Precognition and Premonition
To a person who claims little or no psychic ability, and not much more than a passing interest in parapsychology, the difference between precognition and premonition is blurred and both terms could be better defined. I suspect that for convenience, the two terms are lumped together by psychologists, but I doubt if this linkage can be fully justified.
Precognition has been defined as the reported skill allowing one to see, sense, or feel future occurrences via some type of extrasensory comprehension (Source: Psychology dictionary accessed at, on 13 November 2016 http://www.dictionary.com/browse/precognition). On the other hand, Premonition seems to be more commonplace than precognition and has been defined as a feeling of anticipation or of anxiety over a future event, presentiment, OR a forewarning” (source: Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dreams#Prophetic_dreams).
Precognitive events or visions are generally transmitted through dreams, and precognitive dreams are said to be quite common. But are they – at least when we consider the more spectacular (or more vivid) of these happenings. Examples of these more spectacular events, include dreams by President Lincoln, Mark Twain, Jake Kovco, as well as some “classics” concerning Roman Emperors – Julius Caesar, Constantine, and Calligula.
Premonitory warnings need not be transmitted by dreams. Notable examples include: The destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2007 when many who worked in the building stayed away following premonitions that something bad would happen. Similarly, in 1912, several people did not board RMS Titanic for the second leg of her maiden voyage, after premonitions of danger. There are many other less well known examples.
I can recall three of my own premonitions. I worked for a United Nations organisation in the mid-1980s when I had a fairly heavy travel schedule. There was a time when, for a few weeks, I felt quite strongly that one of the flights on which I was booked was doomed. Later the feeling dissipated and I guessed that the part that was due to fail (or whatever) had been replaced.
Back in my home town of Canberra, I was due to go to an evening meeting and had a “feeling” that a hazardous mob of kangaroos was on the road, several kilometres away. I delayed my departure, and by the time that I reached the site, most of the mob had left. However, had I arrived a few minutes earlier, there could have been a different ending.
From 1990 to 1993, I worked in the Solomon Islands and reflected on a few “narrow escapes” that I had had. These included almost running off the runway in an aged amphibious seaplane. Losing both outboard motors overboard for the boat that was taking us to one of the project sites – we sat there, helplessly, out of sight of land, trying not to think of the 1,300 metres of water between us and the ocean floor. Fortunately, eventually, one of the commercial ferries came past and rescued us. Later, also in the Solomons, my family visited and we went to the Western Province for a few days. Flying back, we experienced first-hand the fright of passengers when one of the twin engines failed, requiring the pilot to get back to Honiara on one engine.
Putting these incidents together, I felt a bit like a cat that had lost eight of its nine lives, and asked my “inner self” if this were so. I was assured that the time for leaving the Solomon Islands was fast approaching!
I do not recall dreaming having any a part in generating these feelings of foreboding, rather I was reacting to my own quieter thoughts.
An intriguing account of a precognitive dream experienced by an Australian professional soldier, Jake Kovco, is included in the book Carry Me Home. Jake was the first Australian soldier to lose his life in the Iraq conflict.
Jake had been posted to Iraq, arriving about two weeks before he had the precognitive dream, on the night of 20 March 2006, when he dreamed vividly about shooting himself in the head. On waking, he wrote the details in his journal. Jake was a professional soldier and had thought about joining the elite Special Air Service Regiment. Only in exceptional circumstances would this kind of person write about a dream in his daily log book!
In the dream, he was about to clean his pistol when it discharged and the bullet went into his head. He then described, from his dream how it felt, before his body went tense and then became limp as his head began to bleed. He woke and thought that he felt blood as well as entry and exit wounds in his head. He felt that the dream was not about killing himself but that it might have been premonitory. He did nothing to prevent the dream’s outcome and died of a pistol shot wound to his head, on 21 April 2006 – as foretold in his dream.
Source: “CARRY ME HOME – The life and death of Private Jake Kovco” published by Allen and Unwin in 2008, author: Dan Box (pages 66 – 7).
Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1875 – 1910) was a well-known American humourist and the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He dreamed about the death of his younger brother Henry in what must have been a vivid precognitive dream. He said that even after many years he could remember the details which were still fresh in his mind.
The two brothers planned to sail together on the riverboat Pennsylvania, Sam as an apprentice pilot and Henry as a “mud clerk” (a low-paid assistant to the purser who generally got his shoes muddy when helping to moor the boat as it landed). Sam dreamed the night before the ship sailed that he saw Henry’s corpse, laid out in a metal casket, wearing a suit and with a large bouquet of roses on his chest.
On the actual voyage, Sam was soon at loggerheads with the ship’s pilot, and he was put on to another boat, leaving Henry to continue the voyage upstream on Pennsylvania. However the boiler on Pennsylvania exploded and Henry was badly burned, surviving for a while in Memphis, where the injured were taken.
His handsome face was untouched, and the volunteers who laid out the corpses were so moved by his good looks that they gave him a metal casket. When Sam entered the “dead-room” in June, he saw an enactment of his dream. Only the floral bouquet was missing, but as he watched, a lady came in with a bouquet of white roses with a single red rose at the centre and laid it on Henry’s chest, as in the dream.
Source: http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/dreamgates/2012/01/the-shadow-of-mark-twains-precognitive-dream.html (accessed 30 October 2016).
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (President of the United States 1861-65 [b 1809 – d 1865]).
Lincoln had a precognitive dream of his assassination, which is explained in his own words, as follows: “About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream.
“There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw lights in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
Source Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dreams#Prophetic_dreams
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PRECOGNITION AND PREMONITION
I would like to suggest that the processes of Precognition and Premonition, while both are about future events, are actually sufficiently different for this to be recognised more widely.
From the small number of precognitive events that I have mentioned here, and my own experience, they are very vivid, deeply disturbing, transmitted by dreams, difficult to interpret fully, concern the death of the dreamer or of a close relative, are often not acted upon or even dismissed as “only a dream” and portray details accurately.
