Like gods and people, plants exist for themselves — and as part the complex ecologies from which they emerge. Many contemporary magical practitioners approach them simply as inert objects to be used in ritual or spellcraft– a perspective and approach that both emerge from and reinforce capitalist materialist culture’s denial of the living intelligences of the other than human world. Far richer, more powerful, and more revolutionary magic comes from engaging plants as allies.
THE MEN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
“We must have died alone, a long long time ago.” –David Bowie
When and how did plants become mere material for the fulfillment of human needs and desires? To some extent the process began with the birth of civilization, but it was completed in the bloody birth of capitalism.
Capitalism was born of tremendous violence — the forced displacement of the western European peasantry, genocide and ecocide throughout the Americas, and the kidnapping, murder, enslavement, and exploitation of millions of Africans. The collective trauma of this violence created a collective dissociation, a psychic numbing that distanced many of its survivors and their descendants from the emotional impact of past and ongoing brutality. The alienation that characterizes life under capitalism arises from that violence and helps to perpetuate it.
As English and French philosophers and scientists began to articulate a new vision of the world, a paradigm arose with and from capitalism that served to erase most of the remnant elements of animism and communitarianism from European (and the emerging colonial North American) culture where, prior to the enclosures, they still maintained a degree of influence in both daily and ritual life in rural communities despite the best efforts of church and state. The local economics of mutual aid were replaced by a model that saw individuals acting in their own narrowly defined self interest as the economy’s primary actors. Simultaneously, medicine shifted from a context in which a person who cultivated deep relationships with other than human realms made offerings, petitions, and agreements on behalf of a person who was suffering in order to restore balance in microcosm and macrocosm to one in which technicians who held specialized knowledge performed precise interventions on the inner workings of bodies that were seen as identical machines. Like the human body, the world itself began to be seen and treated more like clockwork than like a living, fluid system with an animating intelligence of its own.
The alchemy of the sixteenth century was rooted in a cosmology that saw the material world as an imperfect and fallen representation of what the Christians’ god intended it to be, and sought to find the process by which a thing could be reified into its essence. In the seventeenth century, that cosmology degenerated into one in which the world was made up of resources waiting to be reified into wealth. Human lives were viewed no differently from anything else in either cosmology. In the Christian mysticism that underlay European alchemy, humans were seen as sinners who through the pursuit of wisdom could attain a gnosis that would imbue grace. In capitalism’s more toxic mimic of that world view, stretches of time of human lives could be bought for money and become instruments of productivity that would yield wealth to the men who bought them.
How else would other than human lives be viewed in such a paradigm than as resources that could be extracted and refined to yield value — primarily as foods and medicines whose forms would become more and more distant from those of the plant bodies that yielded them as capitalism advanced, until, under late capitalism, corn syrup became liquid gold capable of producing sufficient wealth to buy elections, and most medicines ceased being made from recently living plants at all, instead becoming simulacra of plant molecules crafted from the fossil remnants of long dead ancient life?
INSTRUMENTAL PLANT MAGIC
As much as it represented a challenge to it, and a resurgence of some of the aspects of human life destroyed and suppressed by it, the magical revival of the later half of the last century emerged from within the culture that commodified the world. And as much as recent generations of Pagans and Polytheists have spoken and written about the sacredness of all life and the re-enchantment of the world, many contemporary texts, teachings, and practices involving plant magic treat herbs as tools in a ritual or a spell, and base their sense of a plant’s role in the work at hand on memorized correspondences rather than on any direct relationship with plants themselves.
Pagandom has too often also been complicit in the New Age appropriation, distortion, and commodification of plants with whom Indigenous people have long and deep magical and ceremonial relationships.
White Sage, Salvia apiana, is a case in point. Based on a limited and decontextualized understanding of the ritual cleansing practices of some of the Indigenous peoples of what we now call southern California, many people who have no direct experience of the living plant burn it to clear a space or prepare for a ritual. The overharvest of White Sage for commercial smudge sticks has decimated wild populations of the plant and disrupted the ability of people whose families and communities have worked with Salvia alpina for thousands of years to maintain their connection with the plant.
To be sure, White Sage produces a beautiful smoke. Hir scent stirs a deep recognition in the amygdala that then signals our muscles to relax and our awareness to open. But the same is true of the Coastal Mugwort I find growing by the harbor, and the Cedar outside my bedroom window. Every landscape in the world contains aromatic plants whose scent shifts our consciousness toward connection with other than human realms. But there is a profound difference between what happens when I burn the needles of a Cedar I have stood beneath on sweltering summer afternoons and cold rainy winter nights and what happens when I burn White Sage that was commercially harvested, wrapped in plastic, and scent hundreds of miles north. There is a different kind of magic involved.
RELATIONAL PLANT MAGIC
A teacher can pass on lore about a god, or share their own experiences with that god, but that teacher’s student can only truly come to know that god on their own terms. The best the teacher can do is to make an introduction and provide counsel on the cultivation of the relationship with that deity.
What is true of gods is also true of plants.
Here in my own bioregion, Devil’s Club grows. Coast Salish peoples have long engaged the plant in protection magic — but, though their ritual and medical science and technology inform my understanding of the plant, I do not engage it using their cultural practices. I came to know Devil’s Club on its own terms, and visit it regularly, bringing offerings and prayers, and harvesting it according to instructions the plant itself gave me.
I can tell you that Devil’s Club grows where the forest has been disrupted by a clearcut or a landslide or a flood and protects rich soils and the wildflowers that grow in them because its spiky stalks prevent big creatures from blundering over them and its great leaves shade the ground. I can tell you that it is so hard to remove by hand that it stopped the northward expansion of the railroads in British Columbia. I can tell you its green buds tipped with purple throb with erotic power in spring. But you still will not know Devil’s Club. And Devil’s Club will not be ready to join you in your work until you have made your own relationship. And then your magic will not resemble mine.
Martin Buber wrote “One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.” In the same way, one cannot expect a magic that involves the commodification of plants, or the treatment of plants as mere objects, to help us stop the relentless violence of the culture that declared the world a collection of resources for human consumption. If we want to engage plants as allies in revolutionary magic, we need to approach them as living beings and build deep and intimate relationships with — just like we would with any other comrade in the struggle.