Spirituality of Bilingual Interspecies Conversations

Tree hugging doesn’t work so well with cacti. Pollen is communication. Inhaling Juniper-berry terpenes beats drinking gin. Bees, homing pigeons, bacteria, pooping dogs. Magnetite crystals in our brains, magnetic fields. Auras. And other apparent lunacies.

“Thanks, peace and health.” “Ringraziamenti, pace e salute,” I say to my esteemed Juniper friends along my favorite hiking trail, my face buried in their soft needles, my spine resting intimately against their trunks. Talking to plants in two languages? Psychotic delusion? Maybe, but I respectfully beg to differ. My reasoning is both psychological and biological. And for me personally, especially during a period of human isolation, the impact is also spiritual.

Although I initiated this behavior long before the onset of the first of the modern damaged-ecology plagues, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened both my desire and awareness. And yes, as a biologist who both intellectually understands and deeply feels the magnificent natural systems around us, I cannot see how the SARS-CoV-2 viral mutant can be sheared away from the context of a damaged ecology. That’s a related story. But despite that context, natural systems can also still provide a necessary touchstone of deep remembrance — recollection of our ancient ecological relationship with Nature. A hunter-gatherer’s relationship that transcends the artifice of modern human socio-economics.

What’s the point? You’re probably asking. At the most basic level, it’s a desire to more deeply connect with what I see and feel as a much purer intelligence in natural systems. I think of it as bio-geological sanity, a focus on the elegance of the information-processing sophistication of ecological and geological networks.

Admittedly, I’ve lost a ton of respect for my own species, and so — pandemic or no pandemic — I turn elsewhere for my direct experience of other beings. Beings that just happen to be non-linguistic. But only in an animal language. Trees — all plants really — have biochemical languages as has been well documented and beautifully written about elsewhere.

Beyond the densely communicative biochemistry are electromagnetic fields, most of ours generated by the chemo-electricity in our brains, spinal cords and hearts in which electrical currents — flows of charged particles — are fundamental to functionality. The changing patterns of our thoughts, emotions, desires and physical activity reflect the changing patterns of neurological and hormonal activity that underlie them. And that means changes in the patterns of those chemo-electrical currents. Since those currents generate magnetic fields, it also means that our heads, our bodies are encased in shifting magnetic fields.

The physics of electromagnetism tell us that electrical current flows result in magnetic fields that change shape and strength with changes in those currents. And sure, our brain and heart fields (and the earth’s) are relatively weak compared with those originating in situations of massive current flows such as in electrical power lines. Nonetheless, we ignore them at our own peril — particularly in this age of personal electronic devices carried close to our bodies.

Moreover, neuroscientists have confirmed that, like several other animal species, our brains contain iron oxide crystals: magnetite that renders our brains receptive to magnetic fields including those of the earth and our mobile phones. (See for example, Kirshvink et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 1992 Aug 15; 89(16): 7683–7687. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC49775/ .)

We’re not as sensitive as other animals like bees or homing pigeons, whose brains rely on their magnetic field sensitivity for navigation. But recent research has shown that magnetite’s presence in our brains does render us receptive to magnetic fields (https://theconversation.com/new-evidence-for-a-human-magnetic-sense-that-lets-your-brain-detect-the-earths-magnetic-field-113536 .) Dogs too: some research finds that they tend to align in a north-south axial direction when they poop.

Scatology aside, our brain activity also generates a personal magnetic field whose temporal details depend on what we’re thinking and feeling. Whether these can influence other people much less other species is certainly not known. But evolution gave me both the detecting and the generating capability, so I choose to pay attention.

While quarantined from others of my own species, conversing with plants might seem a bit of a solution stretch, but the truth is that I carry out these conversations all the time. And doing so in the high desert provides at least some isolation from the field sources we commonly encounter during urban existence. It’s possible in that desert to come to identify and learn about certain individual organisms within a particular species. Where I hike regularly, that mostly applies to cacti and Junipers (about which I’ve written previously).

A very old Juniper friend against whose main trunk (green line) I often rest my back while escaping the trail for its natural seclusion

With junipers I began by thinking and speaking in English (my native language), as I reciprocally exchanged gaseous substances with them (oxygen and terpenes from them to me; carbon dioxide and pheromones from me to them). It then dawned on me that my neurological and hormonal physiology might be differently, perhaps more powerfully represented were I to speak both English and my second language, Italian, because to do so required more cognitive effort. And so, my face luxuriating amid the piney-terpene aroma of their soft needles or my spine conforming conspiratorially to a 500-year-old trunk, I bilingually tell each of my individual friends, “Ti spedisco ringraziamenti, pace, e delle speranze dolce per la tua salute.” “I send you thanks, peace, and sweet hopes for your health.” I might also add, “grazie per permettermi di fiutare la tua fragranza.” “Thanks for letting me smell your fragrance.”