My cognitive experience in brief.
In 1973, I had a very vivid dream, so vivid that I had to tell other members of the graduate science class in which I was enrolled about it, even though I could expect a high degree of scepticism. My mother-in-law had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the dream, she had died, but there was a ship recognisable as a ship of death waiting for one more. Although the dream made such an impression, I was unable to interpret it properly and it was not until 1976 that its message became clear when my wife died in most unusual accident, exactly a lunar year after my mother in law. Even now, over 40 years later, I can still recall the dream’s colour, the blue of the sea, the golden sand, the brown ship’s deck and the black and red of the ship’s modest superstructure.
Tony Fearnside 13 November 2016
This short letter was published in The Canberra Times in September 2016
In a Giveaway in June we asked readers to name their favourite trees with edible bits. That prompted forester and tree man Tony Fearnside to look through plots at Westbourne Woods in Yarralumla. He says, “pine seed is generally edible but the smaller ones (like Scots pine) are too resinous in taste for most. I was reminded of the experience in Nepal when we had specifically ordered good quality seed of the Chir pine (P. roxburghii) from Pakistan to plant. There was some seed left over but when the project staff went to collect it for planting in the following year, there was none to be found. The local nursery people had eaten it. Canary Island pine is closely related to Chir Pine, so its seeds would be edible too.”
For pesto, decades ago, seed of Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) was always used. Now Cedars of Lebanon in Mawson has four varieties of edible pine seed and the most popular is the longer of two types from China.
Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World
As a person that has puzzled for long enough over the extent of sentience in plants and trees, the delivery of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World formed a bright interlude in what has been an unusually bleak Canberra winter.
The English editions of this book come with a foreword by Tim Flannery which concludes by saying “Opening this book, you are about to enter a wonderland. Enjoy it.” Foresters tend not to describe their workplaces as “wonderlands”, nevertheless they do have a feeling for forest ecosystems and their complexities, and an interest in recent scientific contributions to understanding plant signalling and behaviour.
The author, Peter Wohlleben, spent 20 years managing mixed hardwood forests in Germany, gradually becoming able to see the trees as individuals rather than as potential pieces of lumber: seeing through a forest ecologist’s eyes rather than the eyes of a commercial forest manager.
The English edition of this book (published in 2016, by Greystone Books of Canada, a part of the Random House Group) is easy to read, thanks to Jane Billinghurst’s translation skills. There are some 35 chapters which tend to describe plant processes in anthropocentric ways. Probably this will upset the “plant neurology” groups, but it is difficult to see how else it could be done in a book intended for an audience of generalists as well as technicians. In these 35 brief chapters, the writers succinctly explain forest ecosystem processes of Central European forests, which are often composed of mainly beech and oak.
Under a chapter heading, The Mysteries of Moving Water, Wohlleben briefly discusses the forces that may play a part in moving watery fluids to the top of very tall trees: capillary action, transpiration, and osmosis. He concludes that none of these give a satisfactory explanation, suggesting that while we are poorer for not having a possible explanation, we may be richer for an unexplained mystery!
Under Community Housing Projects, he discusses the shelter provided by habitats in tall, lignified plants, pointing out that “even though forest scientists haven’t fully researched the relationships yet, we do know that higher species diversity stabilizes the forest ecosystem”.
Under Tough Customers, he considers the longevity of many tree species, pointing out that there is usually more genetic variation between individual trees than there is between species in the animal kingdom. As a result, tree species are better equipped to deal with climate change, for example.
A slight note of warning seems appropriate, however: of necessity, Wohlleben draws most of his examples from Central European forests, and it is essential to allow for this in order to get the most from his otherwise very-easy-to-understand style. (Do not waste time looking for anything about eucalypts!).
Dr Suzanne Simard (Professor of Forest Ecology, University of British Columbia) has provided an end-note, pointing out that much of Wohlleben’s material parallels research findings in Pacific forests, and that these make us think more deeply about the inner workings of trees and forests.
Tony Fearnside, ACT Division, Institute of Foresters of Australia
13 October 2016
This short article is about some of the things that plants do (aspects of plant behaviour) and leads to some of the ways in which plants communicate and to how we might communicate with plants. Mostly the emphasis is on above-ground behaviour.
It is important to keep some essential features of plants in mind: they are immobile, slower to react to sudden changes than animals and humans, and have roots, stems and leaves. They can be much longer-lived than we mortals. They do not have the organs (brains, hearts and blood vessels, etc) that characterise higher animals. In fact, it would be a bad idea for plants to have these as all a predator would have to do to kill the plant is to destroy one of the vital organs; as it is a plant can lose up to 90% of its “body” and still survive.
Like all living creatures, plants have a propensity to propagate their species, but while animals and humans consume food to do this, plants make food.
One of plants’ major activities is to make “stuff” (organic sugars) by photosynthesis and they seek to do this efficiently by capturing as much light as possible: growing towards the light and having “closed canopies”. The basic chemical formula for photosynthesis is the reverse of that for respiration in both plants and animals.
This bush has a “closed canopy” so that its leaves intercept as much energy from the sun as possible.
The process of photosynthesis itself is intriguing – the temperature inside leaves is carefully controlled and is always close to the optimum for the photosynthesis process, at 21.4o+2.2oC. It has been shown in a variety of plants that this temperature did not vary over a wide range of climates and over 50o of latitude. The photo-synthesis process is the task of chloroplasts which are green (rather than the leaves themselves).
Cross-section of a leaf
The all-important chloroplasts are mainly in the cells of the palisade and spongy layers.
The stoma, by opening and closing, regulate temperature and, importantly, moisture within the whole plant.
(Diagram by Zephirus (own work) in Wikipedia)
A moment’s thought tells us that we all depend on plants at some stage in our food chains and that our very existence depends on chloroplasts and the process of photosynthesis. In fact, we are heavily dependent on plants while plants would get on very nicely if humans vanished overnight!
