Category Archives: Esoteric Leanings

How Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Lectures can help us see the forest for the trees

This article was submitted for publication in the 2019 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.  John Muir

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.   John Muir

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.   Kahlil Gibran

I’m an arborist. Upon meeting people familiar with anthroposophy or biodynamic agriculture, the conversations often follows a familiar pattern. “So, you must find Rudolf Steiner’s description of a tree especially interesting,” they’ll say, referencing his eight-part lecture series on agriculture. Almost as an aside, Steiner offers a perspective on trees rather radical for his time in 1924. Placing spirituality aside, a reading of Steiner’s lectures today continues to provide a unique and refreshing understanding of Earth’s largest and oldest life forms – trees.

There are as many approaches available to the reader to study Steiner’s agriculture lectures as there are people with different life experiences. Perhaps as a result of spending most of my adult life teaching science, my approach has been to identify patterns and mechanisms which underlie natural phenomena. Although the focus of this article is on advancements in the physical realm of tree biology, for the author feels he still has much to learn about the spiritual realm of trees, the information should help both the novice and more seasoned readers of Steiner gain new insight into his descriptions of both physical and spiritual processes at work in trees.

Scientists, today and in the past, wrestle with a working definition of a “tree” that distinguishes it from other members of the plant kingdom. Biology textbook and dictionary definitions vaguely describe “a woody plant that’s perennial” but differ with respect to their confidence on height, number of trunks, distribution of branches, and other characteristics that vary considerably among trees. When presented with exceptions to dogmatic definitions, experts revert to the “I know it when I see it,” argument. Perhaps the problem with defining a tree is that a single tree, like a single bee or a single ant, doesn’t represent the larger and more complex life form – the forest as a superorganism. If trees are a subunit of a larger whole, where do “trees” end and other lifeforms begin? Steiner doesn’t attempt to craft a succinct textbook definition of a tree, but he does describe an organism physically and cosmically intertwined with other life forms. Perhaps it’s time to tug at the veils of our limited physical understanding of trees and consider what Steiner proposed about trees “fitting” into a larger organism, in his case, a farm. This article will consider two concepts introduced by Steiner: interconnectedness of trees to their soil environment, and the tree consisting of herbaceous plants “rooted” to the branches and trunk of a tree.

Steiner set out in his fourth lecture to explain the importance of having an expanded awareness of subtle interactions of unseen substances, forces, and spirits to better manage one’s farm. Steiner used an example of a tree, an often overlooked fixture in the landscape, to illustrate how one’s preconceived ideas stifle further exploration that may generate new insights and a deeper understanding of the trees’ true essence. By questioning a division between the bark of a tree and organic matter in the soil as two separate entities, Steiner challenges the reader’s perception of boundaries between living and non-living. Although Steiner uses etheric vitality as the thread to connect the bark of a tree with organic matter in soil, one could just as easily use the soil life around the root surface, in the physical realm, and achieve the desired outcome – an understanding that the tree is such an integral part of the greater whole that seeing a tree as a single organism limits one’s ability to understand the bigger picture.

One is not considered a radical today when recognizing soil to be a living organism. Steiner said as much in 1924, “the soil surrounding the growing plants’ roots is a living entity with a vegetative life of its own, a kind of extension of plant growth into the Earth.”1 Recognition of living soil is embraced and practiced by individuals today disillusioned by industrial agriculture’s approach to growing food. Increasingly people are referring to soil “health” instead of soil quality and mindful of practices that impair their farm and garden’s soil health. Organic and biodynamic growers often have a better understanding of living organisms in soil and speak in terms of feeding the soil with compost, instead of feeding the plant with chemical fertilizers.

