In 1977 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had a major exhibit of Paul Cezanne’s paintings. On my first visit, I took one look at the around-the-block waiting crowd and immediately became a member so I could skip the lines and come as often as I wanted. I was twenty-six then, painting every afternoon at the Art Students League several blocks away. So a few days a week for three months I would stop at the museum on my way to the League and spend time with Cezanne.
I didn’t care how crowded the galleries were. I’d find an open spot and enjoy whatever painting happened to be there. I was especially interested in the landscapes, and in particular his many renderings of Mont Sainte Victoire near his home in Aix-en-Provence. The Impressionists are celebrated for their breaking up of light and color, rendering surfaces as complex and luminous. Cezanne, leading the way into Post-Impressionism, certainly did that, painting the mountain as innumerable facets of color and light. At the same time he grounded his subjects, giving them heft and weight even as he dissolved their surfaces. So Mont Sainte Victoire was both solid rock and innumerable small plates of shimmering light. It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that Cezanne’s vision paved the way for my time with shamans. Art frequently shows us things we can’t yet think.
My shaman experience started with the wildest thing that has ever happened to me: hawks started showing up in my life. I was in my mid-fifties, living a life full of normal things: family, home, work in my landscape design business. It was full, too, of complexity. I was mothering through the rocky shoals of adolescence. My father needed increasing care in his last years. I was burning out. And then hawks started landing on my patio, on the deck, on the ground outside the windows. One flew in front of the windshield as I drove, another across the headlights one night. One crashed into my bedroom window. They waited on trees on hikes and didn’t fly away as I got near. By the time this stopped a year later there were well over a hundred of these magical visits.
I was utterly mystified. What are they telling you? a friend asked. I had no clue. I was fine with the idea that hawks would communicate with shamans and medicine people. But I couldn’t imagine what they would be saying to me as I trudged daily through my to-do list. A couple of months in, I asked a friend who leads vision quests if she knew someone who could explain what was going on. She introduced me to Val, a shaman in the Andean Quechua tradition, and the nearest to a tornado-in-human-form that I’ve ever come across. The next thing I knew I was at the first of a gathering of her students. I went with the attitude one would take to an unfamiliar religious service: curious, open, willing to participate.
Val had told me that lots of people were having experiences similar to mine. And so it seemed. Hawks were a normal thing to this gang. “Oh, right, hawks. I’ve seen one every day since I held one in a raptor rehab center,” was, though unique in itself, overall a fairly standard reaction. One woman offered to send me feathers, which she did. Another had so many animals showing up in her life that her husband, coming home one day, stepped over a snake on the front porch. “One of your friends is at the door,” he told her.
We gathered twice a year for five years. By the time we finished everything in my life had changed. Having already started on the journey I began in 2011, I came back for the last two gatherings. But things started changing immediately after the first weekend. This particular essay is not about that wondrous path. Instead it’s about one reason why things changed so dramatically. In my experience shamanism, like Cezanne, breaks apart the surface of the world into luminous, shimmering energies. And I was ready to be borne along by them, because Cezanne had already painted the possibility.
I made this connection a few years ago, and it came back to me recently while reading Thus Spoke the Plant. Monica Gagliano is one of a group of revolutionary plant scientists I mentioned in the essay about ferns. And she is very revolutionary. It wasn’t hawks for her. The plants themselves were calling. So she went straight to the heart of the call and flew to Peru from her home in Australia to meet a shaman who had appeared to her in a dream. He guided her through her first dieta, a process of isolation, fasting, and ingesting decoctions made from selected plants.
Amazonian tradition holds that the plant world is full of teachers. As they have done for shamans and medicine people for millennia, the rituals opened a powerful connection to the plants themselves. Through their guidance and even direct instruction Gagliano created several rigorously scientific experiments that ultimately showed that plants can learn, remember, and respond to sound. As described in her book, her experiences with plant medicine are riveting, the experiments they led to groundbreaking, her insights profound. Their reception was troubling. Her colleagues, who at that time knew only the scientific breakthroughs and not the spiritual ones, stopped speaking to her when they passed in the hallways. “As if I were infected,” she says. They lobbied the administration to forbid her teaching undergraduates, so she wouldn’t ‘infect’ them.