Some of the above-ground ways in which plants communicate are:The other very important process that is carried out by leaves is the regulation of moisture in the plant. This requires communication within the whole plant to ensure that there is a “goldilocks environment” (one that is “just right”) that is controlled by the opening or closing of the stomata (pores) which are mostly on the underside of the leaf.
- Within plants: plants utilise the xylem/phloem pathway linking roots and shoots; with chemical compounds or electrical signals.
- With insects: flowers have coloured petals and stamens, scents.
- With insects and animals: cherries have white flowers to attract bees and red fruits to attract humans/birds.
- With birds: attractive fruits (eg berries) are eaten whole, so seeds are dispersed (and fertilized!).
- With humans: stone fruits look good and taste good!
The third object of the Theosophical Society (“To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in the human being”) has led to several books and many investigations (usually non-scientific) dealing with nature spirits, devas and plant or tree energies. Three recent examples of communication with plants and nature spirits are described briefly in the next paragraphs.
- “The Great Banyan Tree at Adyar (Chennai, India) is a very distinct and majestic tree and is very close to the historic Blavatsky Bungalow so that some of its extensive branches were touching the building. While meditating with a small group at the foot of the tree, the Tree Angel gave us the solution. She put her robe over the entire tree, but didn’t cover those branches that were threatening the bungalow: the Angel showed that it was permitted to trim some of the branches.” (http://adyar-renovation.org)
- Joy Mills (1920 to 2015) was a former international vice president and president of the US and Australian Sections of the Theosophical Society, and her experience was re-told in the Quest magazine of Spring 2012, as follows.
“One day she hiked into the Ozarks (USA) woods that are known for their white oaks and dogwood trees along with loblolly pines, which can reach over a hundred feet in height. After a while, she found herself in front of a towering tree. ‘I became aware of the power and life in that tree. Then I became one with the tree and could have slid right into it.’ In that instant, she knew that the life in the tree and the life within her were the same. ‘At some level, it changed me’.”
- In her latest book Atala Dorothy Toy reports her widespread experiences with nature spirits and tree energies and the occurrence of orbs and other energy bodies on photographs taken by digital cameras which were not visible to the photographer. (Quest Books, 2012.)
The question of plant intelligence has been receiving more attention in scientific circles of late, after being relatively stagnant since the publication of Power of Movement in Plants by Charles Darwin in 1880. Reasons for this stagnation included the view that plants were some form of still life, a concept that seems to have been accepted from Aristotelian times, whereas plants have been shown relatively recently, to be active in many more ways than simply moving in response to stimuli such as light and gravity. This is particularly so when plants are studied in the landscape, not the laboratory as used always to be the case. The amazing below ground behaviour of plants includes:
- seeking and taking moisture and nutrients from soil.
- uniting with symbionts eg, legumes with bacteria and conifers with fungi.
- avoiding parts of the same plant or species (to prevent competition for nutrients and space).
For these, plants use processes like ours to see, touch, smell, hear and even taste (Chamovitz, 2013).
Suggested sources of information.
Brilliant Green – the surprising history and science of plant intelligence Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. (English edition) Island Press 2015 (175 pp)
You tube sessions with Stefano Mancuso, eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIfwFLDXFyQ
Nature Spirits, Spirit Guides and Ghosts – how to talk to and photograph beings of other realms Atala Dorothy Toy, Quest Books 2012.
You tube sessions with Atala Dorothy Toy eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DuOYjZxq0I
The Plantoid Robot Project, eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqKRNKCmzhE
Daniel Chamovitz (Tel Aviv University) has a short account of plant behaviour, Plants Exhibit the Same Senses as Humans and See, Touch, Smell, Hear and Even Taste At:
Trees and Understanding Nature
Tony Fearnside (from Theosophy in Australia March 2013)
Theosophical literature contains some notable works about devas and the angelic kingdoms by respected clairvoyants such as CW Leadbeater (The Hidden Side of Things) Geoffrey Hodson (The Kingdom of the Gods and Fairies at Work and at Play). However literature about the occult nature of trees and plants is mainly from sources outside the theosophical movement, and includes accounts of Nordic and Celtic legends and gods associated with trees and accounts of trees as symbols, merging into ethno-botanical accounts and some recent scientific studies.
I am not aware of any similar written descriptions of Australian tree spirits but there are several contemporary Australian authors who have written extensively about nature spirits and related phenomena. Examples are: Alanna Moore’s many articles in the electronic magazine Geomantica; Geoff Campbell’s very extensive descriptions in Angels of the Botanic Gardens, Melbourne (https://chisync.com/Geo/Angels/) and Steven Guth’s many contributions to the Kheper web-site (http://kheper.net). There is also the compilation Devas and Men[i] an intriguing book which takes work from several different authors and seamlessly melds them together to form an anthology of theosophical writings on nature spirits.
Botanical science has long known that chemicals are transported within plants which can be considered to be a form of communication comparable with the transmission of pain in humans from, say, the toe to the brain. Recently there has been a distinct trend towards the study of communication in plants – Communication in Plants – the neuronal aspects of plant life (Springer) presents a collection of papers on communication within and sometimes between plants. Also, in 2012, scientists at Exeter University (UK) contributed to a BBC TV programme which showed that cabbage plants emit a volatile gas to warn other plants of danger, such as leaf-eating caterpillars or garden shears.
Communication with Trees
I cannot lay claim to any developed clairvoyant capabilities (and indeed am quite happy not to have them) while perhaps admitting to a degree of sensitivity. Several years ago, one of the senior members of a Theosophical Society lodge told me about a message that one of her much-loved trees, an oak, gave her. This was just after a devastating bushfire which left large areas near her rural home blackened and seemingly killed. The tree’s message was “do not worry I will grow new leaves in the spring” which it did. Later one of my favourite garden trees, a rare spinning gum (Eucalyptus perriniana) asked me to remove the adjacent wattle. I did not understand, and did not do so – to my sorrow the tree died not long afterwards and I assume that the wattle’s roots had grown over the eucalypt’s roots as is often the case. Too late, all I could do was use parts of its trunk to form garden beds. Later, an orange blossom shrub said a “thank you” to me after I had pruned a neighbouring tree to give it more space.
