evolution all the more so. Terence McKenna, famously, in his “stoned ape” theory (admittedly, poorly informed with regard to our palaeoanthropological data, and naive about the real effects of such substances in all cases), suggested that psilocybin helped early humans to transition to a more evolved state of consciousness; in the current so-called “psychedelic renaissance,” in which our new McKenna is easily Michael Pollan and research is being done on such substances for the sake of use in treating mental illnesses, it remains to be seen if this theory will reemerge in some form.1 Certainly, sacred use of such substances endures in many indigenous contexts and was widespread in the ancient world; and in an otherwise increasingly religiously disinterested public, the promise of spirituality, the expansion of consciousness, and the experience of transcendence through such means continues to hold tremendous sway over the Western imagination.2 Frankincense is a more culturally licit such psychoactive that Christians around the world burn on a daily basis at prayer and liturgy; tobacco was originally a sacred plant, too, as was in certain cases cacao among indigenous Central Americans like the Maya and the Aztec (though, it seems, mingled with the blood of human sacrifice).3 Plants are also responsible for other, more publicly respectable drugs that we consume on a regular basis, like tea and caffeine, which shape our waking consciousness and our societies.4 The development of herbalism, the discernment of the dynameis of different roots, stems, leaves, flowers, foods, thorns, barks, mosses, fungi, and the like, pharmakeia’s origins at the intersection of medicine and magic—this too do we owe to plants.5 They are also the source of our species’ historically favorite beverages, beer and wine, which have had definitive impact on our own evolution, including our development of religion (indeed, the most fun I had during my formation in religious studies was with a seminar taught by a much-loved professor of mine, Dr. Vadim Putzu, on “Intoxicating Religions”).6 Unavoidably, our shared life with gods and beasts is had in field and forest, among leaves and lattices, between vines and verdant things. It’s with, in, around the plants—in the field, in the solitary flaming shrub on the mountainside, plucking fruits, beneath the shade of a transient gourd, rolling in the hay—that all important things, good and bad, seem to happen to us.
Divine and magical plants proliferate in ancient religious texts, practices, and iconography, from Gilgamesh’s Flower of Youth to the World Tree of Ygdrasil itself. Many of the plants I list above, often in culturally specific forms, had sacred roles in early religions. In Vedic religion, the soma (सोम) plant and the drink concocted from it—the oshadhipati, “lord of medicine,” sometimes understood as a hallucinogenic—was an essential part of the ritualized mythology, hymnography, and sacrifice recorded in texts like the Rgveda. Indeed, “Plants personify the divine” (Rgveda X.97), and trees are the mansions of the gods (X.97.4): India generally has a wide variety of sacred plants, including the ashoka, the banyan, the cluster fig, the tulsi, and many more.7 The pipal tree—also known as the bodhi tree, the ashvattha, the sacred fig—is famously the shelter beneath which Siddharta Gautama found enlightenment through the discovery of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Throughout Buddhist antiquity, the ability to demonstrate the continued cultivation of a sprig, branch, or sapling of that tree, or even its wholesale transplantation, to a famous vihara or stupa, was a major part of the reliquary posturing of Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, and the bodhi tree became a symbol for the history of Buddhism in general (as a forthcoming translation from another professor of mine, Dr. Steven Berkwitz, shows). Fragments of the bodhi tree function in this sense much the same way that the menorah, the dual evolution of the memory of the Burning Bush (on Jon Levenson’s reading) and perhaps even of the Asherah tree that once stood in the Jerusalem Temple,8 came to function in synagogues, as a sign of the divine presence dwelling among local Jewish communities now that the Temple no longer stands. Sacred trees generally proliferate in the Middle East. The competition for pilgrimage and authority on the basis of the possession of holy things—in this case, holy plants—in the Buddhist world is not really so different than the late antique and medieval Christian industry around shards of the True Cross, from Jerusalem outwards. And the cross itself is often assimilated, in late antique and medieval Christian literature and art, backwards to the etz chayim, the Tree of Life in Eden, which is also, paradoxically, the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil—a Hebraism for “Wisdom” in the Hebrew Bible, beginning with “the fear of YHWH” (Prob 9:10), and this implying that Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross is the font of both immortality and true wisdom. Indeed, as Paul puts it: “We proclaim Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24). Ergo, God’s power (to create life) and wisdom (to cultivate it) are revealed on a tree.
