Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The mystical world of plants

There are people who believe that Nature, if left to her own devices, can heal the land; the best we humans can do, according to these folks, is get out of the way (or, barring that, try to mimic the natural cycle of things as much as possible). There are some who embrace practices from an earlier time or faraway places that seek to transform the land through a series of somehwat pagan rituals. There are some pretty out-there ideas, theories of farming, accepted by a decent segment of the population, that rely on lunar calendars and mineral preparations and buried cow horns. There are some who garden barefoot, believing that this way the soil comes to know them and provide for their specific nutritional needs. I don't know what to make of some of these ideas, so different from my previous views of the human-earth-plant relationship. But while I tend to seek out logical explanations for why and how things flourish, modern science doesn't account for everything. At least not yet.

I got to thinking about more mystical explanations of the interactions between people and plants while working with Deborah at her homestead in Uvalde, TX last week. Deborah's interest in eastern philosophy informs her book choices as well as her organic farming practices, and while I was there I leafed through a number of unconventional, back-to-the-land paperbacks with titles like "The Secret Life of Plants" and "Gaia's Garden." Among these cursory book skimmings, I came across a chapter in "Secrets of the Soil" that my hostess had mentioned during one of our morning chats over goat milk lattes. It discussed a soil purification ceremony originated in India that involves burning cow dung, rice, and butter in a copper pyramid while chanting. I was intrigued.

Stay with me here, I haven't gone off the deep end. (Do insane people know that they're going insane? Hmmm.)

Scientists cited in the book, admittedly written in the 1970s, confirmed significantly reduced levels of radioactive activity in areas where these soil purification ceremonies -- known as Agnihotra -- were performed. This was true in a variety of formerly infertile locations around the world. I mean places as improbable as Chernobyl. Claims of a boost in the nutrient content that the burnt offerings contribute to the soil (carbon, nitrogen, and all kinds of minerals) don't seem so far-fetched, considering the nutrient-rich things being burned. There's a bit more of a leap of logic required to accept proponents' claims that scattering the resulting ashes cuts down on pests and weeds, but it's somewhat plausible, maybe similar to mulching. But then there's the chanting of a mantra at sunrise, sunset, and other important moments during plants' circadian rhythms. This is the most hard to swallow element of the whole shebang for those of us schooled in western science. And yet...

Most scientists may not concede that singing to your plants will help them grow, but many of us still do it. Does it actually affect the plants? (I swear I saw my basil plant wincing on the windowsill once or twice when I would hum while watering, perhaps slightly off key. "The Beatles again??" it lamented, shrugging its foliage.) Why not? Maybe the extra carbon dioxide we're exhaling in close proximity to the plants gives them a boost. Maybe it's our pointed attention focused on the plants, rather than the singing/breathing specifically, that actually helps them grow. I'm not getting all "Celestine Prophesy" on you: many well-respected people, from professional athletes to surgeons to particle physicists, put great stock in the power of intention, one's ability to influence the outcome of an event through positive thought. It works in sports and in medicine -- why not farming?

And how about the sound vibrations themselves? Maybe it's the pitch that's the key. (Har, har.) The vibrations from the chanting, as I imagine it, seem strikingly similar to the group chant with which many of my yoga instructors would open and close class. The "Ohm" supposedly is the sound the universe makes, and by joining in we are aligning ourselves with the collective energy around us -- energy that can, some believe, heal us. (It's no wonder that the places I've read about where agnihotra is practiced tend to be ashrams.) There might be a scientific explanation for the effects of the sound as well: maybe it somehow stimulates a reaction on a molecular level that we don't yet know how to recognize. Frankly, I don't know quite what to make of it. But I'm curious.

I'd love to spend a few days working at a place that practices agnihotra. This purification-by-fire ritual that I read about taps into a realm of possibility that is pretty improbable. But what if...?

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