I have often worked with arborists, not all of whom are “urban lumberjacks”, and one of them told me that he once had a strong feeling (received a warning) from a tree not to step on a branch as he was about to climb it. It turned out that the branch was rotten and would not have held his weight if he had stood on it as he had planned. He probably escaped a serious fall. Others have spoken about particular feelings they have towards special trees.
In about 1999, two friends and I received a small grant from the ACT government to prepare a heritage nomination for “Blundells Arboretum[ii]” which was the most impressive in a series of arboreta that had been established by the Forest Research Institute from 1926 onwards. My task was to assess each plot of trees and I looked forward to my first day working in the arboretum. When I got there, there was a distinctly unwelcoming atmosphere – the trees did not want me and I noticed some signs of recent vandalism: labels had been removed and a fence post had been driven into a termite mound and so on. On subsequent visits the atmosphere became more welcoming as if the trees were recognising that I was not out to harm them.
Several accounts by Dora Van Gelder (later Dora Kunz) describe tree spirits and associated fairies. These are about tree spirits and associated fairies. For example in her paper Tree Spirits[iii] she told of a malevolent tree spirit associated with a remnant tree in Indonesia and of tree spirits in North American woods and forests. She said that, by and large, tree spirits are kindly disposed to people but have a lower degree of consciousness, and a slower reaction to stimuli than humans and that they are able to leave the tree which they inhabit, for short distances. This account complements Geoffrey Hodson’s description of a gnome associated with an ash tree in England which could leave the tree in which it “lived” for short distances and then return, perhaps to re-energise itself. (Note that Hodson described his nature spirits in anthropomorphic terms and sought to classify them as fairies, gnomes, mannikins, et cetera.) In The Hidden Sided of Things, Leadbeater pointed out that:
Strong influences are radiated by the vegetable kingdom also, and the different kinds of plants and trees vary greatly in their effect … trees- especially old trees – have a strong and definite individuality, well worthy [of] the name of a soul.iv[iv]
Trees have feelings
So it seems that trees do have feelings, that they are sentient beings and in some cases are able to convey messages which we are sometimes able to interpret or understand. How can trees and plants introduce us to the “unexplained powers of nature” without calling on those with well-developed clairvoyant abilities to see and describe tree spirits and fairies?
Let’s start with Kirlian photography, accounts of which can be found on the internetv[v]. In short a Russian scientist Semyon Kirlian found, in 1939, a way of photographing leaves and human hands to show fields of energy around them. This was claimed to show that auras existed, which was (and still is) greeted with a degree of scepticism even though most of us can feel energy, often as a tingling, in our fingertips if we rub our hands together briskly, shut our eyes and hold our hands in front of us, fingers pointing to, and close to, each other. Kirlian also showed that if parts of the leaf were cut off there was still an energy field around the space previously occupied by the part that had been removed, which is reminiscent of amputees’ statements about being able to feel a foot or a hand after it has been removed (‘phantom limbs’).
Another way of demonstrating energy in plants is to hold a pendulum or a divining rod over a live plant – the pendulum will begin to rotate (if it is not held too firmly) or a divining rod will start to swing. The same thing happens if they are held over a hand or a head. This leads us to tree hugging to feel energies in trees which is best done in older clothes that are perhaps ready for the laundry. It is important to approach the tree with a feeling of sympathy or respect, in the same way that an interview with another person will be more fruitful if the conversation is empathetic or compassionate rather than unfriendly. Speak quietly to the tree if that will help, then hug gently and firmly, you should then be able to feel a similar energy to that passing between your finger tips.
These energies are not as strong as, for instance, electrical energy in our domestic power sources, nevertheless they are there, subtle though they may be. They remind us that prana (or fohat or chi) really is a fact and may begin to explain how at least some of the unexplained forces of nature are transmitted, for example the feeling of well-being that we get when gardening or walking among trees in parks and nature reserves.
Meditating when sitting with one’s back to a tree is another aid to understanding the unexplained forces of nature. The tree’s subtle energy can help the sitter’s meditation. One does not need to be a Buddha in search of enlightenment under a Bodhi tree to gain some benefit – just do it!
In conclusion, it is appropriate to consider another excerpt from The Hidden Side of Things:
…trees exercise much more influence over human beings than is commonly supposed, and … he who sets himself to cultivate sympathetic and friendly relations with all his neighbours, vegetable as well as animal and human, may both receive and give a great deal of which the average man knows nothing, and may thus make his life fuller, wider, more complete[vi].
[i] Devas and Men – a compilation of Theosophical studies on the Angelic Kingdom by the Southern Centre of Theosophy, The Theosophical Publishing House Adyar, Chennai, India 2000.
[ii] Arboretum: a collection of trees established for scientific or other purposes.
[iii] In Gaia’s hidden Life: The Unseen Intelligence of Nature by Shirley Nicholson and Brenda Rosen, The Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Original 1992.
[iv] The Hidden Side of Things, CW Leadbeater, The Theosophical Publishing House, Ayar, 1912, p.94.
[v] Eg, Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirlian_photography; and The Skeptics Dictionary at: http://www.skepdic.com/kirlian.html
[vi] CW Leadbeater, op. cit. pp. 96-97.
The Question of Intelligence and Sentience in Plants
Is intelligence “what is needed to solve problems” or does it require a brain?
Tony Fearnside, M.Sc., OAM, 2015.