Focusing specifically on the interface between the plant’s root and the surrounding soil, Steiner continues, “It is not at all true that life stops at the plant’s perimeter. Life as such continues on, namely from the roots of the plant into the soil, and for many plants there is no sharp dividing line between the life inside them and the life in their surroundings.”1  Soil scientists have long known that unusually high populations of microorganisms exist in a zone approximately 2 mm around the surface of plant roots known as the rhizosphere. Plant roots secrete a variety of compounds to manipulate chemical and physical soil properties to attract beneficial microbes, even jettisoning actively secreting living cells into the rhizosphere which remain alive for several days. Recent discoveries show that plant roots and soil microorganisms disregard artificial boundaries to form a seamless transition of plant-microbe life within, and beyond, the rhizosphere. Select soil microorganisms, loosely called endophytes, can enter root tissues and improve a plant’s ability to tolerate drought, acquire nutrients, and resist insect and disease damage. Beneficial bacteria which adhere to up to 40% of the root surface are involved in relationships with organisms as far out into the soil as the food web extends. Indeed, we now have a greater appreciation of how a bird, perched on a tree’s limb, can fly down to the ground, pluck up an earthworm, and tug on the strings of a resilient soil food web, ultimately modulating populations of bacteria adhering to the surface of that tree’s root.

Although not well understood in 1924, today soil biologists recognize the importance of the life that occurs within, on, and near plants’ roots, so much so that the rhizosphere has been called the most biodiverse and dynamic habitat on Earth.

 

A Canopy Rooted in the Crown

Just as there is no clear boundary between a tree’s root and living soil, likewise there’s no clear boundary between a tree’s twig and its parent branch, that branch and the trunk, and the trunk and root system. Iterative growth occurs throughout the tree, resulting in a continuation from the smallest of branches, to the smallest of roots. True, there are some anatomical and physiological characteristics unique to a branch as compared to a root, but the appearance and function are very similar and lack a feature delineating a boundary. This uniform development emerges from the action of a relatively small number of cells whose growth (cell division and elongation) and differentiation produce the more specialized tissues that make up the tree.

In temperate regions, most trees grow in a pattern alternating between increasing in length and width, primary and secondary growth respectively. Primary growth, in the above-ground shoot system, occurs when buds grow into young green shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits. [A similar mechanism occurs below ground in the root system producing fine absorbing roots.] The most notable effect of primary growth is the elongation of branches and roots. Secondary growth, in the above ground shoot system, occurs when a thin layer of cells within the vascular tissue, the cambium, undergoes growth and differentiates into a new layer of xylem and phloem. Xylem is the water and mineral conducting tissue composing the wood or central bole of the tree, while phloem is the specialized tissue actively pumping sugars throughout the tree located just under the tree’s bark. It’s the action of the cambium, situated between the xylem and phloem, that produces the most notable effect of secondary growth, the addition of an annual ring of new wood on the tree’s trunk and branches with a resulting increase in diameter. For the purpose of this article, the canopy of the tree will refer to new shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits produced by primary growth, while crown will refer to the trunk and branches produced by secondary growth. At first glance, a tree appears to be a simple organism that results from the iterative growth just described; however, the areas of the tree produced by primary growth that interface with the atmosphere/sunlight and the soil environment parallel sense organs in an animal extending out in both directions from the more inert woody portion of the tree.

In lecture 7, Steiner continues his unconventional view of a tree by suggesting the canopy of a tree, defined here as the products of primary growth, is similar to herbaceous plants “rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree, just as other plants are rooted in the Earth.”1  Steiner addresses the obvious confusion of his statement by acknowledging that physically there are no roots where the canopy is fixed to the crown observable by “coarse outer perception.”  He states the canopy has lost its roots and remain in contact with the tree’s root system etherically. Is it possible that even with “coarse outer perception” one can view the tree’s crown as capable of serving root-like functions?

A tree’s root system performs a variety of functions, five of the most recognizable being: absorption of water and nutrients; storage of starch; conduction of water, nutrients and sugars; structural stability; and production of hormones. Of the five functions, two, absorption of water and minerals and production of hormones, are primarily performed at the very ends of the root which may be considered a recent result of primary growth, not the secondary growth that produced woody tissue referred to as “root” and “crown” in this article. It’s interesting to note that the leaves, products of primary growth, also function in absorption (carbon dioxide) and, along with buds, production of hormones, the most obvious being the hormone auxin which stimulates the primary growth of roots.

