From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on October 5, 2005

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower #6

... is a continuation of my overview of the history of plants and their important influence on man.

Enthrallment from the Plant World.

Enthrall: To captivate, fascinate, charm, enslave. Something that plants can do to humans, with or without their permission.   Much as art, music, nature, mathematics, dance and every other form of stimuli has the ability to do.   What must take place is some form of shift in consciousness.   A cup of coffee or tea may do the trick.   The fragrance of a particular blossom may transport one to a state of bliss or reminiscence, not unlike Proust's "madeleine".   Famed food writer, M. F. K. Fisher, makes the remark in her How to Cook a Wolf "... that eating is an art worthy to rank with the other methods by which man chooses to escape from reality."

How all of this might happen has to do with the human brain and its complex workings, much of which is not understood, much less knowingly utilized. The nervous system, of course, plays a major role. Together they are a computer and a chemical factory and lots of other other unknowns.

These products, coffee, tea, and aroma are but a smidgen of the vast array of things that the flora of the world produce that impact on the human being's state of mind.

Plants of all forms, also, have the ability to transport us to other realms. They may serve as agents offering experiences of new and unimagined states of consciousness, states imbued with feelings of extreme well being and spiritual connectedness. Of course, there is a dark side, too. Some of these plant agents open doors to journeys that are frightening, frenzied, and fraught with danger, terror, and even death. I recall mentioning recently how some, so desirous of the sublime taste of certain mushrooms, have risked and lost their lives.

The trials and tribulations of surviving and carrying on have been concerns of man throughout his existence on the planet. Escape from these "daily grinds" (might this be the name of a new age coffee producer or retailer?) is a welcome relief. Sometimes sought after, sometimes accidentally stumbled upon, these plant products were noticed and remembered. Relief is what they may have provided. Wine was produced 6000 years ago in Egypt. Beer followed not long after with the presence of the early grains. It's not hard to imagine early man finding grapes already fermenting, ingesting same, and feeling different. That's all it takes.

Alcohol and tobacco are two such escape hatches that are common in our modern day, and noted for some dangerous side effects impacting on health and society. Both derive from plants undergoing rather simple processing. Use of both products goes back a very long time.

As dangerous as the use of either is, there are far more potent plants and plant preparations employed by peoples from ancient times up to the present. Anthropologists have documented evidence that every culture has experimented with all manner of plants' various parts in an attempt to "shuffle off this mortal coil", as it were, to dissolve the awareness of mundane routine, even if only for a short while.

Early theological beliefs relied on tapping into another world within this world, one not part of ordinary consciousness. Here was a sense of release and freedom, loss of self, an intense feeling of oneness with all living things. These were perceived as spiritual or religious experiences, journeys of learning and understanding that had the blessings of the universal deity.

The notion of uniting with "god" through plants gave rise to overseers of these "other" worlds: shamans, witch doctors, high priests and priestesses, oracles and so on. With these self-proclaimed experts came potions and charms and aphrodisiacs. Promises, too, of immortality, dreams of forgetfulness, love promised, enemies vanquished, powers over life and death. The use of "self-proclaimed" might be harsh. Surely there were many who studied and learned about the powers inherent in certain plant parts, perhaps largely by personal experience. The early herbals written by learned scholars comes to mind immediately.

Divine experiences and spiritual voyages could become a reality for the novice when properly prepared ingredients were ingested or smoked according to direction. Flower buds, leaves, stems, bark, seeds, roots, beans and nuts, sap, mushrooms all figured into the narcotic elixirs. At one time the tomato was believed to be poisonous. I am ever thankful that this was disproved in the 1800s.

The lists of toxic plants and plant parts is extensive. Peyote gave the Native Americans their mescaline for religious rituals. Mexican Americans ingested the seeds of a morning glory relative for theirs. The mandrake root was used in the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, tobacco on all continents, marijuana on nearly all, as also coffee, tea, and chocolate these days. The stimulating effects vary from one individual to another. I can drink coffee and roll over and go to sleep. With another, my wife, Diane, for example, coffee after 3 P.M. will render her sleepless that night.

The powers of the opium poppy were recognized by Assyrian King Sargon II in the 700s B.C. A modern cartoon show the main character falling asleep in a poppy field.

A fungus "ergot", parasitic on rye grain, was accidentally ingested in bread made with the rye as early as the 13th century. It produced such vivid hallucinations and horrible physical side effects that many people died, and, others were said to have gone mad. The fungus existed for hundreds of years and took many lives, before it was finally identified and eradicated in the 17th century.

Today's abuses of heroin, cocaine, and a host of synthetic and home manufactured drugs are clear evidence of some who yearn to be "free". Unhappiness is something to escape. That plants have inspired man to seize and develop any means available to take a voyage of uncertainty is most disconcerting. The fine line between poisoner and healer, between forgetfulness and inability to return, between temporary relaxation and addiction, these beg for reform in our laws and our thinking.

All of us are grateful for the positive and good that plants have given us. Want a vacation from the ordinary? Dig into the soil. Begin a garden. Start a compost heap. Getting in touch with the earth can take you so far away from what you do as part of the "daily grind". By gardening one can get in touch with those we've lost or left behind. One can develop and nourish and tend to and bring new life into the world by simply planting a seed. I know I've mentioned weeding as a meditation. Imagine this for the chronically angry, chronically frustrated individual? Horticultural therapy has shown remarkable progress with prisoners that garden.

But there is more. Growing something from practically nothing involves us leaving behind our daily cares and paying attention to the 'givens' we take for granted. The flow of life in a garden connects us with the day length, the rainfall, the insect world both friendly and not so. We begin to take note of where it's sunny, where it's shady, what soil is heavy and clayey, which is loamy and productive, and we challenge ourselves to pay more attention. What more could we ask? As a favorite teacher of mine, Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, said, "Be Here Now". Still sounds good to me.

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From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on October 5, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.