In 1973, the publication of The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Timothy Bird occasioned much controversy. Appearing at a time when New Ageism was strong, the book was a “best seller” in USA and inspired a popular documentary film of the same name (Paramount 1979). One of the book’s controversial claims was that plants may be sentient despite their lack of a nervous system and a brain.
The book opened with a report on “Cleve” Backster, a former interrogation specialist for the CIA and his experiments with plants using a polygraph or lie detector in the 1960s (Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Backster, Jr (1924 – 2013)). These were widely reported in the media but were rejected by the scientific community. His book Primary Perception — Biocommunication with Plants, Foods, and Human Cells (2003) described his work with plants, including attaching a polygraph to an indoor plant (Dracaena massangeana) in his office. Backster reported that the plant registered a reaction on the polygraph when he had thoughts of injuring it and when a live shrimp was put into boiling water in the next room. Controlled experiments that attempted to replicate Backster’s findings failed, and the “Primary Perception” theory was not accepted since it did not follow a scientific method (eg. at the 141st annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011, the panel of biologists found the claim unsupportable).
Backster’s theory was a subject of an episode of the television show Mythbusters. After all human and environmental stimuli that could alter the results were removed, they tried to reproduce Backster’s experiments with the Dracaena massangeana plant. After obtaining negative results, they performed a final experiment using an EEG instrument (more sensitive than a polygraph) connecting it to a plant to check whether it would react to eggs being catapulted randomly into boiling water. The instrument registered no change in the plant and the myth was considered busted! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleve_Backster).
However, critics had overlooked a characteristic of plants which was reported in chapter two of The Secret Life of Plants. Marcel Vogel, a researcher at IBM who could be described as empathetic to plants, was asked to give a course to IBM staff members on creativity. He set out to demonstrate a machine with similar capabilities to Bachster’s polygraph and divided the class into three groups; none of the students got results but Vogel did. He concluded that plants could respond to a person’s intentions if there was some sort of a bond between the person and the plant.
A deliberate attempt to see if Backster’s results could be replicated using the equivalent of a galvanic skin response was made by theosophist Steven Guth and David Beale in 2007 and 2011. David, an electronics inventor developed a ‘materials analyzer’ that sends out and receives modulating patterned waves. It was adapted to present results similar to the GSR machines. Antenna and receiver plates were placed near plants and results were recorded as Steven meditated and sent feelings of love and appreciation to the plants. Garden trees responded slowly. Potted geraniums cuttings tended to give good results. A further experiment was conducted by moving a geranium over a dowsing water line – the plant responded to the line. Steven observed that plants appear to react much like cats, “One needs to get and hold their attention. Responses are not always what one expects.” Steven and David have placed their work, with photographs on the following web site: http://westernau.com/PlantResponse/index.html .
Controversy re-awakened in 2007 as a result of an article by six plant scientists in Trends in Plant Science (2006) that proposed a new field of inquiry “plant neurobiology”. They argued that this name was justified by the sophisticated nature of plant responses to environmental variables which could not be explained using accepted genetic and biochemical definitions. Systems of signalling in plants had been found that are analogous to systems in animals – plants exhibited intelligence. The Society for Plant Neurobiology had held its first meeting in 2005. After criticism from other plant scientists, the society was re-named the Society for Plant Signalling and Behaviour and its journal became Plant Signalling and Behaviour.
Associate professor Monica Gagliano, from the Centre for Evolutionary Biology, University of Western Australia, working at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology near Florence experimented with seedlings of the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica). She used protocols for testing habituation in animals by repeatedly dropping containers with the seedlings from a height of 15 centimetres every five seconds. At first, the seedlings responded as they do to touch, by “folding up” but after a while they had “learned” that this was unnecessary. 28 days later the plants “remembered” what they had learned. She said “Brains and neurons are a sophisticated solution, but are not a necessary requirement for learning.” Her paper was rejected by 10 scientific journals, not because they doubted the results or the methodology, but they could not agree to use her terminology, to which she replied that it was necessary to use similar terminology so that plant and animal behaviour could be compared (the paper was eventually published in Oecologia).
It is not surprising that the “plant neurobiologists” have turned to information science for definitions and terminology which are broader and concepts that are easier to apply than those of physiology.
So, are we getting closer to finally refuting or accepting the existence of sentience in plants as propounded by eastern sages, and by CW Leadbeater and others who possessed a degree of clairvoyance? Probably not, but much more is now known of what was previously the “secret” life of plants and therefore of the claims to their having some sort of intelligence or “sentience”.
Some things that plants do (plant behaviour)
The following describes some aspects of above-ground plant movements or “behaviour” in vascular or higher plants (land plants that have lignified tissues (xylem) for conducting water and minerals through the plant and a specialised non-lignified tissue (phloem) to conduct products of photosynthesis). Vascular plants include gymnosperms (conifers and cycads) and angiosperms (flowering plants). Mosses, yeasts (and other single-celled organisms) are not considered here. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vascular_plant.)
Firstly, let’s consider the oft repeated anonymous observation, “We live in a definition based reality, held in place by peer review.” In the case of plant studies much of the discussion and controversy centres on the terminology and definitions. Thus “behaviour” can be taken to be reactions to stimuli. In animals, reactions are usually characterised by movement that is readily observed while most reactions to stimuli in plants are much, much slower. If we remember that plants are unable to move we begin see that this greatly influences and helps to explain their slower responses, and their different ways of signalling, etc. Arising from this we can also argue that plants have advantages over animals in many respects (eg, a plant can lose 90% of its structure and still survive, while having a brain as in higher animals would be a disadvantage as foragers could easily destroy the plants ability to defend itself). Perhaps we humans should be more humble and abandon our feeling of superiority brought about by our (apparent) ability to out-think species in the animal and plant kingdoms. Meanwhile remembering that living entities take steps to pass on their genetic material and consume materials to provide the necessary energy. (In so doing, animals generally consume materials to provide energy and plants generally generate their own energy sources.)