The three remaining functions of the root are just as easily fulfilled by the trunk and branches of the tree. In other words, with respect to conduction, storage, and structural stability, one would be hard pressed to distinguish where the root ends and the trunk and branches begin. The vascular tissue is seamlessly linked from the roots through the trunk and branches of the tree’s crown. Like the roots, the trunk and branches are capable of storing starch, the preferred long term storage form of sugar. All parts of the tree modulate their growth to improve structural stability to remain intact in response to loads, such as gravity and wind. Through primary and secondary growth, the tree adjusts the number and orientation of roots, trunk and branches, including load-bearing components of cell walls, to optimize the tree’s ability to withstand loading events.

To gain a more holistic perspective of trees, follow the movement of sugar, not just within a single tree, but as it courses through an entire forest. Within a tree, sugars move from where they’re stored, or produced, to where they are being utilized. This network of sharing selflessly extends to other trees and soil organisms. Sharing of sugar with other trees may not make sense when viewed from a single tree’s perspective, but from a forest’s perspective, this collectivistic practice creates a complex and redundant network that results in a more resilient organism. Interconnectivity among trees in a forest has lead some to marvel at the similarities between the World Wide Web with the forest’s Wood Wide Web.

What makes trees one of Earth’s largest and oldest organisms is a single male quaking aspen tree that has become an entire forest in central Utah. The Pando forest measures over 100 acres and consists of a “tree” that has cloned itself by repeatedly growing over 40,000 trunks from its spreading root system.  No doubt Rudolf Steiner would see the humor in experts stumbling on the terms “tree,” “trees,” and “forest,” trying to define this organism with its canopy “rooted” in the branches and trunks, which are in turn, “rooted” in a massive root system.

So in response to inquiries about whether I find Rudolf Steiner’s description of trees interesting, I reply, “Yes!” Judging by the startled expressions on the faces of the inquirers, it appears my response is more than enthusiastic!

1 Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. Translation by C. Creeger and M. Gardner. 1993. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Kimberton, PA.

Plant Elemental Spirits Behind the Veils

This article was submitted for publication in the 2018 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.


As soon as any one belongs to a certain narrow creed in science, every unprejudiced and true perception is gone.       Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Recognizing and Removing the Veils

I enjoy learning about plants and welcome any proposed mechanism of plant growth that deepens my understanding of the plant world. As gardening is the number one hobby in the United States, I’m not alone in my interest in the plant kingdom. Like most students in public education, my education in plant biology was grounded in reductive materialism which continued through universities and into continuing education within my arboriculture profession. Sadly, my education in plant biology replaced my childlike wonderment of plant development with a rigid model of plant anatomy predictably responding to a cascade of chemical messengers. Armed with a scientific knowledge, I felt prepared and justified to pursue a career as a tree expert routinely prescribing and administering treatments to restore, maintain and even improve plant health, or at least that was my world view. Somewhere in my education, I lost sight of the plant being more than the sum of its parts.

The public was largely complicit in my earlier world view, all too eager to surrender any innate understanding of plants on their landscape to the care of an “expert.” This complicity includes universities, professional societies, and government agencies that determine proper care and the criteria one needs to be called an expert. As I have begun to remove myself from this mechanistic merry-go-round, I more readily see the influence of corporations promoting pesticides and fertilizers through infomercials to the public, marketing to the professionals, and “funding” of research that typically produces results favorable to their industry.

I’m in the process of retiring and transitioning into growing medicinal herbs and naturalizing habitat for pollinators on a little farm in the highlands of Virginia using Biodynamic and Permaculture practices. I am now making an effort to gradually remove some of the reductive materialism veils that previously permitted me to operate on a shallow, physical sphere. This quest for understanding began with an extraordinary gift of Rudolf Steiner’s books given to me from my mother upon her passing. My curiosity was aroused after reading Steiner’s lectures on Agriculture; an even deeper penetration occurred when reading Steiner’s 1923 lecture “Elemental Spirits and the Plant World,” the topic explored in this article.

