Considering the Lilies of the field
Best known for the best seller, The Secret Life of Plants, which he coauthored with Peter Tompkins, Chris has had a richly varied past. After his education at Harvard, he served briefly with the CIA. As a private in the U.S. Army, he was among the first one thousand U.S. military personnel sent to Vietnam. Before settling down to his present life of research and writing, in 1969, Chris worked in journalism with the Honolulu Advertiser and as a correspondent for Time magazine in Yugoslavia.
Copyright © Bud Brainard
Last summer I was priviledged to be a "house sitter" at the home of Christopher and Lois Bird in Georgetown, District of Columbia. For me it was a magical experience to live in the spectrum of vivid color provided by their oriental carpets, paintings, and artifacts from around the world. I was particularly taken with an immense collection of figurine bulls shaped in stone, onyx, wood, clay, metal, leather, cloth, and nearly every material imaginable. Only coincidentally, Chris is a Taurus: "I could just as easily have collected sheep," he shrugs.
Living in the confines and urban heat of our Capital, I took care of their garden which, in only a few square yards of open earth, was producing a healthy variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs: plums, pears, peaches, melons, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, lettuces, parsnips, sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary, as well as honey fresh from a beehive.
Behind the modest street-front facade of the house, the little garden and enchanting household almost passes unnoticed, though, to me, the most striking thing about the Bird residence is its seemingly unending stream of visitors. Diplomats, scientists, psychics and lute players are all received with gracious hospitality. On any single day, one is just as likely to find a degreed physicist as a naturally gifted clairvoyant, engaged in animated discussions which often carry on until the small hours of the morning.
In a small office at the back of the garden topped by a "dormitory," Chris grapples with materials delivered from around the world which he tries to synthesize into a comprehensible whole.
Bud for AHD: How did you become involved with writing The Secret Life of Plants?
Chris: When I returned from a journalistic stint in Yugoslavia for Time magazine, Peter Tompkins asked me to collaborate with him on a biography of the late Dr. Wilhelm Reich. Over the years, he had been collecting practically everything Reich had written. He handed me a year's worth of materials to study. I was mystified by the life energy that Reich discovered for which he coined the word: orgone. I went on a merry chase in libraries and came across discoveries of energies similar to orgone. Baron von Reichenbach and his Odic Force, and the energy referred to as "prana" in Vedic texts may be two examples. There are many others.
While on this detour, I chanced to hear a lecture at an annual meeting of the Association of Humanistic Psychology held in Washington,
D.C. Sandwiched among endless lectures on therapies was a talk by Marcel Vogel, senior research chemist from IBM in California. It dealt with plants, people and the energy relationship between them, and outlined the extraordinary discoveries of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose in India over half a century ago.
I invited Vogel to dinner that evening. He talked far into the night. It occured to me that either Vogel was crazy or there was something explosively novel about what he had uncovered. Tompkins was tracking down Cleve Backster, the lie detector expert who had first brought the subject to Vogel's attention. We ended up writing an article for Harpers, "Love Among the Cabbages," and then an entire book.
Bud: How would you describe your present work?
Chris: I am trying to continue a work of synthesis begun in The Secret Life of Plants, in an effort to find links among new research efforts on the frontiers of knowledge.
Bud: Do you feel the widespread acceptance of The Secret Life of Plants indicates a shift in the awareness of the public?
Chris: That's difficult to answer. A good friend and professional surgeon told me that on a trip around the country he'd heard all sorts of disparaging comments about what was in our book from scientists and physicians. But he said these remarks could be ignored because the same critics were avidly reading our book "at night, under the covers with a flashlight" as it were. I discern a tremendous thirst for facts and knowledge on what we're really doing and where we're going. Science is not offering any guidance because it has reached an impasse.
Bud: Do you feel parapsychology can provide some of the answers?
Chris: Parapsychology and paraphysics are just words - twentieth century coinages. Paraphysics means literally beyond physics. Way back in Aristotle's time, it was called metaphysics. Metaphysical sub-
Far from being totally fragile and passive, plants have a tremendous reserve of power and are capable of developing an immense energy. Scraggly looking Cyprus trees perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, can withstand gale-force winds and hurricanes, while the lowly alfalfa plant can extend its roots up to forty feet and produce the energy to bore its way through concrete.
"A climbing plant which needs a prop will creep towards the nearest support. Should this be shifted, the vine, within a few hours, will change its course into the new direction. Can the plant see the pole? Does it sense in some unfathomed way? If a plant is growing between obstructions and cannot see a potential support, it will unerringly grow toward the hidden support, avoiding the area where none exists …"
- The Secret Life of Plants
jects are taboo both in science and religion. What does it mean? It means we're still groping like we have been for centuries.