In plants, vegetative growth is the period of growth between germination and flowering and the following table indicates the different forms of growth that are recognised in vascular plants. source: http://plantsinmotion.bio.indiana.edu/.
|Seeds absorb moisture sufficient to generate energy for growth to begin (germination).|
|Plants move in response to environmental stimuli where movement is related to the direction of the stimulus (tropisms eg, geotropism in roots, movements caused by wind).|
|Plant movements in response to light which are not tropic: photomorphogenesis eg the diurnal movement of sunflowers.|
|Movements by plants in response to environmental stimuli where movement is not related to the direction of the stimulus (nastic movements eg, the Venus fly trap, and Mimosa pudica [sensitive plant]).|
|Time dependent movements eg, closing of flowers, or leaves at night (Circadian responses).|
|Processes that occur during vegetative growth, ie, between germination and flowering are referred to as general growth.|
|Growth associated with reproduction, including pollination and pollination aids, flowering, fertilisation, fruiting and seed disposal. Eg, Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic plants that attracts insects at night by emitting (to us) an unattractive stink.|
In the case of the insectivorous plant, the Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea spp) an insect crawling on the plant’s leaf will bend a single hair but nothing happens … until a second hair is bent by the insect, whereupon the leaf closes quickly and catches it. Is this a form of intelligence, since the plant knows the difference between a single bend and a second bend? (A single bend could be caused in many ways but potential prey will cause two bends.) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_flytrap).
In the parasitic plant, dodder (Cuscuta spp) seeds sprout at or near the surface of the soil. Although germination can occur without a host, it has to reach a green plant quickly and is adapted to grow towards the nearby plants by following chemosensory clues. If a host plant is not reached within 5 to 10 days, the seedling will die. Before a host plant is reached, the dodder relies on its food reserves. It has been demonstrated that dodder plants “hunt” their preferred victims (eg, tomato plants) by responding selectively to different volatile airborne compounds emitted by their potential hosts. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuscuta.)
Another fascinating case is that of the parasitic pitcher plant, Nepenthes hemsleyana. The large pitcher that this plant possesses has been shown to attract bats by reflecting sounds that enable bats to more easily locate the pitcher plant amongst other plants through echolocation. When the bats roost above the pitcher plant in considerable numbers, their droppings provide nutrients for the plant. (http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/07/10/4271372.htm)
So far in this section, we have considered above-ground movements which are far easier to observe than below-ground movements. Moreover, plant scientists have begun to move from studying single plants or even parts of a plant to groups of plants and thence to plants in the landscape, no doubt benefiting from advances in technology. (In contrast to clairvoyants who tend to move from landscapes to groups of plants to individual plants or trees.)
The below-ground behaviour of plants can be even more intriguing than their above-ground behaviour. Recent work has shown that roots somehow avoid overcrowding with their own species, take action to avoid other species that may be competitors and to seek out organisms that may be helpful, such as symbiotic fungi or bacteria.
The growing tip of a root (or radicle) is generally regarded as comprising a protective but sensitive growing tip, followed by a region of rapidly dividing cells (meristem), then a transition zone and an elongation zone. Plant neurobiologists have now proposed that the transition zone is in fact a “nerve centre” that controls or directs growth and that this is a form of intelligence (Ananthaswamy, 2014). In addition to tropic movements (in response to gravity, lack of light, moisture, and penetrability) plant roots can respond to chemicals (nitrogen, salt, phosphorus, toxins, microbes and chemical signals from neighbouring plants. (Pollan, 2013.)
Are plants sentient, showing intelligence?
The question of whether plants are sentient entities with intelligence (perhaps how plants decide what, and how, to do things) has long been controversial, and events in the past 40 years have been no exception. Before closing, let us consider a few definitions of “sentience” which in general usage is the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.
The on-line psychology dictionary defines sentience as: 1. The most primitive and simple form of cognition. 2. The state of being sentient. And “Sentience consists of being aware of stimuli without interpreting them. (http://psychologydictionary.org/sentience.)
In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things, and calls for care and respect. The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentience.)
It seems certain that those who want to believe that science is getting closer to demonstrating sentience in plants because scientists are becoming more able to demonstrate forms of plant intelligence, will readily accept that science is indeed closing in on proving that plants are intelligent, sentient beings. While the naysayers will remain unconvinced.
Anil Ananthaswamy New Scientist 6 December 2014.
Gagliano, M., Renton, M.S., Depczynski, M.R., Mancuso, S. 2014, ‘Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters’, Oecologia, 175, 1, pp. 63-72.
Michael Pollan The New Yorker 23 December 2013.
The quoted web sites were accessed in early July 2015.
 A measure of changes in emotional arousal recorded by attaching electrodes to any part of the skin and recording changes in moment-to-moment perspiration and related autonomic nervous system activity
 Including Rafflesia arnoldii, said to be the largest flower in the world.
Towards acceptance of plant sentience
This article was written for the Theosophical Society newsletter in March 2016
This article is about some of the remarkable things that plants do and how they communicate – in a word, their sentience.
It is important to keep some essential features of plants in mind: they are immobile, slower to react to sudden changes than animals and have roots, stems and leaves. They can be much longer-lived than we mortals. They do not have the organs (brains, hearts and blood vessels, etc) that characterise higher animals. In fact, it would be nonsensical for plants to have these as all an attacker would have to do to kill the plant is to destroy one of the vital organs; as it is a plant can lose up to 90% of its “body” and still survive.
Like all living creatures, plants strive to propagate their species, but while animals and humans consume food to do this, plants make food. Indeed, making food is one of plants’ major activities in which carbohydrates (organic sugars) are made by photosynthesis, which is the role of chloroplasts that are usually found in leaves. It is the chloroplasts that are green, rather than the leaves themselves. Plants seek to do this efficiently by capturing as much light as possible, eg, growing towards sunlight and having “closed canopies”.