In 1894, American physicist Albert Michelson, while acknowledging that “it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past,” was confident that what lay ahead was refinement and application of laws already discovered. Six years later Max Planck defined the quantum, the basis for quantum physics. Eleven years later, Albert Einstein published his first paper on the theory of relativity. Nothing in physics was ever the same again.
Few would echo Michelson now. Despite the lure of a Theory of Everything, each discovery keeps leading us to more mysteries. We have no idea not only what we don’t know, but what we can’t know. We can only find what we are capable of looking for and at. We have no idea what we would be able to encompass if we weren’t limited to the five senses we have. For our descendants several evolutionary leaps from now communicating with plants may be as commonplace as seeing color is for us.
We don’t have to wait. There are indigenous people who routinely communicate with plants now, but, as with my hawk visits, our western cultural mindset doesn’t accept it as possible. Thus we have plant scientists so threatened that they stop talking to a friendly and ebullient coworker whose unexceptionable data bring them into territory that doesn’t match their view of the plant world. This isn’t a new phenomenon; human history is full to the brim with people resistant to new ideas.
Copernicus’ discovery that the earth orbits the sun instead of vice versa took 200 years to take hold. Right now, 100 years into quantum mechanics, most of us will look at our hand and see a solid Newtonian mass of particles instead of the constantly moving waves of probability reverberating in mostly empty space that it actually is. Even Einstein could never accept the premises of quantum physics, though he loved talking to other physicists about them. Cezanne and his fellow artists remained anathema to the powerful, traditional Salon de Paris for decades.
The hostile pushback may be one reason we choose to take no steps at all. In the fern essay I wrote about the late nineteenth century botanists who discovered ocular cells in plants that could even be used as lenses for photographs. No one took up those ideas for 100 years, despite the fact that the twentieth century included breathtaking advances in every field of thought. Which makes me wonder if there’s something in our attitude to plants that prevents us from encompassing their broader reality. We certainly treasure them. We wouldn’t be here without them. We have found them to be crucial and adept partners in human life as food, shelter, medicine, pleasure.
Yet there is such resistance to ascribing intelligence to them that scientists shun their colleagues — Gagliano is not the only one —when they get too far out of the comfort zone. As someone who has loved plants since early childhood and has centered my life around them, I find this mystifying. Acknowledging intelligence in beings that have been thriving for 500 million years seems a given to me. Adaptability is intelligence. So is the ability to make choices, communicate, create relationships, remember, evolve. They don’t have the same kind of neural intelligence we have, but the oldest homo sapien fossils are only 300,000 years old and we’re already wondering if our actions are inviting our own extinction. Not a great advertisement for our version of intelligence.
The resistance is disheartening. If we are going to solve the problems facing us we need to be able to break open the surface of our knowledge and habits and see the radiant possibilities and pathways beyond. We can’t shun the people leading the way because they bring us news we aren’t used to. Our questions need to lead us deeper into the mysteries, not running for known territory. In talking to other scientists studying things like amoebas ands slime molds, Gagliano has found nothing but expanding wonder. “These critters are amazing. They do stuff that we don’t even dream of. And by not dreaming of it, we assume that it does not exist.”
If the dreaming earth had stopped at amoebas and slime molds, we would not be here to contemplate all of this. Instead, all of the generative powers governing our planet have led to one marvel after another since life first sparked into existence nearly four billion years ago. By limiting our dreams to what we already know, or can easily comprehend, or feel safe with we cut off boundless possibilities. Instead we could allow our perceptions to become fluid, to see luminous, shimmering energies everywhere. By inviting them to teach us the treasures they bring to life, we reenter the dream of the earth we emerged from, blending our own gifts of imagination and resourcefulness with that supremely creative force.
(Top: Mont Sainte Victoire (1890) Private collection.)
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