Steiner says plants present an opportunity for a glimpse into the invisible world that, together with physical form, comprise the visible world that is outwardly perceptible. After a career solely focused on the outwardly perceptible, I’m now exploring that invisible world. Early in my attempt to understand the elemental spirits of the plant world, I was chagrined to hear Steiner state in the past that people had “instinctive clairvoyance” concerning the material which I was struggling to understand. As an avid gardener surrounded by dozens of books on gardening, I’m still in awe at our ancestors ability to grow food without the aid of pesticides, commercial fertilizers, mechanized equipment, and the pontification of experts.

It’s been hard for me to make room for another way of understanding other than the viewpoint I’ve been trained-in and practiced for many years. There are limitations to science grounded in the materialism: first, science is unable to address phenomena in the supernatural realm; and second, the farther one drills down in reductionism, the less likely pieces can fit together to explain higher-level phenomena.  I don’t claim, at least not at this time, to have the ability to see spiritually, nor to perceive that which is described as supersensible. However, I can say that by becoming familiar with the elemental spirits of the plant world, I have a new and more personally satisfying relationship with my land and the plants it’s supporting, as well as the web of all living and nonliving beings on our farm.

 

Gnomes

Starting below ground, Steiner describes the root spirits, or gnomes, as the bearers of the ideas of the universe. At home in their element of earth and moisture, the gnomes surround the root system of a plant and mediate transactions between the earth and the roots.

I don’t recall my textbooks suggesting a kind of intelligence existing below-ground. Our understanding today of a plant’s rhizosphere and its many intricate connections with other life forms contradicts my textbook’s view of the plant as an island onto itself. With a little imagination, I can picture industrious gnomes facilitating the complex activities below-ground in the spiritual realm.

Although Steiner refers to the underlying spiritual process when referring to the exchange of materials between the soil and roots, he could have been describing what is known today about the dynamics of the physical realm as well. Plant root systems have the ability to attract specific microorganisms to create a complex community in the immediate area of the roots, the rhizosphere, for the dizzying array of exchanges involving minerals, organic compounds, and even information.  This local network of exchange and communication extends beyond the plant’s rhizosphere and connects into a much larger web by connecting with other plant-microbe networks. Research in the area of mutualistic symbiotic relationships between plants and soil microorganisms is turning the field of plant ecology on its head with a new view of plant communities (forests, for example) being driven by cooperation, not competition, and managed at surprisingly complex levels by soil-borne microorganisms.

 

This image of a wall hanging is a creation of Fi Bowman, a wonderful artist in the UK. www.fibowman.com (Temporarily posted while awaiting official authorization from the artist. Fi, let me know what I owe you so I can send it through PayPal.)

Undines

The gnomes assist in the growth of the plant upwards in

 

to the watery environment of the plant’s shoot system, the domain of the water spirits or undines. Steiner describes undines as world chemists continually separating and binding the air.

I envision undines, in a dreamy state at the interface between air and water, conducting a miraculous exchange of carbon and oxygen with hydrogen attaching and releasing, from gas to solid to gas, again and again. Products released in the air and captured in the plant’s watery environment circulate for a time before returning to this interface in the leaf to again participate in the undine driven atomic dance.

In the physical realm, the cells in plant leaves sequester carbon dioxide in photosynthetically-active tissues while releasing oxygen. At the same time all living plant cells consume oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide in the process of cellular respiration. In addition to this “breathing” of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen between the plant and its environment, there exist innumerable other chemical reactions, all interconnected and borne in the plant’s watery environment.

 

Sylphs

Building upon the chemical forces produced by the u

ndines, Steiner describes how the sylphs, as light bearers, mould and shape an archetypal plant form. In the fall, when the physical substance of plants fades, the imprint of the form is sent downwards to the gnomes where they can perceive world ideas, given shape in plant forms, as spiritual ideal forms.

On a summer day, sitting calmly before a plant in a meadow, I’m amazed at the diversity and density of small flying insects around the entire surface of the plant. Where the sunlight strikes the leaves, my eyes are unable to focus on detail but report to my brain the presence of a fuzzy halo. In such moments I can imag

ine sylphs, like an army of architects and engineers, applying unseen forces to mould and shape the plant’s morphology.