The process of photosynthesis itself is intriguing – the temperature inside leaves is carefully controlled and is always close to the optimum for the photosynthesis process (1.4o+2.2oC). It has been shown in a range of plant species that this temperature did not vary over a variety of climates and over 50o of latitude. Also a moment’s thought tells us that we all depend on plants at some stage in our diets and that our very existence depends on the chloroplasts and the process of photosynthesis. In fact, we are heavily dependent on plants while plants would get on very nicely if humans vanished overnight!
Communication within the plant is required to ensure that there is a “goldilocks environment” (one that is “just right”) that is controlled by the opening or closing of the stomata (pores) which are mostly on the underside of the leaves.
The question of plant behaviour and intelligence has been receiving more attention in scientific circles of late, after being relatively stagnant since the publication of Power of Movement in Plants by Charles Darwin in 1880. Reasons for this stagnation included the view that plants were some form of still life, a concept that seems to have been widely accepted from Aristotelian times. Whereas plants have now been shown to be active in many more ways than simply moving in response to stimuli such as light and gravity. For these activities plants use processes like ours to see, touch, smell, hear and even taste. (See Chamovitz[i] for a useful short account). This is particularly evident when plants are studied in their natural environments, not the laboratory as used always to be the case. Fairly recent advances in botanical science confirm the view that plants are indeed sentient although this is not accepted by mainstream science.
Turning now to communication in plants, here are three recent examples that demonstrate ways in which we can communicate with plants and plants with us.
- “The Great Banyan Tree at Adyar is a very distinct and majestic tree and is so close to the historic Blavatsky Bungalow that some of its extensive branches were touching the building. While meditating with a small group at the foot of the tree, the Tree Angel gave us the solution. She put her robe over the entire tree, but didn’t cover those branches that were threatening the bungalow. In this way, the Angel showed that it was permitted to trim some of the branches.”
- Joy Mills (1920 – 2015) was a former international vice president and president of the US and Australian Sections of the Theosophical Society; her experience was re-told by Cynthia Overweg as follows.
“One day she hiked into the Ozarks (USA) woods that are known for their white oaks and dogwood trees along with loblolly pines, which can reach over a hundred feet in height. After a while, she found herself in front of a towering tree. ‘I became aware of the power and life in that tree. Then I became one with the tree and could have slid right into it.’ In that instant, she knew that the life in the tree and the life within her were the same. ‘At some level, it changed me’.”
- In her latest book Atala Dorothy Toy reports her widespread experiences with nature spirits and tree energies and the occurrence of orbs and other energy bodies on photographs taken by digital cameras which were not visible to the photographer.
No doubt there are many other examples in the social media, but mainstream science still does not accept the premise that plants have senses (are sentient) and communicate and display intelligence.
Are we waiting for an eminent and well regarded scientist to put his or her reputation on the line by speaking out in the same way that Ervin Laszlo considered paranormal experiences reported by various people (near death experiences, after death communications, messages transmitted by mediums instrumental transcommunications, past life recollections and reincarnation) and postulated that human consciousness persists beyond the body? After all, plants have been evolving for much much longer than humans and it would seem logical that they behave in an intelligent way.
[i] Chamovitz, Daniel (Tel Aviv University) Plants Exhibit the Same Senses as Humans and See, Touch, Smell, Hear and Even Taste, at
 Cynthia Overweg JoyMills: an Evolutionary Journey Quest Magazine, Spring 2012
 Atala Dorothy Toy Nature Spirits, Spirit Guides and Ghosts – how to talk to and photograph beings of other realms Quest Books 2012,
and You tube sessions eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DuOYjZxq0I
 Laszlo, Ervin and Peake, Anthony The Immortal Mind – Science and the Continuity of Consciousness Beyond the Brain Inner Traditions, 2014.
Mancuso, Stefano and Viola, Alessandra Brilliant Green – the surprising history and science of plant intelligence. (English edition) Island Press 2015 (175 pp), and You tube sessions with Professor Stefano Mancuso, eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIfwFLDXFyQ
Information about the plantoid robot project, eg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqKRNKCmzhE
The Curmudgeon* and the Carers
Originally published in Parkinson’s ACT Bulletin July 2013
This account is based on experiences as an in-patient at two of Canberra’s private hospitals and is primarily about administering medications during a spell in hospital of more than a day or so.
We Parkies are told continually that each one of us is different and we are therefore encouraged to self-manage our medications but in hospitals, large numbers of patients have to be given their individual doses on time in an atmosphere of making absolutely sure that nothing goes wrong. So there is an in-built potential for conflict between an elderly curmudgeon with Parkinson’s (usually male) and the not-so-elderly nurses (usually female) who are tasked with caring for the curmudgeon including making sure that his “meds” are not only taken but taken on time and as prescribed.
Parkinson’s Australia issues a pamphlet (Parkinson’s and Hospitalisation: Guidelines) with excellent advice on preparing for hospitalisation but it cannot prepare you for the potential conflict to come. Nevertheless it should be the starting point (essential reading) as you prepare for your sojourn in hospital. It lists several topics: contra-indications, interactions, timing and side effects of medications, anaesthetic after-effects, and infection effects.
Soon after arrival, hospital staff will take your medications and keep them in a separate container. From hereon they are in control. Other medications will soon be added. If the medications are used up, the hospital pharmacy will replace them and you will get the bill later (a good reason to make sure that the hospital knows of any concessions to which you are entitled).
In my experience, contemporary medical science addresses pain relief following surgery through the use of analgesic drugs, usually opioids (with efficacy similar to morphine). These have side effects (especially nausea and constipation) which are treated with more “meds”. Do not expect physical ways of alleviating pain such as heat, ointments, massage, acupuncture, etc or traditional cures such as raw ginger in hot water to help with nausea.
