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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.