In the physical realm a fascinating phenomenon of the plant world is “tropisms” (plant movements and growth responses to environmental stimuli). The most recognizable tropism is the plant’s response to light – phototropism. When contemplating the overall form or morphology of a plant, an observer sees the res

ult of an interplay between the genetic potential of a plant modulated by environmental stimuli, typically via plant chemical messengers or hormones. [Plant hormones are still a relatively new field of research with most having been ‘discovered’ within th

e last century and new plant hormones and their interactions are still being identified.] The study of plant responses to environmental stimuli has challenged existing paradigms and divided the plant physiology community into those who vehemently stick with the existing models and refuse to entertain the possibility of plants demonstrating intelligence vs the newly formed group, plant neurobiology, who have broken away and now have their own peer-reviewed journal, “Plant Signaling and Behavior,” and separate annual conference.

 

Fire Spirits

The last elemental plant spirit Steiner describes are the fire spirits – the inhabitants of heat. The fire spirits gather and transmit warmth – the cosmically generated male element – to pollen. After pollen fuses with an egg, the resultant male seed is prepared to join

with the female principle, the earth. The female principle is influenced by the ideal, or spirit, form sent down to the roots and into the soil by the actions of the undines and sylphs. In the winter, gnomes play the role of “spiritual midwives” in their earthen womb bringing together the female principle with the male principle (seed) to complete the act of fertilization in the spiritual realm. Or, as Steiner says, For plants the earth is the mother, the heavens the father.

As someone classically trained in plant physiology and the definitive role of DNA, it is Steiner’s description of plant reproduction that I find most challenging. As typically taught in a plant biology class, the union of the pollen grain with an egg cell results in an ovule that becomes a seed, and the task of fertilization and plant r

eproduction is complete with the formation of the seed. Steiner, however, is adamant in stating that “fertilization” occurs when the gnomes carry the ideal forms, received from the undines and sylphs, to the male seed.

 Perhaps there is more to plant reproduction than simply the formation of seed. Is it possible I’m missing the forest for the trees? Is it realistic to consider the plant in a vacuum? I’m beginning to accept that there is no true separation of a plant from t

 

he microbes inhabiting the plant’s surfaces, internally and externally, as well as above-ground and below-ground. In this context, the plant completes its lifecycle when it is again united with its legions of microbes.  Even the field of genetics wrestles with new advances indicating that factors external to the plant modulate and even change a plant’s genetic composition outside of rules dictated by classical Mendelian genetics. I’m comfortable accepting that over winter there may be unseen mechanisms at work in the soil influencing the seeds and important steps that occur surrounding germination and early development. I’m accepting a “higher-level” type of fertilization occurring when the seedling connects with the soil’s existing network of microbes. This newly infused plant elemental spirits perspective is helping me better understand certain phenomena with plants that I felt was lacking with my science training, for example, why “volunteer” vegetable plants out perform pampered transplants introduced in my garden.

 

I’m beginning to wonder if academia’s superficial perspective on plants has led us astray and contributed to growers assaulting their gardens with pesticides, fertilizers, tilling and other products and services we used to control nature and to force plants to produce a prescribed yield. Is it possible that there are some subtle mechanisms, yet to be detected, at work in the plant world? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of plants and our environment if we at least attempt to work with these forces? We are beginning to perceive how our meddling with pesticides and fertilizers overwhelms finely tuned plant hormonal feedback mechanisms and separates plants from their network of microbes. On a larger scale, we see the effect of our reliance on chemicals manifested in impaired water quality and  large-scale soil degradation. Perhaps our understanding of plants, indeed of greater living and nonliving systems, is incomplete. Although reductionist thinking is wonderful for specific purposes, it has unnecessarily blinded us to other ways of knowing and understanding. We are only now becoming aware of an immense intelligence that lies beneath our feet in the network of microorganisms. Who is to say this web of intelligence doesn’t connect with other higher level phenomena, natural and supernatural? As for me, I’m going to place my scientific textbooks back on the shelf, not completely out of reach, and return to words of wisdom from Steiner and other writers who approach the plant world in ways that restore my wonder, once again.