Other routine treatments include precautions against deep vein thrombosis (DVT). These comprise blood thinners (usually injected on a daily basis), long white compression stockings, calf compressors and exercise. Make no mistake, DVT is something to avoid: treatment in advanced cases is usually surgical to unblock major blood vessels, which elderly people cannot undergo indefinitely. Blood thinners are usually problem-free unless one has already been taking anti-inflammatory drugs, including NSAIDs, when side effects such as profuse nose bleeding can occur. The long white stockings are at worst a minor irritation when they quickly show stains and dirty patches and need someone to take them off and put them back on before and after the daily shower. Calf compressors are meant to simulate walking and compress the calf at regular intervals during and immediately after the operation, which can be a problem for parkies as they may also promote tremors. (Their use is something to discuss with the surgeon and/or the anaesthetist; they may not affect those who have been only recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s.)
At this point I should point out that the anti-emetics (anti-nausea “meds”) commonly prescribed (maxolon and stemetil, for instance) can block the uptake of dopamine in most Parkinson’s drugs and that domperidone (motillium) does not. However, motillium works best if it is taken 15-30 minutes before a meal (30 minutes in my case) while many other “meds” can be taken with a meal or at any time. The carers found it difficult to bring the motillium pill on time, so our curmudgeon was left wondering whether to wait 30 minutes after taking the pill that arrived with, or just after the meal – or whether to just start eating anyway. The propensity for the catering staff to bring meals before the scheduled times (especially at weekends) was a complication, too.
On one occasion, soon after surgery, our curmudgeon’s schedule totalled eight different medications with 18 different timings. Used to keeping track of a few Parkinson’s meds taken at meal times, understanding this permutation was beyond him, and in a few cases, beyond the carers too. But spare a thought for the carers: if there are 200 patients, half of whom have eight or more meds, then the nurses would have to carefully monitor 1800 timings. Even if the individual nurses have four patients each, this can still be a lot of timings. Generally they get it right (God help a nurse if “they” found that she or he got it wrong!) but there are times when they do not or cannot. One of these is during or following an emergency – it is of little use to complain that a straightforward medication has been forgotten if the patient in the next room has just been rescued from a life threatening ordeal. Sometimes changes in a medication or timing are not recorded plainly in the records (doctor’s hand writing?). Some medications can be “patient-controlled medication” such as panadol and timings may not be recorded precisely.
In conclusion, here are some “DO s”:
- Do study the Parkinson’s Australia pamphlet Parkinson’s and Hospitalisation: Guidelines carefully;
- Do tell the Parkinson’s nurse consultant and/or your neurologist that you will be in hospital;
- Do speak to the anaesthetist and the surgeon a few days before admission so that you can get the right timing for your Parkinson’s medications immediately before and after the operation AND avoid anti-nausea meds that can interfere with leva-dopa;
- Do carefully read the Consumer Medical Information sheet for each of your medications (ask for one from the pharmacy if need be);
- Do, if you feel capable, ask if you can take charge of Parkinson’s medications and montillium (patient controlled medications);
- Do consider a pill timer if you are using more than, say, two different meds: these timers can be borrowed from the Parkinson’s nurse consultant or purchased from Tabtimer (see the advertisement on the back page of this Bulletin);
- Do remember to smile and to suppress that curmudgeon.
* Curmudgeon is simply defined as a bad tempered person, but here it is used to describe an older rather self-opinionated person. However one dictionary defines a curmudgeon as “an ill-tempered (and frequently old) person full of stubborn ideas or opinions”.
Limestone Wattle Blues
Acacia caerulescens, otherwise known as Buchan Blue or Limestone Blue Wattle is endemic to a small area in East Gippsland, Victoria. It has been listed as a vulnerable species with fewer than 2,000 mature specimens in the wild, and is the subject of a National Recovery Plan. It is associated with heavy soils on limestone country in its natural environment. It was described as a separate species in 1989.
When we moved to our present house (in Stirling, ACT) in 2010, most of the front garden was quite barren, with its soil covered in wood chips and dominated by a vigorous blue gum (19 metres tall) with three or four smaller, non-descript trees to keep it company.
I planted a few native plants in 2011, among them were two Buchan Blue seedlings. At the time I did not know much about growing this very intriguing species. Anyway, the two seedlings grew very quickly, faster than almost any other tree seedling that I had ever grown. 2012 was wetter than average in autumn and spring, and when we went to Adelaide for a few days, they both looked healthy and vigorous.
On our return, the first surprise awaited: one of the seedlings was dead, as dead as a doornail. I pulled it and it came out of the ground easily. The roots were losing their “bark” (epidermis) and there were no finer roots. It seemed to have succumbed to a root rotting fungus. On reflection, this was not surprising since the soils over limestone on which it typically grows would be relatively free draining, so that susceptibility to root pathogens might be suspected, as is the case with Wollemi Pine which comes from sandstone country, also free-draining. In contrast, this part of the ACT is quite flat with undulating topography, probably quite a suitable habitat for root rotting fungi.
The remaining plant continued to grow rapidly until 2014 when it was about 1.5 metres tall and then one windy night, following a rainy day, disaster struck again – the tree was blown over. Its roots seemed to be concentrated near the surface, taking the easy path along the decomposing layer under the woodchips. Nothing daunted, I got a friend to prop it up and to cut off the upper third of the stem, thereby lowering its centre of gravity. Since then the sapling has grown into a vigorous, handsome young tree with attractive blue green phyllodes, apparently without problems, apart perhaps from loneliness. It has pale yellow flowers which appear in spring. So far at least, the flowering has not been prolific nor long-lived. Also, there has been only a little evidence of a leaf destroying organism as reported from the National Arboretum, Canberra (Forest 13/99).
Our tree is now about 7.5 metres tall (April 2016). What can we conclude from our experiences? Firstly, when growing rare and endangered plants, remember that there are reasons for their rarity which will probably make them hard to grow. Secondly, Buchan Blue is a beautiful, fast growing tree that may well have a place in landscaping – if you can overcome unexpected difficulties.