Rich and powerful people of the ancient world tended to try to make their lived spaces as much like gardens as possible, which remains true today in some places (though, concerningly, even this remainder of genuine humanity among the wealthy seems to be declining in popularity as people of means continue to opt for large, artificial homes with little, unused, and poorly used outdoor space). The hanging gardens (whether of Babylon or not continues to be a point of dispute), the royal garden at Pasargadae, the fame of Ottoman botanical spaces, the Vatican Gardens, the imperial gardens of the Tang, Roman gardening traditions, the various impressive properties of the British Royal Family—several of which also contained what were the effective equivalents of zoos for their time—all speak to this desire to reconstruct a space where human reconnection with plant and animal can take place and, in virtually every one of these instances, by way of imitation of and communion with the divine. It was, after all, YHWH himself who planted such a garden in Eden (Gen 2:8), not unlike an ancient Southwest Asian monarch of means, atop a cosmic mountain (Ezek 28:13). Not incidentally, this was the pattern not just for imperial residences and leisure parks but also for temples: realization of the pattern of the cosmic mountain, whether it is in Eden, Sinai or Horeb, Zion, Zaphon, Hermon, Hara Berezaiti, Meru, Fuji, wherever, as the place where the divine, the human, the animal, and the botanical dwell together, is ideally the common goal of religion and politics. While the poor—that is, most people—usually did not have the means to do this domestically (side note: every person today that enjoys a backyard is exponentially richer than most people who have ever lived), it was often considered a responsibility of public benefaction to set aside some of these spaces for free public use. The Deer Park of the early discourses of the Buddha is one such example; the Porticus Pompeiana is another. There is in this practice something of the same insight that drove the sages of the School of Naturalists and the early Daoists out from the urban and into the natural world: there is something psychologically and spiritually fulfilling about being surrounded not just by the animals but also by plants. There is something about communion with the plant world that leads to a greater sense of nourishment for rooted, entangled9 souls.
It is not very hard to see that plants serve as ethical exemplars. For Jews and Christians especially, the ubiquity of botanical imagery illustrating the highs and lows of the moral life is an unavoidable aspect of the scriptural tradition. The blessed man, who delights in YHWH’s law, is “like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Ps 1:3)—in other words, like the Tree in Eden (Gen 2:9-14; Rev 22:1-2). “Consider the lilies of the field,” instructs Jesus: be like them in their leisure (Matt 6:28). Christ is the vine, and we are the branches; like good branches, bear fruit (Jn 15:5). While it is true that the world of the New Testament is much more urban compared to the relatively agrarian world of Jewish Scripture, texts like these bespeak an agricultural familiarity at the root of ethical consciousness, the quick availability of plants for moral metaphor. In virtually every society other than our own, that kind of deep moral reciprocity with the botanical has been a primary focus rather than a marginal observation, and hence a strong impetus to the good life. Farmers, gardeners, and the green-thumbed, no matter what they are actually like, have a kind of archetypical purchase as simpler and more integral than those surrounded by the artifice of modern urban life. They have at least as long as Vergil’s first Eclogue, where Meliboeus bemoans the loss of his pastoral life to forced migration that his friend Tityrus has avoided by Augustan patronage. Bucolic fantasies of communion with the natural world in verdant rural settings have haunted us since the advent of urbanism—in no small part, because of the comparably simpler moral calculus we assume country life involves, the freedom to mimic the virtues of life and wisdom as they continue to be cultivated by the flora seed after seed, generation after generation. Such nostalgia is, to reiterate, a fantasy, as anyone acquainted with rural life—especially rural life in contemporary America, which shares all but nothing in common with the semi-mythical precedents it is frequently compared to in popular consciousness—but the fantasy itself bespeaks an equivocation deep within us between vegetation and aboriginal goodness.
Whether that sensibility is entirely truthful is of course a different story. Plants have a tendency towards symbiosis, but they can certainly be predacious, stubborn, weak, and punitive. They can create work where there may have been leisure, summon worry to brows where perhaps tranquility once prevailed; they can poison, they can choke. They will—or would, if our burial practices were more natural—recycle us all, and any affection we may feel for the great oaks or shade-shedding beeches beneath which we recline and entertain the Muse is in many respects that of the lamb for the shepherd, or the calf for the cowboy. And even when they intend no harm, plants can bring it from afar, in raiding parties of men or locusts, in drought and erosion, in migrating, hungry herds.
Yet the life and wisdom of plants continues to enchant and instruct us—perhaps, above all, for the ways that they encourage us to remember the connectedness of all things. Plants embody those principles of vertical and horizontal interweaving we are so easily tempted away from: our roots in the earth, entangled with those of every other creature, and our stretched orans to the heavens, whose light might also engender in us leaves of healing and fruits of immortality. They will continue to be among our most significant teachers, at least if we will conserve and cultivate them—in which case, it is perhaps more truthful to say that we stand at threat of losing their wisdom the more recklessly we endanger their life.
Caveat Lector: Neither I, nor this dispatch, nor the YouTube channel attached advocate the use of any illegal substance for recreational purposes. As Pollan details in the video linked above, there are extreme dangers that can attend use of such substances without careful safeguards. The push for the legalization of these substances for medical uses and their legal protection in certain indigenous sacred contexts should not be confused with addiction. Struggling with drug addiction or temptation to relapse? See here. This said, psychedelia is an unavoidable topic in the history of human plant uses, especially as they intersect with sacred purposes.
See, among others, William A. Richards, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
See Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013).
See Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013), 41-42, 44, 98, 100, 143, 174-179, 181, 208, 248-254.
See, among others, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, A Natural History of Wine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Rod Phillips, 9000 Years of Wine: A World History (Vancouver: Whitecap, 2017); DeSalle and Tattersall, A Natural History of Beer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019); Edward Slingerland, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021); for Dr. Putzu’s work, see here.
An erudite and charming book on the subject whose very existence delights me is Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam, Sacred Plants of India (New York: Penguin, 2014).
To my knowledge, this argument has yet to be made, but it seems to me that the menorah’s interconnection with botanical imagery and precedents is irresistible when one considers that an arboreal cult to Asherah was part of First Temple religion.
On which see both Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (New York: Fordham, 2017), and Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (New York: Random House, 2020),