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Human beings and other animals are very good at telling relatives apart from strangers. Now, a recent study has shown for the first time that plants can do this as well. Does this mean, as A Course in Miracles seems to suggest, that plants are sentient beings, beings that in some sense could be called “persons”?
Botanists have long known that there’s a lot more going on with plants than meets the eye. In the words of Susan Dudley, one of the scientists who conducted the new study, “That plants have a secret social life is something well known to plant ecologists.” Among other things, plants compete with each other for limited resources, a competition that occurs both between plants of different species and plants of the same species.
A major arena for this competition is under the soil: Plants will sprout more roots in areas where they have nearby competitors for water and nutrients. What the new study shows is that with at least one species—a beach-dwelling plant called the “Great Lakes sea rocket”—plants growing alongside unrelated neighbors are more competitive than those growing alongside their relatives. They put down more roots when surrounded by strangers than by kin. It seems that they’re more willing to cooperate with plants they regard as part of their own family.
What mechanism enables them to do this? Right now, scientists really don’t know. Botanist Ariel Novoplansky says, “At this point I cannot imagine a mechanism by which this could happen. Nothing of this sort has been found before.” Current theories propose various biochemical interactions, and I think it’s likely something along these lines will eventually be discovered. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if, beyond the immediate physical causes for this phenomenon, something more is going on. Having a “social life,” competing with each other, and cutting relatives a break are behaviors we normally associate with personal beings. This brings me back to the question I posed at the beginning: Are plants sentient beings, beings that in some sense could be called “persons”?
I don’t know how a scientist could determine this, but hints given in A Course in Miracles suggest that in a very real sense, they are. References to nonhuman life are sprinkled throughout the Course, and these references give the impression that these forms of life are Sons of God just as human beings are, illusory forms animated by powerful nonphysical minds in Heaven. And it depicts these forms of life feeling and behaving in ways we normally associate with persons. For instance, it speaks of “angry animals” (W-pI.72.6:1) seeking mercilessly for prey, as well as “the love of animals for their offspring, and the need they feel to protect them” (T-4.II.4:1), because they regard their offspring as extensions of themselves. This doesn’t sound as if animals are mere machines driven by instinct. Saying that they experience anger and paternal love suggests a mind with thoughts and feelings—a kind of personhood.
What about plants? We see a reference to plants in Workbook Lesson 156, which speaks of “all things that live.” It describes how flowers and trees (and even waves and wind, things we normally regard as inanimate) respond to us when we step back and let the light of holiness shine forth from us:
All things that live bring gifts to you, and offer them in gratitude and gladness at your feet. The scent of flowers is their gift to you. The waves bow down before you, and the trees extend their arms to shield you from the heat, and lay their leaves before you on the ground that you may walk in softness, while the wind sinks to a whisper round your holy head. (W-pI.156.4:2-4)
Here again, as with the animal references, we see nonhuman entities behaving in ways that suggest personal minds. Specifically, these entities are offering gifts to us in gratitude for our holiness. The flowers give their fragrance, the waves bow, the trees give us shade and a soft carpet of leaves to walk on, and the wind calms to a gentle whisper. They are giving us a welcome fit for a king.
It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as poetic metaphor, but can we be so sure? The spiritual literature of the world is full of stories of holy people (like the Buddha and St. Francis) whose presence seemed to evoke a loving response from the natural world around them, causing it to set aside its normal brutal competition and live in peace. Perhaps, then, plants and other living things really are sentient beings with a “secret social life” we’re only beginning to discover. Perhaps they really do recognize their kin in a way that goes beyond mere biochemical processes.
If this is true, the implications are profound. The passage I quoted above goes on to say:
The light in you is what the universe longs to behold. All living things are still before you, for they recognize Who walks with you [God]. The light you carry is their own. And thus they see in you their holiness, saluting you as savior and as God. (W-pI.156.5:1-4)
In other words, when we let the light of holiness shine forth from us, all living things see us as their relatives. They recognize the Father Who walks with us as their Father; they see that the light and holiness we bring is their own. What a beautiful thought! Native Americans often pray for “all my relations,” meaning not only their human relations but also the spirits of animals, plants, rocks, and even natural forces. How would your relationship with the world around you be transformed if you saw all things as your holy brothers who long to behold the light in you?