Bud: Today, people involved in the "psychic," and people searching for a spiritual side of life, or enhanced consciousness, seem to agree that a new age, or rebirth for mankind is imminent. What are your feelings about this?
Chris: I'm not a Nostradamus, but when I look at the morning papers I can't help but think that things are bad, and they have to get better. I view things as occuring in cycles. At present, we are at a very exciting stage in a cycle, which portends a new birth of freedom, thinking and being. Yet there are many forces which drive toward man's enslave. ment. Your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen.
Bud: How would you characterize the field of consciousness research?
Chris: I would say that people are looking for many different things. You have any number of groups
searching out answers to questions. You have people groping for new insights, means for self-development, or self-salvation. On the other hand, you have so-called "scientific" grappling with the problem of consciousness. There are books coming out on all sides. I have never met anyone who has successfully defined the mind, the psyche, consciousness. Today there's a lot of glib talk about "states of consciousness" when we don't even know what consciousness is.
Bud: Is there any single thing un-
derlying all the different searches?
Chris: I think people are trying to escape from a smog-covered valley and get up on a higher place and look around.
Bud: What is your understanding of man's spirit?
Chris: In the end, spirit is essence. Its recognition and development is made all the more difficult by the day-to-day horseshit that one has to shovel. When you meet someone with a developed spirit, you know it
Bud: At what point in history do you see man having changed from taking spirit as absolute fact to doubting its existence?
Chris: It was somewhere in the Middle Ages. At that time, people were content to suffer this life hoping - some of them knowing that they were going on to a better one. This was generally taught in ecclesiastical circles. Then came the rationalistic philosophers who threw spirit out the window. There followed two or three hundred years of rationalism, and a concomitant cutting up of things in order to understand them better. I think the pendulum is about to swing back on this. The attempt now is to try to put the pieces back together. A lot of the new movement you're referring to is protest against a senseless dismemberment of living things and a pointless reductionism in science which leads to knowing more and more about less and less.
Far from existing inertly, the inhabitants of the pasture appear to be able to perceive and react to what is happening in their environment at a level of sophistication far surpassing that of humans. - The Secret Life of Plants
Bud: As one who has opted not to become involved in the current wave of training sessions aimed at "elevating consciousness," "revealing one's spiritual nature," or "offering mind control," what do you see as the most adequate way for a person to contact his own spiritual side and let it manifest?
Chris: I would say that a person who sells beautiful flowers on a street corner or paints a mural on an ugly building does a hell of a lot more to elevate public consciousness than many people who talk about it. "Elevating consciousness" is doing anything to make the nest we live in a little less foul.
The present political campaign reminds us that we tend to spend too much time talking and not enough time working. Let me put it this way: if you are sailing from one point to another in rough weather or treacherous water, you can't (if you're a good mariner) forever concentrate on the beauty and joy of the trip. Much of your time is going to be spent plotting your course and making sure your boat doesn't flounder.
Bud: Do you see any ultimate goal to your work?
Chris: One ultimate goal of work is work itself. Any work that is enjoyed is self-development. When you get into something new and learn to handle it, look it over, wrestle with it, you open up an entire wave of excitement within yourself. It's the excitement of discovery. All explorers know it. They're filled at once with dread of what's around the corner, and the joy of discovering it.
Bud: In what direction are you
Chris: I don't like talking about where I'm going until I've been there. In that sense, the explorer of old was in a fortunate position because no one asked him where he was really going or what he sought to discover until he got back from his travels.
Short of Aphrodite, there is nothing lovelier on this planet than a flower, nor more essential than a plant." So opens The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, who document in their book the wisdom of earlier
"I would say that a person who sells beautiful flowers or paints a mural on an ugly building does a hell of a lot more to elevate public consciousness than many people who talk about it."
- Chris Bird
botanists and the startling discoveries of contemporary scientists which have brought the plant world sharply back to the attention of mankind.
The Viennese biologist, Raoul France, wrote at the start of this century, ". . plants move their bodies as freely, easily and gracefully as the most skilled animal or human, and the only reason we don't appreciate the fact is that plants do so at a much slower pace than humans… . Plants are constantly preoccupied with bending, turning, and quivering. Man merely thinks plants motionless and feelingless because he will not take the time to watch them."
Now, scientists, employing sensitive electronic equipment, have begun taking the time and patience to scrutinize plants for their secrets. Cleve Backster, one of America's foremost lie detector examiners, conducted experiments using galvanometers and polygraphs which demonstrated that plants are capable of reading human thoughts and perceiving events at a distance.
Backster's findings led him to conclude that "the five senses in humans might be limiting factors overlaying a mere 'primary perception' possibly common to all nature." His discoveries indicate a primary form of instantaneous communication among all living things.
Backster's findings have created a furor of controversy in the scientific community, with many researchers complaining that they have not been able to repeat them.