Another old Juniper friend

And “ti amo.” — “I love you.” These wishes and sentiments are heartfelt, especially when I find mature female cones ready to morph into berries, whose crisply aromatic eye-opener appeals to me more than gin, in which one finds the same overtones. (Juniper berries are indeed a gin ingredient.) Sometimes I feel both the sentiments and the sensory stim more deeply than I do in communicating with another person. Misanthropy? Undeniably, a bit.

Mature Juniper female cones just before becoming berries

But beyond all that, beyond a mere bilingual exercise, is my belief that only cooperation with Nature’s intelligence and sanity can mitigate our ecological challenges. That belief isn’t mythical or religious. It’s founded in justifiable respect for the complex-adaptive-system brilliance of natural systems, not some allegory or phantasmagorical Hollywood illusion. That integrated systemic intelligence at all levels of biological organization is a scientific reality of which I’ve been a lifelong student and teacher. Not just cell and molecular biology and physiology, but systems biology. It’s what aboriginal people sensed implicitly, long before the scientific language of “complex adaptive system” existed. Before our cognitive and linguistic tendencies to parse wholes into parts sought to dismember something that should never suffer that outcome.

Beyond Junipers, I offer individualized messages to other plant species, again with deeply felt respect for their contributions. For example, to grasses and forbs in which spring’s green sprouts arise amid the fall and winter’s dead remains, one can feel both the new life and a resource for other organisms who can use the dead gold-and-brown stalks for nest building. And there’s also the beauty of the color contrast. So I might say: “Grazie per i colori belli e per condividendo la tua materiale biologica morta con gli uccelli” “Thank you for the beautiful colors and for sharing your deceased biological material with the birds.”

And to the desert birds themselves: “Grazie alla Natura per le piume che preservano la tua calore nel vento freddo.” “ Thanks to Nature for the feathers that preserve your heat in the cold wind.” Sometimes, when I find a lizard sunning itself on a rock, I’ll admire the intricate structure of the feet and toes that confer such rapid control of its movement. “Un adattamento perfetto per il deserto,” I tell it. A perfect adaptation for the desert.

A single cactus individual extending for more than 2 meters alongside the trail

Or to prickly pear cacti, who readily regenerate deteriorated parts: “Grazie alla Natura per la tua capacità di rigenerazione.” “Thanks to Nature for your capacity of regeneration.”

I’ve found that such words and thoughts also impact the parameters of interaction. Although, as a biologist, I’m highly sensitized to the density of communication signals throughout the biosphere, as a human overtly or subtly influenced by custom and advertising, I can still react in typically counterproductive human fashion. My awareness of this cultural baggage is critical to minimizing its interference with my neuro-hormonal-electromagnetic status.

For example, there’s a male Juniper tree-bush in my front yard that this time of year coats my car in gold by distributing yellowish clouds of tiny pollen grains all around its immediate vicinity. Since the irritation to my nasal membranes provokes some discomfort, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the negative psychology of “damn these bloody plants and their irritant pollen.” This quite different neuro-hormonal-electromagnetic status is definitely not conducive to my goal of communication, of healing the Homo sap–everything else chasm. In those circumstances, it’s useful to recall that a pollen grain, like a virus carrying genetic information but not much else, is a conduit of communication, of relationship. So are viruses, for that matter, but that’s a thornier though related topic.

But while hiking in the cleaner desert air, it doesn’t take long to enter a less-antagonistic, more-peaceful mindset that births or rekindles the desire for extended relationship rather than narcissistic bitching about minor irritations. Think of Nature’s magnificence, despite its trashing by our species. But don’t forget to feel it too. And be clear in your intention to heal your division from all that is. The more holistically you engage your brain, the more impactful should be your fields. Your auras, if you lean in that direction. My hypothesis, my hope actually, is that my desert friends and I can sense each other. I believe the action-intent of peaceful contact, of bridging distance is important in itself. Ultimately, to those organisms I know as individuals, be they Junipers, cacti or whatever, I assure them that “We’re friends, you beauty,” an assurance, that I’d never bring them harm: “Siamo amici bellezza.”

At a critical moment in our interactions with local and planetary ecology and the novel organisms reflecting its altered condition, it’s that desire and intent to extend cordial relations to our planetary cohabitants that’s most fundamental to any meaningful concerted action on ecocide and climate change. We simply must induce in ourselves the mindset: Non possiamo essere sani in un sistema malato. We can’t be healthy in a sick system. And once we get there, it’s a small step to pace e amore a tutti organismi viventi. Peace and love to all living organisms.

Ideas about bio-medicine and environmentalism. Vin holds a PhD from Columbia U. in Cell and Molecular Biology & worked as a college prof. & science writer.

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