Marcel Vogel, a researcher for IBM, was one who was able to duplicate some of Backster's accomplishments. From his work he concluded that a "Life Force of Cosmic Energy" which surrounds all living things is sharable among plants, animals, and humans. According to Vogel, "When we love, we release our thought energy and transpose it to the recipient of our love. Our primary responsibility is to love." To explain the failures of other scientists in duplicating Backster's work, Vogel states that laboratory workers around the world will be frustrated and disappointed in their endeavors "until they appreciate that the empathy between plant and human is the key, and learn how to establish it. No amount of checking in laboratories is going to prove a thing until experiments are done by properly trained observers. Spiritual development is indispensable. But this runs counter to the philosophy of many scientists, who do not realize that creative experimentation means that the experimenters must become part of their experiments."
Vogel's understanding of the proper method for successful plant research - though revolutionary to modern botanists - is hardly new. Nearly a hundred years ago Luthur Burbank, a genius aptly entitled "The Wizard of Horticulture," experimented so creatively with plants that we are still gathering the fruits of his understanding.
Born in a rural village in Massachusetts in 1849, Burbank introduced over a thousand new plants to an astonished public. If evenly spaced over his working career, this would amount to the creation of a never-before-seen specimen every three weeks! His first effort, the Burbank potato, still dominates the U.S. market. Moreover, he developed new prunes, plums, pears, nectarines, chestnuts, blackberries, and quinces that were so good that most nurseries will stock no other.
According to Manley P. Hall, founder and president of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, Burbank's power of love, "greater than any other, was a subtle kind of nourishment that made everything grow better and bear fruit more abundantly. Burbank explained to me that in all his experimentation he took plants into his confidence, asked them to help, and assured them that he held their small lives in deepest regard and affection."
Though he painfully pulled thousands of thorns from his hands before he was successful, Burbank managed to develop a spineless cactus. "While I was conducting my experiments with cacti," said Bur-
… The treasures of nature are not discovered by one who is not in sympathy with nature …
the normal techniques of botany could not get near to the living being of the plant … Some other form of looking is needed which could unite itself with the plant."
- The Secret Life of Plants
bank, "I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. You have nothing to fear,' I would tell them. 'You don't need your defensive thorns, I will protect you.' "
In a lecture on producing new fruits and flowers, Burbank told his audience: "Preconceived notions, dogmas and all personal prejudice and bias must be laid aside. Listen patiently, quietly and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach, shedding light on that which was before a mystery, so that all who will, may see and know. She conveys her truths only to those who are passive and receptive. Accepting these truths as suggested, wherever they may lead, then we have the whole universe in harmony with us."
On the 18th of April, 1906, the same earthquake which nearly destroyed San Francisco shook Santa Rosa down to its bare foundations. The overwhelmed citizens were stunned that Burbank's huge greenhouse near the center of town did not have as much as one cracked pane of glass.
Though he did not broadcast the news, Burbank privately surmised that his communing with the forces of nature and the cosmos kept his greenhouse from danger.
Like Burbank, George Washington Carver, using methods most scientists would totally disdain, produced stunning results in his work with plants. During an incredibly creative life, Carver transformed the lowly peanut - considered useful only as hog food - and the common sweet potato into hundreds of different products ranging from axle grease to cosmetics. Visitors who came to see the laboratory where Carver performed these miraculous transformations were often shocked to find him working at a simple workbench cluttered with a confusion of molds, soils, plants and insects. When questioned on his method of experimentation, he told one visitor, "The secrets are in the plants. To elicit them, you have to love them enough."
Though Carver rarely patented any of his own ideas, his magic with plants created fortunes for thousands of others. Believing that the fruit of his mind should be given freely to mankind, Carver's simple reply to industrialists and businessmen who advised him to charge for his efforts was, "God did not charge me or you for making peanuts. Why should I profit from their products?"
Turning down lucrative offers from Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford, who considered him "the greatest scientist living," Carver relished his independence. Towards the end of his life, a visitor watched quietly as he touched a small flower on his workbench and said, "When I touch that flower, I am touching infinity. It existed long before there were human beings on this earth and will exist for millions of years to come. Through the flower, I talk to the Infinite, which is only a silent force. This is not a physical contact. It is not in the earthquake, wind or fire. It is in the invisible world."
The words and works of men such as Carver and Burbank - as well as many others - are brought to light in The Secret Life of Plants. While university academics continue to belabor young biologists with thousands of minute Latin terms for the parts and species of plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird have put life, love and wonder back into its study. Drawing their information from a myriad of sources, they conclude: "Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of soul. It is only we in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata. Most extraordinarily, it now appears that plants may be ready, willing and able t ocooperate with humanity in the Herculean job of turning this planet back into a garden.